As Wake schools open: Five things to know on Day One

As students return, Wake schools face five notable challenges

khui@newsobserver.comAugust 26, 2012 

No. 1 The assignment plan is changing (again).

Within the next month, Wake County families will find out how much the way that students are assigned to schools will be changed again.

The Democratic-led school board wasn’t happy with the new choice-based student assignment plan that was used to fill schools for this new school year. The board directed staff to come up with a new assignment plan for the 2013-14 school year that goes back to tying each address to a specific school. The board also asked that the new plan restore the use of a diversity component and keeps some elements of choice.

The new plan will be publicly presented Sept. 18.

The devil will be in the details as the board wants staff to include potentially competing elements. The new plan is supposed to keep schools from having too many low-achieving students while still letting families go to a school within a “reasonable distance” of where they live and also provide stability against frequent reassignments.

Board members have talked about using a “stay where you start” approach in which students would be able to stay at a school they’re already attending even if their neighborhood is reassigned. But details such as whether this option would include letting families keep their bus service if they stay haven’t been ironed out.

No. 2 Coping with growth

Voters may go to the polls as soon as May to decide on a hefty bond referendum that would pay for the next round of Wake County school construction projects with a property tax increase.

The reason for the bond talk is steady growth of more than 3,000 students a year even in the face of the recession. With the economy potentially ticking up, Wake could see as many as 5,000 more students this school year.

More than 151,000 students are expected this school year, more than was projected.

Some of the gain may be an illusion caused by families who applied for a seat under the choice plan, although they expect to attend schools outside the system. But the long lines for school registration at the system’s Cary headquarters shows the state’s largest school district is still growing.

The school board is reviewing how big the bond amount should be and what mix of new schools, renovation projections and athletic facilities should be funded. Initial lists of projects presented by school facilities staff would cost more than $1 billion.

As in the past, a test will be how big a bond referendum county commissioners are willing to put on the ballot, especially since it would likely result in a property tax increase. The last school bond referendum, a record $970 million in borrowing that resulted in a property tax increase, was narrowly approved by voters in 2006.

A bond defeat could have long-term implications. The public’s rejection of a $650 million bond issue in 1999 set school construction back by several years.

No. 3 Longer bus rides

Wake County’s 75,000 school bus riders should expect to spend more time on the bus.

Wake overhauled the bus system for the new school year, taking 25 buses off the road and having the remaining buses run longer routes to pick up more students. Schools have fewer buses serving them now as some buses are now picking up students for multiple schools at the same time.

The changes are part of an effort to save money and to get more dollars from the state, which bases funding on the efficiency of a system’s bus service.

The ride times are expected to be particularly long for the first few weeks of class. The routes will be streamlined once school transportation staff see how many students are riding buses on various routes. School officials are warning parents that even after changes are made, rides, on average, will be longer than last school year.

“We take seriously our responsibility to take each child to school and bring them back home safely and securely,” said Wake Schools Superintendent Tony Tata. “We take it seriously and will do what we can while being efficient with government resources.”

Some parents are blaming the new choice plan for the longer rides but school officials say that’s not the case.

The unveiling of the new routes when year-round schools opened in July produced a number of complaints. With the majority of students heading back Monday at traditional-calendar schools, Tata is asking parents to show patience.

School officials say families who think they should be getting bus service can go to the nearest bus stop for their child’s school Monday and notify the driver they want to ride.

Go to www.wcpss.net/news/2012_aug24-bus for a list of bus tips for parents.

No. 4 Magnet schools coming and going

There will be winners and losers as Wake County’s magnet school program undergoes changes.

School officials are recommending that three North Raleigh schools – Fox Road and Green elementary schools and Carroll Middle School – become magnet schools for the 2013-14 school year. Administrators are also recommending that two inner-city Raleigh schools – Poe Elementary School and Moore Square Middle School – change their magnet themes to revive interest in the schools.

A final decision by the school board on those schools could come Sept. 4.

While the magnet changes mean good news for some schools, families at the other magnet schools are waiting to see if the ax will fall on their programs. As part of the ongoing magnet school review, the school board will determine whether it’s time to remove the coveted program from some schools.

Wake’s 31 magnet schools are being assessed to see how well they match the magnet school program’s three principles of reducing high concentrations of poverty and supporting diverse populations, maximizing use of school facilities and providing expanded educational opportunities.

Officially at least, administrators say it’s too soon to say which schools will be recommended for removal from the magnet program.

No. 5. Big changes in math and reading

Don’t be surprised if your child’s math and reading assignments look harder this school year.

North Carolina’s 115 school districts are now using a new math and reading curriculum. North Carolina is one of 45 states that have adopted the “Common Core State Standards.” It’s a set of standards that will provide uniformity in what’s being taught in classrooms nationally.

Parents are being told to expect that their children will receive more challenging assignments in which students will be reading more complex texts. Students will be asked more “why” and “how” questions.

In math, the new standards will go deeper into topics and require students to become better problem solvers. Parents are asked to encourage their children to use multiple methods to solve problems. Parent should also encourage their children to explain and justify the process that was used to solve problems.

Even the names of the math courses are being changed. Students will no longer be taking classes called Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II. Instead, course names such as Common Core Math I, Common Core Math II and Common Core Math III will be used.

Parents are encouraged to talk with their child’s teacher if they have any questions about the new curriculum.

The new curriculum is coming with more tests – from quick periodic assessments that teachers will give to see if the students are getting the new material to new standardized tests at the end of the school year.

With the changes could come a drop in test scores, similar to what happened in the mid-2000s when the state changed the exams.

“We could be in for a little sticker shock,” Tata said.

To help parents and students understand the new curriculum, Wake has set up a website – www.wcpss.net/common-core – containing grade-by-grade parenting guides.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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