In an uncertain election year. the Wake County school board directed staff Monday to try to promote diverse school enrollments by considering using limited student reassignment and offering innovative programs.
School board members said Monday that they want to address the statistic that more than half of students at 50 of Wake’s 171 schools receive federally subsidized lunches. But board members also said they don’t want to go back to the old days when the district reassigned large numbers of students to try to balance the demographics at schools.
“The additional competitive nature in our market of charter schools and other alternatives does create somewhat of a political hot potato to go back to practices that may have been in place in the mid-’80s of just moving people to a more diverse environment,” school board member Bill Fletcher said.
Instead, the board came to a consensus that staff can look at using student assignment changes to promote diversity where it’s practical. No specific schools were named Monday, but staff was told to see whether changes could be made at clusters of schools whose demographics differ sharply from each other.
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Also, staff was told to consider broadening the number of schools that are affected when a new school opens. For the past two years, Wake has tried to limit as much as possible which schools feel the impact when students are moved to fill a new school.
Wake has historically tried to promote diverse school enrollments through a mixture of assigning some low-income students to more distant schools and encouraging suburban students to attend magnet schools in Raleigh. Overall, Wake assigns fewer students for diversity than before 2009.
But even as assignment was mentioned Monday as a diversity tool, board members repeatedly stressed their recognition that there are limits to what can be done.
“It would be difficult to come up with a way to bus kids voluntarily or involuntarily to satisfy diversity at every school,” school board Chairman Tom Benton said.
Staff members were also asked to consider using the carrot of more innovative programs as another way to achieve diversity. This could include either offering programs at new schools or changing programs at existing schools to make them more attractive to families.
The board is particularly interested in the region between Interstate 440 and Interstate 540 – called “the rim” – where many of the high-poverty schools are located.
Also Monday, the board discussed what to direct staff to do about programs and funding to help struggling schools. Among other items, staff were told to:
▪ Look at providing more help to middle schools;
▪ Develop models for providing resources to schools based on their needs, instead of funding them equally.
Whether the board can adopt any of these approaches is uncertain. All nine seats on the Democratic-led school board are on the ballot under new election maps drawn by the Republican-led General Assembly. The school board has already begun taking precautions, including amending Superintendent Jim Merrill’s contract last week so that a new board would have to pay Merrill more than $560,000 to replace him or try to fire him with cause.