The opening of three new Wake County schools next fall is pitting school leaders who want to make sure the new buildings are full against families who don’t want their children to leave the schools they’re already attending.
Apex Friendship High School, Scotts Ridge Elementary School in Apex and Abbotts Creek Elementary in North Raleigh are scheduled to open in August with potentially as many as 2,400 students. Families who could be moved to those schools are lobbying to expand who’d be “grandfathered” – and thus able to stay – at their current schools.
But school administrators and school board members say expanding the number of grandfathered students too much would leave them with empty new schools and overcrowded existing schools.
“When voters approve new schools, they expect them to be filled,” school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said. “We are doing that in a transparent way, getting community feedback.”
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For decades, Wake has been juggling how to fill new schools while dealing with families who want stability. The county has opened 44 new schools since 2001 to help keep up with the 57,000 new students who have enrolled in North Carolina’s largest school district.
As part of the balancing act, Wake doesn’t open high schools with juniors and seniors. Instead, high schools open with freshmen and sophomores, then expand to include the upper two grades.
Wake’s process of grandfathering has evolved. Students who are eligible for grandfathering must file a request, and families typically lose bus service by rejecting reassignment.
For the 2013-14 school year – the last time students were moved to different schools – grandfathering was expanded so that no student would have to leave their current school, even if they were reassigned to a new school.
In 2013, though, the school board decided it would no longer guarantee grandfathering for new schools.
“If we spent many millions of dollars to build a new school, we need to fill it,” school board member Susan Evans said. “If we let everyone grandfather, we wouldn’t have anyone there except sixth- and ninth-graders. That would be an inefficient use of a large facility.”
School administrators carried out the modified policy in the first draft of the 2015-16 assignment proposal presented in August. Grandfathering would be limited at new schools to rising fourth- and fifth-graders, unless kids want to go to the same school as an older sibling.
“We need you to go to the new school,” Laura Evans, Wake’s senior director of student assignment, told the board in August.
Parents have gone to the district’s student assignment website to lobby for the same grandfathering rules used in 2013.
Families at Holly Springs High who are facing reassignment to Apex Friendship also have asked for the help of Mayor Dick Sears. He has said he’ll lobby for changes, including expanding grandfathering to rising sophomores.
“People want to stay at Holly Springs,” he said. “I understand that.”
But Laura Evans said the school system needs enough sophomores at Apex Friendship to relieve overcrowding at the three schools that would send it students. Apex and Holly Springs high schools already have enrollment caps, and Evans said her staff will propose a cap next year for Panther Creek High School.
Some families at year-round schools that could be reassigned to new traditional-calendar elementary schools worry that they’ll have to adjust their schedules.
Parents have also gone online to question the ability to get the same offerings at the new schools. Wake school officials posted online Friday that Apex Friendship will offer all of the same academic programs and extracurricular offerings as the other high schools in the area, with the exception, next year, of varsity football.
But parents whose children attend the Academy of Information Technology at Apex High School say that can’t possibly be replicated next year at Apex Friendship. The academy allows students to take specialized courses to study careers in specific industries: finance, hospitality and tourism, and information technology.
“For those who are interested in it, you can’t duplicate this effort someplace else,” said Susan Rist-Sbraccia, the mother of a freshman at the academy. “The academy is confined to Apex High School.”
Susan Evans, the school board member representing Apex, said the freshmen in the academy facing reassignment are a small group and have very special circumstances. She has asked administrators to explore whether they can be allowed to stay at Apex.
Administrators say they’re reviewing all the feedback on the assignment proposal and will present a second draft to the school board on Oct. 7.
“We’re all cautiously optimistic because it’s something very difficult to say no to,” said Mary Beth Walden, the mother of an Apex High freshman in the academy. “All the freshmen are on track to take the courses they’ll need. They just can’t do that at Friendship.”