New Wake plan calls for closer school assignments for students

khui@newsobserver.comSeptember 18, 2012 

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A Wake County School Bus arrives for the morning pick up on Chimney Hill Dr. in Apex, N.C. on Thursday September 6, 2012.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

  • The new plan Read this story at www.newsobserver.com to view an outline of the proposed Wake County student assignment plan for 2013-14.

Wake County’s latest effort at a student assignment plan addresses some of the loudest complaints about the current choice plan while keeping some elements that people like about that system.

New aspects in the draft plan for the 2013-14 school year, given to school board members in advance of Tuesday’s board meeting, include attendance lines for every school, which would allow students to go to a school as close to their home as possible. At the same time, administrators say, student achievement data was used to adjust those attendance lines to produce “balanced” assignments.

The plan also mixes in elements of the choice plan, such as enrollment caps designed to keep schools from being overcrowded, while letting families apply to attend any non-magnet school that has available space.

To quell concerns of families already in the system, existing students will be able to stay at their current schools until they complete all grade levels there. They’ll keep their current bus service unless they are assigned to two new schools opening next year — Abbotts Creek Elementary in North Raleigh and Rolesville High — and choose not to attend.

“It’s got some great points,” school board member Christine Kushner said of the plan on Monday. “We need to repeat early and often that students will be grandfathered.”

School officials say they’re waiting for the school board’s approval on when to let families go online to the district’s website, www.wcpss.net, to search by address what their “base schools” could be next year. The board will receive comments at five public hearings before a potential Oct. 30 vote on the plan.

The way students are assigned to school in the state’s largest school system has been shifting. This is the third plan in three years.

Wake previously assigned students in part to balance schools based on economic background.

A Republican board majority, which took office in 2009, dropped socioeconomic diversity from the assignment policy and passed a “controlled-choice” plan in which families submit a request from a list of choices instead of being assigned to a specific school.

A new Democratic board majority, which took office last fall, let the choice plan go forward. But in June, the new majority passed a directive calling for a return to tying each address to a specific school.

The new board majority was also concerned that the choice plan didn’t do enough to prevent grouping too many low-performing students at some schools. The board directed Superintendent Tony Tata to develop a new plan based on the principles of student achievement, stability and proximity.

In an outline of the new plan, administrators say they used test score data to set up achievement targets at every school and then draw up attendance lines “to ensure demographic diversity and balanced student performance.” The outline doesn’t give specifics on what’s defined as “balanced student performance.”

Additionally, administrators say schools whose test scores are more than 10 percentage points below the district average would get additional resources.

Some want more diversity

Some Democratic board members aren’t sure that the diversity component is strong enough.

Elements of the plan that need more work, Kushner said, such as a method for making sure specific schools establish and maintain a balance of student achievement.

Democrats on the panel have been concerned that the first year of the choice plan resulted in growing ethnic polarization in some schools.

On the other hand, Republican board members, who had all voted against the June directive, have been more supportive of the glimpses they’ve been given of the new plan.

“This is for all intents and purposes a neighborhood school plan that has some elements of choice in it,” said board member Chris Malone.

The draft plan proposes a number of changes:

•  Limiting the number of students who can enroll once a school reaches 100 percent of capacity.

•  Allowing students who are not at their “base school” this year to return if there is space.

•  Creating an open enrollment period in the spring where families can apply to any non-magnet school that has openings. Transportation would not be provided to all choices.

•  Increasing the percentage of seats for non-magnet students at three “old Raleigh” elementary schools — Joyner, Underwood and Wiley — where nearby families complained they couldn’t be admitted this school year.

•  Green Elementary in North Raleigh and East Garner Elementary would switch from a year-round calendar to a traditional calendar.

•  Alston Ridge and Highcroft elementary schools in Cary would switch from being a single-track, year-round school to a multi-track, year-round school.

•  Vance Elementary in Garner and North Garner Middle would switch from being multi-track, year-round schools to single-track, year-rounds.

Tuesday’s school board meeting will be the board’s opportunity to get more details from staff on how the new plan would work.

“We need to do better for parents and we need to do better for our teachers and students and we can,” Kushner said. “We will get a better plan.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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