Wake County families might lose some of their guarantees about being able to keep their children in the same school and to attend a school that’s reasonably close to where they live.
Student assignment staff proposed Tuesday several changes to the student assignment policy, including removing the “stay where you start” wording that says that Wake will provide students an opportunity to remain at the same school that they’re attending. The proposed changes come as school leaders are considering moving students in 2018 to elementary schools that have space in order to meet new state requirements for lower class sizes.
In addition to dropping the “stay where you start” language, other proposed changes include adding the words “to the extent practical” in sections such as providing stability and assigning students to schools “within a reasonable distance” of where they live. Attorneys said the new language would give the district more flexibility.
“We’re going to have to be more strategic about the choices that our parents have because of the required changes that are going to happen when school capacities change due to the class-size legislation,” Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore said in an interview after Tuesday’s school board policy committee meeting.
The new wording comes after school leaders have made efforts this decade to reduce how often students change schools. Wake still annually reassigns students to fill new schools and to ease crowding at existing schools, but at a lower rate than in the past.
In the 2000s, it was not uncommon for Wake to move as many as 10,000 students to different schools annually in response to record enrollment growth and to promote diverse student populations at individual schools. Frustration over student reassignment helped fuel the 2009 election of a Republican school board majority that promised to scale back the movement of students.
Even after Democrats regained the board majority in 2011, school leaders promised not go back to the old way of assigning students. The board put in place the “stay where you start” provision so that some students who were reassigned to another school could stay at their current school – if they provided their own transportation.
But now North Carolina school systems are facing a situation in 2018 where average class sizes in kindergarten through third grade could drop by as much as four students per grade level. Wake County will have to create space for the equivalent of 559 classrooms and 9,500 students.
“The class-size legislation is throwing a monkey wrench into everything,” school board member Jim Martin, chairman of the policy committee, said in an interview after the meeting.
The smaller class sizes are causing principals to consider options such as putting two different classes in the same room, creating classes made of different grade levels and having art and music teachers give up their classrooms.
Some Wake elementary schools say they can’t make it work even if they give up their art and music classrooms. This is leading to the possibility of reassigning students to where there is space. The first draft of the 2018-19 student assignment plan is scheduled to be released Sept. 19.
“We wouldn’t be having some of these questions if our schools weren’t overcrowded,” said school board member Kathy Hartenstine.
The stability section of the assignment policy includes examples such as providing opportunities for “stay where you start,” having siblings stay at the same school together and having siblings on the same calendar in grades K-8.
Moore told the committee that they could look at accommodating those examples through transfer requests. But she said leaving the examples in the policy hems the district in.
Moore said that the changes are a case of “dialing back a bit on the guarantees that are being given to the families” to help fill schools efficiently.
“We want to make sure that the language in policy doesn’t look too permissive and is more realistic,” she said.