Education

Parents balk at school changes

Thousands of parents relearned the lesson Monday that living in Wake County means not being sure where your children will go to school each year.

Parents flooded the school district's Web site at www.wcpss.net to find out whether their children were among the nearly 11,500 students who could be reassigned to different schools next year. Although some came away happy, many were unhappy about the potential effect on their children's education and their lifestyles.

"It's the continued not knowing each year," said Chris Polli, a Cary parent. "I kept playing in my mind about telling my neighbors we could go to Panther Creek [High School.] They said, 'Surely that won't happen.' I said, 'Surely you're not used to Wake County.' "

If adopted by the school board, the proposal to move 11,495 students would be the largest reassignment in Wake's history. School administrators say they have to respond to record growth, which brought 6,436 new students this year, by filling seven new schools and easing the crowding at existing schools.

Parents were waking up early to see the proposal when it went online at 5 a.m. By 4 p.m. Monday, the district's Web site had received 602,600 page views. Most of the 500 to 600 calls to the district's Customer Service Center concerned reassignment, school administrators said.

Ramey Beavers, the school district's senior director for growth management, said he expected the high level of interest. "We wanted to hear from the public, and that's what we got," Beavers said.

Administrators will take comments until Jan. 1. They'll review the suggestions and present a refined plan to the school board in February. The plan could be adopted in March.

Beavers said the response so far has been 50-50 positive and negative on the plan.

"A lot of people were writing to thank us for moving them or not moving them," Beavers said. "Everybody is not unhappy about the proposal."

Some parents were ecstatic. Residents of the Riverside division in North Raleigh let administrators know how happy they were to be reassigned from Fox Road Elementary School to Wildwood Forest Elementary School.

"THANK YOU THANK YOU FOR GIVING US A NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOL -- WILDWOOD FOREST ELEMENTARY!!!!!!" Riverside parent Anna Farrell wrote in an e-mail message to administrators. "WE ARE ALL IN TEARS OF HAPPINESS!!!"

But many other parents weren't happy about a proposal that affects most elementary schools and all 17 high schools.

Some parents are concerned that their children are among the 3,097 elementary school students who could be reassigned from traditional to year-round schools. Wake plans to make greater use of year-round schools, which can handle up to 33 percent more students than traditional schools by keeping the buildings in constant use.

Wake has designated five new elementary buildings as mandatory year-round schools -- Barwell Road, Brier Creek, Carpenter, Holly Grove and "E19," a modular school to be temporarily put next to East Millbrook Middle School.

The potential shift to a year-round calendar would mean immediate changes for families. North Raleigh parent Janet Pretsch said her family would have to put on hold a July family vacation to Hawaii because it would conflict with the year-round calendar at Brier Creek. Year-round students start school in July, compared with no earlier than Aug. 25 for students on the traditional calendar.

"There are so many things changing for us, not just a school but a calendar," said Pretsch, who now has two children at Hilburn Drive Elementary School. "That's a lot to throw at families at one time."

The reassignment proposal also involves shifting 4,345 high school students steadily westward to relieve crowding at several schools and to start filling two high schools opening in August -- Panther Creek and Holly Springs. The movement would split up some siblings -- rising seniors and juniors can choose to stay at their current school if they're reassigned, but younger siblings must go.

Polli, the Cary parent, could have a daughter staying at Cary High and a son reassigned to Panther Creek. The same situation happened to her three years ago when reassignment resulted in her older daughter staying at Green Hope High and her younger daughter being moved to Cary.

"If this goes through as planned, with three of my four children I'll have been at three different high schools," Polli said. "There's no sense of school loyalty here."

The tremendous size of the proposal means that even parents whose children aren't being reassigned, such as Millbrook High PTSA President Margaret Frucht, worry about how it will affect their children's schools. Millbrook's enrollment could increase from 2,087 students to almost 2,500 next year.

"Anytime the word 'reassignment' is mentioned, it's what gets everyone at school concerned," Frucht said. "Reassignment is a big thing. The question is: When will it stop?"

Dave Duncan, vice president of Assignment By Choice, a group critical of the district's assignment policies, said it heard many complaints Monday from parents. He said parents want to keep their neighborhoods together and to have at least a year's warning before moves happen.

"People are sometimes going to have to be reassigned," Duncan said. "It's not so much about that as it is about keeping peers together."

Administrators have repeatedly said that they value stability and would like to try multiyear reassignments but that growth has been too rapid.

County planners in November projected 126,681 students would enroll next year, up from 120,507 this year. Those projections, however, have underestimated growth in past years.

While repercussions of reassignment are obviously greatest for students and their parents, businesses feel them, too.

"Many families are pretty savvy about the schools they choose, so a reassignment can be very upsetting once they're settled in," said Jewell Parker, a real-estate agent with York Simpson Underwood in Raleigh.

Knowing a neighborhood might be reassigned can also make decisions tougher for both buyers and agents.

"You just have to tell them you don't know where their children will go to school," said Parker, a Raleigh-area real-estate agent since 1984. "In our work, you don't sell a house with a guarantee of where the child will go to school beyond the current year."

(Staff writer Tim Simmons contributed to this report.)

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