Kristin Riha is dreading the conversation that she may have to have with her 7-year-old daughter about no longer going to the same Wake County elementary school as her big sister.
Riha’s younger daughter is very shy and leans on her 9-year-old sister, who sits on the bus with her and walks her to class each day at Willow Springs Elementary School. But Wake’s new student assignment proposal moves both girls to Ballentine Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina next year while only guaranteeing that the older daughter can stay at Willow Springs.
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Riha and many other parents are affected by proposed changes that reduce the “stay where you start” provisions that allow families to avoid changing schools or splitting up siblings. School leaders say challenges such as meeting the state’s new smaller elementary school class sizes are limiting their options to provide stability, but parents are calling the changes harmful for children.
“Certainly we have choices, but the happiness of our children is a major factor,” Riha, a Fuquay-Varina mother, said in an interview. “None of us would want to uproot our children.”
The proposed rule changes could require hundreds more students than normal to change school next year and thousands more students in the future.
Wake reassigns thousands of students each year to fill new schools, ease crowding at existing schools and try to balance the percentages of low-performing students at schools. With more than 160,000 students and 22,764 more projected to arrive over the next seven years, more reassignments are coming.
In response to complaints that families weren’t getting enough stability, school leaders in recent years expanded which students are eligible for “grandfathering.” In this option, students can stay at their current school even if their neighborhood is reassigned. Families who use grandfathering give up school bus service.
But the new assignment proposal would cut back on who is eligible for grandfathering, particularly at elementary schools.
The assignment proposal also calls for no longer guaranteeing requests from parents to have younger siblings attend the same school as the older child who is grandfathering. If this change is approved, all requests would be automatically rejected by staff so parents would have to appeal to the school board.
School board member Jim Martin said Wake is working in a different world now, particularly since state lawmakers are lowering class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to an average of roughly 17 children per class starting next year. The average was 21 students last year.
“We cannot provide as many options so we have to tighten up our assignments,” Martin said in an interview. “That’s the only way that we’re able to cope with the class sizes.”
The enrollment proposal moves some elementary students to get class sizes down. This comes on top of changes that schools are already planning for next year, including converting art and music spaces to regular classrooms, putting two classes in the same room and having more than 29 students in fourth- and fifth-grade classes.
Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore explained to school board members that reducing the grandfathering and sibling options would allow student assignment changes to go into effect sooner.
School board member Bill Fletcher said grandfathering is slowing down Wake’s ability to make needed assignment changes.
“The reality is that when we’re assigning from elementary to elementary, the schools aren’t going to be that far apart,” Fletcher said at a recent school board committee meeting. “The challenge may be that they’re all on the same bell schedule. But they’re not that far apart.”
Parents have been vocal on Wake’s online discussion forum that they do not want grandfathering reduced.
“Children that are currently attending should absolutely be grandfathered - it is not OK for my son to invest time and energy in a school (and music program) that he loves and then be transferred to a ‘new’ old school where he will know no one,” parent Suzie Adamsky wrote on the forum.
Under the proposed rules, the only way to guarantee that siblings would go to the same school is for the older student to move with the younger sibling instead of grandfathering. Amy Bailey wrote on Wake’s forum that grandfathering siblings is the right thing to do.
“How can you allow one student to remain at their beloved school and tell the other they can’t and force them to go elsewhere?” Bailey wrote. “How does this help children to excel academically when you rip everything they have ever known out from under them?”
During a school board committee meeting Tuesday, board members talked about a compromise: Siblings of rising fifth- and eighth-graders who are grandfathering would be allowed to stay at their current school for one year before having to move. Board members are looking at potentially allowing students to stay up to two years in high school with their grandfathered older sibling before making them change campuses.
Wake has been letting grandfathered younger siblings stay at the school until they finish and are ready to move to middle school or high school. Martin, the board member, said the one-year compromise recognizes the need to make sure that the assignment changes happen sooner than later.
“We’ve only been doing reassignments when there is a clear need to do a reassignment,” Martin said. “If the need exists, then you really kind of need it to take place. You don’t need it to be drug out over a five- to seven-year time period.”
If the compromise is approved, Michelle Antonio would be able to keep her youngest daughter at Olive Chapel Elementary in Apex next year while her oldest daughter grandfathers at the school for fifth grade. She said the year will give her more time to decide what to do.
“I can’t imagine the position they’re in trying to manage all of us,” Antonio said of the school board. “I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes. I empathize. But on the flip side, I’m living with the consequences of it.”
Grandfathering is an option that some Wake County students can use to stay at their current school even if their neighborhood is moved to a different school. Families give up bus service if they grandfather.
Currently, any elementary school student can grandfather to stay at the current school if the student is reassigned to another existing school. When students are moved to new elementary schools, grandfathering is only available to students who will be starting fourth or fifth grades.
Wake distinguishes between old and new schools because students who are moved to an existing school won’t be getting all the latest amenities.
But student assignment staff propose limiting grandfathering at elementary schools to students who will be starting fifth grade next fall regardless of whether it’s an old or new school. The change would help fill new schools quicker and make it easier to meet smaller state-mandated class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.