Wake County school board talking student achievement and not student assignment

Posted by T. Keung Hui on November 24, 2013 

Has the conversation in the Wake County school system switched from student assignment to student achievement?

As noted in today’s article, Wake has seen a spike in the number of high-poverty schools in the past few four years, helping to produce some pretty low proficiency rates under the new state exams. But members of the board’s Democratic majority say they need to focus on core instruction and not student assignment to address the situation.

“What we intend to do over the next year or so is to focus on core instruction, raising achievement and improving student outcomes,” said school board Chairman Keith Sutton. “The new exams give us a good starting point.”

Sutton said a balanced approach is needed now.

“We can’t rely solely on assignment to balance student achievement,” Sutton said. “We can’t rely solely on magnet programs to balance student achievement. You can’t rely only on an infusion of additional money. There’s not a single bullet.”

Sutton said they need more time to consider how they’ll implement the changes made to the assignment policy this year.

“We’re not going to try to create any quick-fix policies,” Sutton said. “We are not going to move nodes. We’re not going to assign our way out of it. We want to make sure that every school is a good school that has good leadership and gives students a chance to succeed.”

School board vice chairwoman Christine Kushner echoed much of what Sutton said.

“The focus of every conversation has got to be on student achievement,” Kushner said.

Kushner said the district needs to look at the SAS EVAAS growth data to see where Wake is succeeding and where it’s not

“I want our focus to be on core instruction,” Kushner said. “There aren’t quick fixes. There aren’t a bag of tricks other than seeing what works where.”

“We absolutely need to have a conversation about student achievement,” Kushner also said. “That’s the most important thing for us to work on, not student assignment.”

Kushner said parents should still feel encouraged they can send their children to any school in Wake even if the proficiency rate is low under the new exams.

“I do think that we have strong schools in Wake County,” Kushner said. “Teachers are working very hard. It’s a more complex place than it was before. I want our community to be focused on helping every kid succeed.”

School board member Tom Benton said there are limits to how much they can use diversity-based busing to balance schools.

“Where feasible, you do use your assignment policy to balance out the schools,” Benton said.

But Benton said what’s “feasible” nowadays is uncertain. Benton said the board needs to be deliberate in how the district implements the changes that were made to the assignment policy this year, such as restoring diversity as a goal.

Benton said the “$64,000 question” is how they’re going to balance the pillars of achievement, stability, proximity and facilities utilization moving forward.

Benton said they need to adjust to how “forced busing” is no longer supported by key segments of the public, especially at a time where there are so many other options such as charter schools and private schools. Benton said people don’t want to be involuntarily bused as much as 1 hour and 45 minutes each way to school.

“I don’t think anybody wants pockets of high-poverty schools,” Benton said. “But how you do it in a fair and equitable way to balance schools isn’t easy.”

But Benton said reducing the use of assignment in favor of more resources at high-poverty schools won’t be cheap.

“If you can’t use it to get a better balance, then you’ve got to provide better resources to make sure you have as good as you’d get anywhere in the county,” Benton said. “It’s not inexpensive.”

New school board member Zora Felton seemed to be more inclined to make diversity-related reassignments in an interview last week.

Felton, who takes office Dec. 3, said they need to use assignment to address disparities in schools.

“There is no such thing as separate but equal.” Felton said. “1954 decided that. We’ve got to look at the test scores of these schools.”

Felton said they need to explain to parents how assignment can help all children succeed by giving them the opportunity to attend a high-performing school.

“I want all children to succeed, not just my children,” Felton said. “There are children who come from across town for the opportunity to have a high-performing school.”

School board member John Tedesco said he considers the change in the conversation from assignment to achievement to be one of the legacies of the former Republican majority he was part of. The board has kept in place new programs begun under the GOP majority aimed at helping schools that are low performing or that didn’t have enough students.

“We’ve changed the conversation,” said Tedesco, whose term expires Dec. 3. “We’ve gotten more focus on student achievement than on student assignment.”

“Nobody wants a school that’s piled through the rafters in high poverty,” Tedesco also said. “But where it exists, we’re now starting to have the honest conversations about what it takes to make students successful.”

Tedesco said the school system needs to continue to see that the right resources are in place at the high-poverty schools. Examples, he said, include giving those schools more reading coaches, offering extended-day programs and creating regional support programs.

Tedesco said options like those will achieving “true diversity,” as opposed to dispesring low-income students around, which he says won’t teach children how to read.

“At the end of the day, if you want true diversity, you have to make sure all kids can read and be able to go to college and compete for the same jobs and live in integrated communities,” Tedesco said.

A test of where the school board does stand will come Dec. 3 when it decides whether to accept staff’s recommendation to make no assignment changes for the 2014-15 school year.

The next test will come next year in what kind of plan is implemented in the 2015-16 school year when three new schools need to be filled.

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