The Wake County school system’s new student assignment plan is built around the word “choice,” but letting families pick their schools means the system must also adjust for lopsided outcomes.
Popular schools now have triple-digit waiting lists, while others are begging for more applicants, and some face a sharp rise in low income students.
With round two of the selection process ending Thursday evening, school leaders hope to give some schools help. New academic programs, expanded magnet seats and last-minute open houses such as at Poe Elementary School on Wednesday are being used to help schools make their sales pitches to prospective families.
“We are trying to make all our schools high demand,” Schools Superintendent Tony Tata said.
But critics of the new plan say that having some schools short of students shows that a free-market approach isn’t working for the state’s largest school district.
“They pushed us to go to a pure choice plan,” said Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, an advocacy group that has called for scrapping the new plan. “We’re just too big a county to make it work.”
The change came after the Republican majority on the school board said the old plan, which balanced schools by income levels, didn’t provide stability to families and kept too many students from going to schools near where they live. A compromise choice plan was approved in October with the new Democratic majority on the board leaving it unchanged for now.
Brannon, a former county commissioner, and other critics say the shortcomings in the plan can be found at schools that have high vacancy levels despite a fast-growing system. Those schools include:
• Abbotts Creek Elementary in North Raleigh and Richland Creek Elementary in Wake Forest, which had so few applicants in the first round of the choice process that ended in February that the opening of the new schools may be delayed.
• Weatherstone Elementary School in Cary, which has room for 138 kindergarten students but had only 36 students make it their top choice in the first round.
To help Weatherstone and five other underenrolled schools, administrators announced Tuesday that they’re getting new programs for this fall.
• Jeffreys Grove Elementary School in North Raleigh will begin offering a Spanish immersion program to kindergarten students, expanding to other grades over time. English-speaking students will be taught the same curriculum as in a traditional classroom, but teachers will instruct in Spanish instead of English.
• Lincoln Heights Elementary in Fuquay-Varina, Weatherstone Elementary, East Cary Middle and North Garner Middle will begin offering STEM programs that explore connections among science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
• Forestville Road Elementary School in Knightdale will join the Global Schools Collaborative Network, meaning they’ll get additional foreign-language classes and technology.
“They’re consistent with our push to expand additional and unique programs to our county schools,” Tata said.
But Brannon questioned the district’s ability to train teachers to effectively implement the new program for the fall. The money for the new programs is in Tata’s budget proposal, but Brannon said Wake may not be able to keep up the extra spending to help underenrolled schools and those that need to reduce their poverty levels.
“All these things are going to cost more money,” Brannon said. “We can’t afford to create and support high-poverty schools.”
Wake also reopened the magnet school application process, which could help the schools that still have openings.
At Poe Elementary School in Southeast Raleigh, the number of magnet seats was expanded after the first round left the school’s percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches potentially rising by double-digits to 57 percent of the enrollment.
On Wednesday, five parents toured Poe to see the school’s Montessori magnet theme. Montessori stresses having children work independently on hands-on activities with the teachers acting as observers to keep their students on track.
“Many people don’t know that Wake offers a Montessori program,” said Annice Williams, Poe’s principal. “We want to let parents know that option is available.”
Kregg Lloyd left Wednesday’s tour thinking that Poe’s pre-kindergarten program might be the best choice for his son Gus, 4. He said he’s not going to let the debate over the future of Wake’s assignment plan affect his decision.
“We can’t control what will happen years from now,” Lloyd said. “We can control where he’ll be for the next few years.”
The old plan
Supporters of the new plan point to how the old plan also left some schools underenrolled and with high percentages of low-income students. But Brannon argues that the old plan was “mostly working” and should be brought back with some changes.
Great Schools announced this week its “Let’s Find a Better Way” campaign in which it calls for developing a new assignment plan that would include:
• A return to assigning every address to a specific school.
• A guarantee that once a student starts at a school the student can stay there.
• Expanding the number of magnet schools.
• Eliminating feeder patterns.
Formed in 2010 to fight the elimination of the old assignment policy, Great Schools has been a vocal critic of the choice plan. Two leaders of the group were elected to the school board in October.
Tata, who has feuded with Great Schools, declined comment on the proposal.
“We have a big problem, and the sooner that we deal with the problem, the better,” Brannon said. “If we wait until the summer, it will only get worse.”
Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith contributed to this report.