Wake County school board talks about limits of busing for diversity

Posted by T. Keung Hui on June 4, 2014 

Reasonable busing differences, differentiated resources and multiple factors were the buzz words that Wake County school board members and school administrators talked about Tuesday as they discussed the student achievement pillar for the new student assignment plan.

As noted in today’s article, board members voiced their agreement with using a new staff-developed model that would incorporate using multiple factors for helping schools raise student achievement. While assignment is one aspect, other factors include providing additional, differentiated resources to struggling schools.

"We understand that assignment may have a role to play when we're looking at student achievement and needs of schools, but there are lots off other factors that we have to look at as well,” Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for school performance, said after board members said they were okay with the new model.

The one board member who was the most critical of the model was Jim Martin, who invoked the separate is not equal argument. He said demographics is the one thing that correlates the most with achievement in Wake.

"High functioning, high-poverty schools are an oxymoron and I think we have to recognize that,” Martin said. “Now do I just think we should sit here and shove everybody around like pawns on a chessboard? Absolutely not.”

But Martin conceded the value of providing additional resources to schools whose demographics differ sharply from the surrounding neighborhood. He said the additional help could cause perceptions of the school to change, which would change the demographics.

School board member Kevin Hill said they just don’t have much data in Wake on the impact of using differentiated resources.  

"There are going to be situations where it will be difficult, at best, to maybe change school demographics,” Hill said. “And I hope that we will look at ways to improve the programming so that the end result helps all the kids, all the students at that school so perceptions start to change and then it will be part of the data that we might be able to use.

I think looking at program is very important, as important as looking at student achievement and looking a low income, So I think we need to look at the offerings as well at our schools and see how we can support our teachers at those schools to better improve outcomes for our students."

School board vice chairman Tom Benton said he agreed with Martin in the “ideal” on assignment.

“How far we can go using a student assignment plan to diversify and to stop pockets of high free and reduced lunch numbers?” Benton said. “The reality is that we've got some schools — unless we're going to do some really weird things with busing — they're going to be high poverty. The question is how high are we going to let them get?"

Benton said “we've always put the burden of forced busing on poor kids” so he suggested looking at creating smaller, more targeted schools in downtown Raleigh that would be attractive to “challenged families” who are bused for diversity.

"I don't think anybody on this board is walking away from the challenge of high-poverty schools and non-diverse schools,” school board member Bill Fletcher said directly to Martin.

But Fletcher proceeded to note that residential growth means more students in downtown Raleigh than schools. He said they need to find new strategies to address this growth.

School board member Susan Evans also said that differentiated resources have a place even as she said that they have to recognize challenges such as teacher burnout at high-poverty schools.

“I want to be clear that I don't want us to completely shy away from using student assignment as a tool where we can to balance some populations in some schools,” Evans said. “While I certainly agree it's not effective, efficient or reasonable to bus kids from one side of the county to the other, if there are smaller adjustments and reasonable distances I think that we certainly want to take it into consideration.

I want to go on the record with that I'm fine with employing differentiated resources and those concepts as well. But I want to be clear that I don't think that's ever going to completely solve the problems."

School board member Keith Sutton said the new staff model for achievement would move Wake in the “right direction.”

Sutton noted how they’ve historically used magnet schools and busing for achieving diversity. On the former, he said they can’t expect 30+ magnet schools to handle diversity for a district of more than 170 schools. As for the latter, Sutton also noted the transportation challenges of busing.

"With the growth of the county and the growth of the district, and other intangible factors such as Fortify and everything else that is going on, I don't think it's efficient in any stretch to think we could move and shuffle students around just from a transportation efficiency standpoint, let alone all the other factors,” Sutton said. “I think we're at a point where we've got to look at multiple factors."

Sutton suggested looking at the work that the old Healthy Schools Task Force had done.

School board member Monika Johnson Hostler said the new assignment framework would get Wake where it needs to get.

“I don't think busing, for several reasons, is the option,” Johnson Hostler siad. “Efficiency being at the top of the list but also the fact that these are families and often times we have to take into consideration that the families are feeling disenfranchised."

School board chairwoman Christine Kushner said she’d like them to look at adding more magnet schools. She said that would help keep up with magnet demand and allow for proximity to enter into the choices for students in and around central Raleigh.

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