Wake County releases draft 2015-16 student assignment plan

From left, Debora Hinton, Hadie Edmundson, Bonita Bobbitt work on Richland Creek Elementary School in Wake Forest. It is scheduled to open in August.
From left, Debora Hinton, Hadie Edmundson, Bonita Bobbitt work on Richland Creek Elementary School in Wake Forest. It is scheduled to open in August.

Wake County’s newest student assignment plan is focused on sending students to schools near where they live, reducing how often children are moved and keeping schools full – but not on promoting diverse enrollments.

School administrators presented Tuesday the first draft of a plan for the 2015-16 school year that they say focuses primarily on filling four new schools, reducing crowding at existing schools, cleaning up inefficient bus routes and minimizing the number of families with children on different calendars.

The plan would mostly affect Apex, North Raleigh and Wake Forest and would transfer a relatively small percentage of Wake’s 153,000 students.

The list of priorities used to develop the new plan only includes “minor adjustments” to balance student achievement levels at individual schools to keep them from having too many students from low-income families, where students tend to post lower scores. Administrators say they’re relying on providing more programs and resources to help schools with low test scores instead of relying on assignment to promote diversity – one of the things that Wake has been known for since the 1980s.

“The primary tool that we’re using as a district to address student achievement in schools is not through assignment but through the multiple factors and the work that we do intentionally at those schools,” said Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for school performance.

Moore said administrators did not have data yet on how the draft plan would affect the number of high-poverty or racially isolated schools in the district.

The plan will be reviewed by the public and school board for comment and potential changes. A second draft will be presented in October with the final draft going to the school board in November.

Administrators hope the board will approve a plan in December.

Change in direction

The new plan, if embraced by the school board, could mark a turning point in how the state’s largest school district views the role of student assignment in promoting diversity.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, Wake bused students by race. In 2000, Wake switched to busing students by family income to try to keep schools from having an overly high concentration of low-income students.

A Republican-backed school board majority eliminated socioeconomic diversity from the student assignment policy in 2010, prompting protests and a federal civil rights complaint.

The Democratic-backed board majority that took office in 2011 campaigned on valuing diversity in Wake schools.

They revised the assignment policy to include four pillars, or guiding principles – proximity, stability, operational efficiency and student achievement. The student achievement principle talks about minimizing the concentrations of low-performing and low-income students in schools.

Administrators said that when they developed the new plan, they focused more on the other three principles as they cope with the 3,000 new students enrolling each year.

The proposal drew wide praise from school board members, including those who had backed putting the achievement pillar into the assignment policy.

“The changes in the plan are going to be improvements that parents have been asking for,” school board chairwoman Christine Kushner said during a break.

School board member Jim Martin said after the meeting that school leaders recognize that helping high-poverty schools will take a concerted effort over multiple years using more than just assignment.

“I don’t think anybody on this board has a sense that assignment can solve all our problems,” he said.

School board member Keith Sutton said after the meeting that adopting equity-based funding to provide more resources to struggling schools would help with achievement.

‘Not a lot’

Much of the focus Tuesday from school officials was on downplaying how much of an impact the plan would have on the fast-growing county.

Laura Evans, Wake’s senior director of student assignment, said the administration doesn’t yet have the exact number of students who would be moved by the plan. But she said the numbers are relatively small.

“The big picture is not a lot of people are being impacted,” Evans told the board.

The plan affects 36 elementary schools, 16 middle schools and 11 high schools around the county, but Evans said only a handful of students are affected in most schools.

Administrators are trying to fill Apex Friendship High and Scotts Ridge Elementary in Apex and Abbotts Creek Elementary in North Raleigh, all opening in 2015.

Wake is also adding more students to Richland Creek Elementary School in Wake Forest because it’s moving to a larger campus this year.

To determine which students would be moved, Wake contracted with N.C. State’s Operations Research and Education Laboratory to develop a formula that takes into account proximity, school capacity levels and anticipated future growth. Administrators said they revised the recommendation but noted that the partnership with N.C. State should result in fewer cases of families being reassigned multiple times.

‘Stay where you start’

“We’re responding more to data and numbers rather than to what it has been in the past,” Sutton said. “Sometimes if it’s political pressure or the hue and cry of different communities that want different things.”

One of the contentious issues about reassignment has been about the way it forces students to change schools. The assignment policy approved by the current board includes a “stay where you start” provision, also known as grandfathering.

Administrators say that “stay where you start” means that any student who is reassigned to an existing school can request a transfer to stay there. The “transfer” from the new school will be automatically approved, but families who stay would lose bus service.

“Stay where you start” for the new schools opening next year will be limited to rising fourth- and fifth-graders, whose requests would be automatically approved but again would not include bus service. But their younger siblings would also be allowed to stay with their older siblings.

Apex Friendship High will only open next year with freshmen and sophomores. None of those students will be able to “grandfather” into their currently assigned school unless they have an older sibling who is a rising junior or senior.

Administrators said they had to balance letting families stay where they are with making sure new schools are filled.

“It would be fiscally irresponsible to open a new school and not have anyone go,” Moore said.

Multiyear proposal

In addition to filling the new schools, administrators also tried to address:

Evans said that they’ll try to address more of these issues in the future as 14 new schools open between 2016 and 2018. Most of the new schools are funded from the $810 million school construction bond issue approved by voters last fall.

Wake had been moving initially toward releasing assignments for multiple years but was hamstrung by not having all the sites for the new schools opening in 2016 and 2017. The plan is billed as “Year One” of a multiyear proposal.

Simultaneous with the assignment plan, the school board is considering whether to convert Ballentine and Wakefield elementary schools to the traditional calendar and Alston Ridge and Mills Park elementary schools and Mills Park Middle School to the multitrack year-round calendar.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer