The first demographic snapshot of how a new choice plan will affect Wake County schools suggests that it would create a drift toward racial imbalance.
School system projections for the first class fully shaped by the new plan – the incoming kindergarten class – show the white enrollment percentage rose sharply in popular, mostly suburban schools. Black kindergarten enrollment rose at schools with already high minority numbers.
The prospect of a higher racial imbalance may be moot, however, given the school board’s decision earlier this month to modify the assignment plan by adding an emphasis on maintaining diversity in the 2013-14 school year.
Nonetheless, the school system’s projections show the impact of choice without a diversity component. Kindergarten classes at 23 schools will see their percentages of white students increase this fall by at least 10 percentage points over the school year ending this month. Meanwhile, the proportion of black students at schools with predominantly minority kindergarten classes will rise as well, but not as sharply.
Massachusetts education consultant Michael Alves, who consulted on the current plan, noted that an earlier version he had suggested used diversity in assignment, but that the provision was removed before the choice plan ultimately passed.
“There were no diversity guidelines,” Alves said. “Pretty much what you are looking at is the result of parental preference.”
The schools seeing jumps in their white kindergarten enrollment include Leesville Road, Lead Mine, Penny Road, Wakefield, Farmington Woods and Lacy, the popular West Raleigh school where the percentage of white kindergartners will move from 64 percent to 84 percent. At eight schools, mostly in outlying areas, the share of minority students in kindergarten classes would increase by 10 percentage points or more.
The shifts take place against the backdrop of Wake’s fast-growing enrollment becoming more diverse over time. In 1992, when Wake had less than half its 151,000-student enrollment, whites made up 69 percent of the district. White enrollment was at 49.3 percent in the 2011-12 school year.
School board member Christine Kushner, part of the majority Democratic contingent looking to modify the choice plan, said the numbers worried her.
“I’m concerned about the trends,” Kushner said. “We are going to be looking at the trends and seeing where we can have greater balance in our school system.”
Support for choice
Under the choice plan, families weren’t assigned to a specific school based on their address. Instead, they chose from a list of schools, usually ones that were closest to where they lived.
Advocates of the new choice plan argue that sending children to schools closer to their homes helps students of all races and incomes. They say closer schools make it easier for parents to be involved and reduce long bus rides and reassignments to maintain diversity.
Republican member John Tedesco, a supporter of the choice system, cautioned that the apparent increases only represent a small part of a complex, changing schools dynamic in Wake County.
“I would expect some of this change because of proximity as a key factor and because housing hasn’t always been the most integrated in our community,” Tedesco said. “It’s something we should certainly evaluate and look at.”
Schools Superintendent Tony Tata, who supported the current choice-based plan but has pledged to work with the board’s directive to modify the plan, said the racial shifts bear watching but the trend could also reflect the popularity and the effectiveness of giving parents a choice.
“If parents are choosing schools closer to home, it’s probably because they want to be more involved in the student’s success,” Tata said.
The figures have significance because only kindergarteners were full participants in the first year of the choice-based assignment plan. The plan, which goes into effect with year-round schools in less than two weeks, did not include diversity as a factor in assignment when passed by the county school board – dominated by Republicans – in October. But after the fall vote on the plan, a new Democratic majority took office.
“I do believe that part of education is learning from and contributing to a diverse culture,” said Democratic school board member Jim Martin, who voted to revise the choice plan. “I’m not going to sit here and say that there’s a number that we ought to reach.”
During the 2000s, families’ socioeconomic status was used as a guiding factor in assignment, but the original large-scale equity effort in the 1970s came as officials worked to balance the number of black and white students in the combined Wake County and Raleigh city schools.
Republican board member Debra Goldman said of the kindergarten choices, “I hate to make decisions based on one piece of the data, but these are important data.”
Tedesco questioned placing too much focus on the demographic changes.
“Is there a magic number that we need to be concerned about?” he said. “Some of those schools are doing really well.”
Causes of the shift
Brad McMillen, a school system senior director who served on the student assignment task force that developed the plan, said the demographic shifts can occur for a variety of reasons.
“There’s a lot of change, but it’s very nuanced. It’s not a simple A and B situation,” McMillen said. “Some of it’s driven by personal choice; some of it is the machinery of the system.”
Lacy, just inside Raleigh’s Beltline, is one of the schools with the largest projected percentage-point increases of white children in next year’s kindergarten class. One reason: like many other Wake schools, Lacy no longer has nodes, or geographic assignment areas, that aren’t close to the school itself.
Formerly, students who lived in an apartment complex at 1012 N. Raleigh Blvd. had been bused to Lacy and tended to increase the school’s level of low-income members. Under the new plan, children who live in the same area have eight elementary schools to choose from, but not Lacy.
“It’s early enough in the process to give direction to the staff,” Kushner said. “Any student assignment plan would need modification. We’ve expected that, and that’s what we are working to do.”
Two areas along Milburnie Drive in East Raleigh that were assigned to Underwood Elementary under the former plan now have Underwood only as a magnet choice for which a parent would have to provide transportation. The same change occurred for residents at Summerwood Apartments, near the corner of Glenwood Avenue and Pleasant Valley Road.
Similar changes occurred because students who had historically been bused for diversity typically no longer had those distant schools among their choices for this fall.
“The schools that have changed a lot have had their draw areas changed,” McMillen said, referring to the areas around each school where residents have it as an option under the choice plan.
‘A balanced look’
Kushner said the board will consider the schools’ changing demographics as they work to modify the latest school assignment plan to include consideration of diversity and a family’s address.
In a long, bitterly contested meeting last week, the new Democratic majority directed staff to come back with a proposal for an address-based assignment plan that would go back to tying each home to a specific school. The new plan would incorporate proximity, stability and diversity through student achievement and socioeconomics.
“There are things we are concerned about,” Democratic board Vice Chairman Keith Sutton said of the demographic data on the choice plan. “That’s why the board has supported looking at the plan again.”
Sutton said he believes an address-based plan will give the school system more ability to balance demographic and growth issues than a choice plan.
“We have to take a balanced look,” Sutton said. “We can’t be completely focused on maintaining healthy schools and forget about growth. We can’t be totally focused on capacity and growth and turn our back on achievement.”