Wake County school board on student achievement in the new assignment plan

Posted by T. Keung Hui on March 3, 2014 

Friday’s initial discussion about the role of the student achievement pillar in the new Wake County student assignment plan shows some of the challenges that will be faced balancing the four pillars.

Superintendent Jim Merrill opened Friday’s school board work session by saying that the day’s goal was to focus on the other three pillars of the student assignment policy ( Policy 6200): stability, proximity and operational efficiency. Merrill said administrators wanted to go through these three pillars in “bite size pieces,” for the board with the student achievement pillar to come at the next seminar.

"We thought it best for all board members – veteran and new – in this first series to examine the tools that you see before you relative to new construction and overcrowding responses as unique tools,” Merrill said. “And that's why you are allowing us to put student achievement on the shelf for today.

There's plenty for us to touch today on the tools – adjusting based on growth. And what we wanted to do, I think, was peel back the proverbial Oz curtain to try and share with you what is not a secret but simply how decisions have been made.

School board member Jim Martin said he agreed with breaking things down. But Martin repeatedly said he wanted to “reinforce” how important the student achievement pillar is to the assignment policy.

"It is too easy, however, to let student achievement and the other equity pieces that go with that stay on the shelf,” Martin said. “I would think, in part, I could I argue that it is as pressing as the growth issues if I happen to be in an area where I have an under-resourced or less equitable school.

So I understand breaking it down into bites. But that's a hard one and easier for us not to focus on it. Again, I completely understand not doing it today, but I just want to reinforce that it's absolutely critical and needs to be in our thinking."

"Don't misunderstand me,” Merrill responded. “It's on the way in truckloads. But I was just afraid that mixed in today we have spun for four hours and probably not learned a lot."

School board member Kevin Hill added that he felt the discussion of the growth topics is integral to looking at the achievement piece.

"We all – board and staff – recognize that the end is student achievement,” Hill said.

Click here, here, here and here for handouts from the meeting. Topics included growth projections, locating new school sites, relocating mobile classrooms, spot nodes, enrollment caps, the criteria for changing school calendars and the redistricting process.

After covering these topics as they neared the end of the meeting, Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore asked the board what data points they want to see when they discuss the student achievement pillar.

School board vice chairman Tom Benton flipped the question around, asking what the staff needs to know from the board. Benton said that he hopes that staff looks at establishing “realistic” walk zones around schools.

School board member Bill Fletcher responded to Moore’s question by asking what tools they have for assessing achievement and whether reading data might be a simple enough metric. Fletcher also asked if they have the data broken down for the 6,400+ planning units that Wake may use to replace the node system.

Fletcher said some of the tools might be resource related.

School board member Susan Evans brought up how the assignment policy links student achievement to keeping schools from having too many low-income students.

"In Policy 6200 that was developed last spring, on student achievement it specifically said minimize high concentrations of low-performing students at each school, minimize high concentrations of students from low-income families,” Evans said.

But Merrill responded that he reads the policy as not necessarily requiring the limiting of low-income students at schools.

Under the student achievement section of the policy, it reads “Student populations at each school will provide an optimal opportunity for academic success for all students. Factors for consideration include:”

That’s where you see the things listed that Evans had mentioned.

“As I read the policy, student achievement leads into that by saying factors for consideration will include,” Merrill said. “You didn't say factors shall include."

Benton said the wording was chosen “carefully” when it was revised last spring.

Martin got in a shot at the choice plan he helped ditch while also noting an event held Thursday to honor the pioneers of the school desegregation movement in of the 1960s and 1970s in Raleigh and Wake County.

“The effort will begin a year of research and efforts to recognize the individuals who helped integrate the schools that would become the Wake County Public School System,” according to a district blog post on their “trailblazers” program.

"During the conversations with the choice plan, what came to us was that it was to be a controlled-choice plan,” Martin said. “And every time we got into a discussion of the controls, things went silent. I think that's back to where we are.

I don't care if it's a choice plan, or a base assignment plan, or anything really. What are the controls to make sure each of our schools can function? Whether it’s poverty, whether it's the lack of turbulence, whether it's equity resources, these are the things we have to think about. What are the controls? Some of the controls need to be student achievement.

Listen to the trailblazers who talked last night. Let’s not forget racial issues, equity issues. That is part of what makes a strong school system, and we can not be afraid to tackle that reality.”

Evans then said she wanted to “clarify” Merrill’s reading of the assignment policy.

"When I read factors for consideration include, and then you have these things listed, I don't see that it's optional to consider,” Evans said. “How we use that information and how we finally shape the base attendance areas is up for question. But at least my intention when we drafted the policy was not that considering those things was optional. "

Benton said they tried to avoid specific targets on purpose because there are a lot of factors in play. The pre-2010 policy had targets such as limiting schools to 40 percent of their students receiving subsidized lunches.

With some schools having 80 percent low income, Benton said they wanted to avoid having ranges for schools.

"There's some reasonable and feasibility about how far you can go to move these children," Benton said.

Martin said they “should incentivize” schools to move toward the county average.

Moore said they can look at the data available on achievement and report back to the board.

Benton said they should keep in mind the data presented last year on bus rides. He said they need to look at the time spent riding and not just on the length of the route.

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