More than a fifth of Wake County schools have a large concentration of poor students, and passing rates on state exams range drastically across the district and sometimes at schools within a few miles of each other.
Wake County school leaders say they must do more to address imbalances in the system’s 180 schools, but they’re not sure of the best approach. One option is to more aggressively reassign students, a practice that Wake had moved away from in recent years because it often draws the ire of parents and ignites debates about busing, diversity and school choice.
Parents are already pushing back against proposals that would move some students to schools with lower test scores. This year’s draft assignment plan, which the school board could vote on in December, includes some recommended changes that would make schools that are geographically close resemble each other in terms of demographics and student performance.
School system staff members are planning for further changes next year that could lead to more reassignments.
Moving children to other schools shouldn’t be the only option, school board member Keith Sutton said, but Wake needs to act now before it becomes a “Herculean effort” to catch up.
“If the will is there, it’s a much smaller bite out of the apple than if we ignore it three years or five years down the road,” he said. “It will take political will, but it will take much more if we don’t put a stake in the ground.”
Public support is also a factor. Some parents, particularly those with middle and upper incomes, balk at such changes they think will hurt their children academically.
“Moving children from high performing schools to schools that are lesser so will be detrimental to their academic achievement,” Shelly Lammon, a parent from Apex, wrote on Wake’s online forum.
Busing for socio-economic diversity has long been a contentious issue in Wake, which used to be known nationally for its efforts to try to limit the number of low-income and low-performing students at each school. It’s harder to recruit experienced teachers to work at lower-performing schools, and it’s harder for teachers to help individual students when so many in the class struggle academically.
But with the backing of voters who said they wanted neighborhood schools, Republicans gained a majority on the school board in 2009 and proceeded to drop the use of diversity from the assignment policy.
Democrats retook the board majority in 2011 and put back in policy a goal of trying to limit the number of low-income and low-performing students at schools. But Wake buses fewer students for diversity now, and schools have become less diverse than they were a decade ago.
Instead of using student assignment to address high-poverty schools, Wake has turned more toward giving those schools additional resources such as magnet programs that draw families from across the county.
In recent years, it’s become clear that some schools near each other are vastly different.
At Lincoln Heights Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina, 70 percent of students receive subsidized lunches and 37 percent are passing state reading exams. Other nearby schools – Fuquay-Varina, Herbert Akins and Willow Springs elementary schools – have reading scores of 64, 73 and 82 percent, respectively. All three have less than half the percentage of low-income students that Lincoln Heights has.
Proposed assignment changes could raise Lincoln Heights’ reading proficiency rate to 50 percent.
“Lincoln Heights was not like all of the other schools in the area, so we used the opportunity to open Buckhorn Creek (Elementary) to look at the proficiency at all the schools in the area while also looking at the other pillars of stability, proximity and operational efficiency,” said Glenn Carrozza, Wake’s senior director of student assignment.
Lincoln Heights is also getting a new environmental connections magnet school theme and a soon-to-be renovated campus to try to help educate its 500 students.
“We have plans in place for all of our students, whether they need enrichment or they need remediation so that we’re meeting every individual student and learner where they enter the building and work to get them either at benchmark or above if they’re already there,” said Kim Grant, principal of Lincoln Heights.
But concerns about achievement gaps have continued to mount among school board members.
“Through the last couple of board retreats we’ve received some clear direction that in particular you wanted us to take a look at areas where there were schools in close proximity that had marked differences in terms of how they looked in their student populations and their achievement and that sort of thing,” Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for academic advancement, told school board members in September.
Moore added that student assignment staff would be “bringing a number of changes” for the 2019-20 school year to try to minimize high concentrations of at-risk students and low-income students at schools. She said staff would come back in the spring with a list of areas that might be addressed next year in the assignment plan.
Sutton, the school board member, said it’s important to make sure that schools in an area are similar.
“Nobody is going to want to go to what’s perceived to be the lower-achieving school, so if we’re making sure that all the schools in an area resemble each other, then parents don’t have the issue because one thing we do know is that parents are looking at test scores,” Sutton said.
Families who could be reassigned from Willow Springs Elementary School to Banks Road Elementary have been particularly vocal. Parents have noted how test scores are lower at Banks Road than Willow Springs, with 72.8 percent of students passing state exams last year compared to 84.4 percent.
Carrozza said the move is designed to help reduce crowding at Willow Springs and is not meant to improve test scores at Banks Road, but parents are skeptical.
“Willow Springs is an awesome school,” Jennifer Daughtry, a Willow Springs parent, said in an interview. “Anyone who is attending there right now, why would you want to move? It’s a top-performing school in Wake County.”
On the online forum, some Willow Springs parents have accused Wake of filling quotas and trying to make test scores look better.
“I’m trying to understand how shuffling the deck of students helps under-performing students,” James Cermak, a Willow Springs parent, wrote on the forum. “Moving kids around is just manipulating averages and masking the problem.”
Wake County school board members say it’s the district’s job to make sure all schools are strong so parents will be more willing to accept assignment changes.
“Change is very difficult for any parents,” said school board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner. “I understand that, but once we’re able to show that the program is a strong program, those schools are going to become higher-demand schools. That’s on the school system to make sure it happens.”