Managing a growing school system presents many challenges. The most pressing is how to handle the reassignment of students when a new school opens.
The problem in our area is that the Wake County Board of Education is trying to manage the growth of the school system by using different methodologies for student assignment, without addressing reassignment when new schools open.
The issue arose when the school system was operating under its diversity policy. Parents were getting upset over having their children moved from their base schools when new schools opened because of the district’s rapid growth. In 2009, new members of the board were elected on promoting a choice-based program, thinking it would solve the reassignment issue. It addressed assignment, but not reassignment when new schools open.
Everyone needs to understand that growth within our school system comes from two sources: those families already living here having children, and some of the families moving here already having school-age children. These are children of all ages, who will fill in all grade levels.
I tracked housing starts and school enrollments from 2000 to 2004. During that time single-family housing starts were flat and multifamily housing starts were down, but Wake school enrollment increased substantially.
This shows that the birth rate gives a better base to estimate how many new elementary schools will be needed in five years. Proposed new subdivisions indicate where the new schools will be needed. No matter how many families with children move into the area, we will still have to build X number of new schools each year to meet the classroom needs created by internal growth within the county. Without a plan to address how we reassign students as new schools open, parents will always face a possibility of their child being reassigned as these new schools open.
One possible way to address this issue is to establish who will fill these new spaces when a child starts kindergarten.
The school board knows at least four to five years out what new elementary schools will be needed and approximately where they need to be located. The staff should be able to determine the number of students who will need to be transferred from adjoining elementary schools to fill these new schools.
So select subdivisions located closest to the new proposed school and assign kindergarten students each year in that subdivision to the new school as their base school.
This way parents will know when their child starts school that in one, two, three or four years, their child will be reassigned to the new base school when it opens. Then transfer the entire class, so the students move with their friends and with children from their neighborhood. Transfer the teachers too, so students would be familiar with the teachers at the new school.
Doing this each year for four years would fill most of the space in the new school with children who know that they will go to this new school from day one. As families move into these base subdivisions they would be assigned to one of these classes that will be moving to the new school. As new subdivisions in the area of the new school open they would automatically be assigned to the new school.
This may not solve all of the reassignment problems, but could go a long way for families to know up front that their children will be moving at some point to a new school. By transferring classes and teachers, they know they will be moving with students and teachers they know.
Each of the different assignment policies have good and bad points, but under all of these plans parents will still have to face reassignment of their children as new schools open. The school board needs to focus on how to make these reassignments.
I hope my view will start a conversation on the board to come up with a plan to address reassignment of students when new schools open. Some plan should be in place before taking on a new bond issue to build more schools.
This should be an issue on which all board members could reach a consensus. It is the unknown that creates problems.
Jim Wahlbrink is a former executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County. He has worked on school issues in Missouri, Tennessee, Florida and in Wake County for 30 years.