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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Student Assignment Committee: Round One

Posted by on Tue, May 25, 2010 at 3:38 PM

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Finally, the Wake school board's Student Assignment Committee gathered today to begin what its chairman, John Tedesco, says will be a nine-months long process of breaking Wake County into regions (about five of them) and zones (18, plus or minus) for purposes of making student assignments predictable and "community-based." The meeting was introductory, with the members hearing from school system staffers about how assignments were made heretofore and how they might be made in the future. Here's what we learned today:

1) Ron Margiotta, the board chairman and leader of the board's five-member majority, wants the committee to look at making some of the existing magnet schools year-round as a way of boosting their capacity and approving more of the applications to get in them. Keith Sutton, one of the four minority-bloc members, says that will be problematic for the low-income families that comprise the "base" population for the magnet schools. For one thing, they have trouble paying for "track out" programs for the weeks when a year-round school's not in session. (Summer programs are more readily available, not to mention free.) That's one reason why, historically, year-round schools have attracted a relatively upscale student body with few low-income kids applying to be in them.

And remember, the new board majority threw out any "mandatory" (assigned) year-round schools.

2) Tedesco wants new schools built in Southeast Raleigh, where the highest concentrations of low-income folks are (along with numerous magnet schools), so there's enough capacity to accept more magnet applicants while also keeping the neighborhood kids in schools close to home.

3) Tedesco said he's asked staff to work up a standard for "urban schools" that use much less land than the standard suburban-school campus model. He has in mind, he says, more schools like the Moore Square Magnet Middle School in downtown Raleigh, which sits on four acres at what is roughly the geographic center of the county.

(I will say, parenthetically, that more schools built in the middle of the county, and fewer added on the rim, would have the effect — I think — of drawing student populations back together, instead of pulling them apart, and make it easier to retain diverse populations in every school. On the other hand, the old school board was under big pressure to built schools where the population growth is greatest — that is, in Apex, West Cary, Holly Springs, Fuquay-Varina, and Wake Forest. Not in the middle, in other words. Will this school board majority, elected from districts dominated by, yes, Apex, West Cary, Holly Springs, Fuquay-Varina, and Wake Forest, plus North Raleigh, really choose to build in the middle when the old one didn't?)

4) Tedesco once again pledged, in response to questions from board member Carolyn Morrison, who is vice chair of the committee, that any new system for assignments will be based on "community values," including diversity. He pointed to the new board majority's "Resolution Expressing Board Commitment to Efforts of Voluntary Desegregation," adopted in April in connection with an application for federal magnet school funding, and said it would be respected.

The board majority, of course, took final action last week to drop diversity from Policy 6200, which governs student assignments. The resolution about "Voluntary Desegregation," however, commits the board to keep on "providing diverse settings for education," and it includes this statement:

The Community-Based assignment model will also include an evaluation component to provide regular review of each zone attendance area in an effort to reduce and/or prevent minority group isolation.

"In an effort"? How much of an effort?

5) Two long-standing goals for the Wake school system are: Every school at 95 percent capacity, no more or less; no more than 8 percent of students in "temporary seats," aka classroom trailers. The reality: The number of students in trailers is approximately 16 percent, or twice what should be happening. Staff said 20 percent of HS seats, 13 percent of middle-school seats and 17 percent of elementary school seats are in trailers. Translating that to numbers of students, it comes to a total of about 23,500 students in trailers at any given time.

In short, the county's roaring population growth, combined with a failure to build enough new schools to keep up with the growth — forget where the new ones went or should've gone — was and is at the heart of the system's student assignment and reassignment wars.

The old school board had an assignment committee, too, and Anne Sherron and David Williams were both members, just as they are members of the new committee. The old committee recommended assignment decisions, in concert with system staffers, that attempted to minimize travel distances and maintain diversity in every school. But Sherron says, and Williams agrees, that almost all of its decisions over the past decade were driven by growth: Which new schools needed to be filled up, and which existing schools had available capacity. After growth, the old board's decisions emphasized stability — same as the new board is promising to do. Once students start in a school, that is, keep them in it if possible.

Growth has slowed, and that will perhaps help the new board majority to make assignments with less controversy — fewer reassignments will be needed to cope with growth. But the flip side is, the existing schools will be even more over-crowded, especially the more popular "upscale" schools in the better zones and regions.

***

The basic difference in approach on school assignments, it seems, will be this:

* The old board made assignments based mainly on proximity (closest school), with parents also given a chance to apply for year-round or magnet assignments outside of their neighborhoods. But the old board also paid attention to diversity, and avoided having schools with high concentrations of kids from low-income families, which meant that parents didn't always get what they wanted. On top of which, a booming population from 2000 to 2008, combined with the shortage of classroom seats, forced the old board to make a lot of assignment decisions that, as Sherron says, "we would not otherwise have done."

* The new board will make assignments based on proximity, with choices for year-rounds and magnets, and it won't forget about that "evaluation component to provide regular review of each zone attendance area in an effort to reduce and/or prevent minority group isolation." But it intends to give parents what they want ("parental choice") to the maximum extent possible. And with growth slowed and money in hand from the $970 million 2006 bond issue to add new capacity, it will have more breathing room than the old board did, at least for awhile.

But whether the new board majority will pay any attention to its "evaluation component" on diversity, and be serious about the need "to reduce and/or prevent" the resegregation of Wake schools by income, remains to be seen. Tedesco says it will, and that creating more space in the magnet schools by making them year-round will be a step in that direction — Sutton's objections notwithstanding. Morrison, a diversity defender, says she'll keep bringing the subject of diversity up, and keep pressing Tedesco to follow through.

Long story short, we won't know much until the committee draws some lines on a map and lays out a plan for the new regions and zones. Six months in office, the new majority still has no such lines.

Next meeting: June 8.

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