Wake County Schools

Long-awaited assignment plan called 'Wake County's plan'

Posted October 4, 2011 6:19 p.m. EDT
Updated October 5, 2011 10:47 a.m. EDT

— Wake County school board members have gotten their first look at a long-awaited student assignment plan aimed at giving parents more choices when it comes to where their children go to school.

School system Superintendent Tony Tata and his staff spent about three hours at a work session Tuesday answering the board's questions and going over the 92-page proposal, which Tata characterized as "a very strong plan" that has been through a "very thorough public vetting and an unprecedented level of genuine engagement with Wake County families."

"This plan has broad community support, precisely because we have listened to the public," he said.

The plan, based on four key elements – proximity, choice, stability and student achievement – replaces the district's longstanding practice of busing students for socio-economic diversity.

Under it, parents would have at least five elementary school choices, two middle school and two high schools – including traditional, year-round, magnet and high-performing schools – based on where they live. Parents have priority to schools closest to their home.

"If a parent likes a school they're in, they can stay there," Tata said. "The key to this plan is that you just get to stay where you are if you like your school. If not, you have a choice to go somewhere else."

The school board could vote on the plan at its next school board meeting on Oct. 18. If approved, it would go into effect the 2012-13 school year.

"This is a major overhaul of what we have been doing and such a major improvement from what we've done in the past," board Chairman Ron Margiotta said.

Concerned that the plan leaves unanswered questions, some critics, however, have called for the board to hold off on moving forward with the plan until more is known about its effects on the district.

"This sounds like magic for everyone," said parent Amy Womble, who's concerned about possible long-term effects of the plan.

"I would really like to be assured that we're not going to create high-poverty schools," she said.

Tata said magnet schools would help mitigate the spread of high-poverty schools.

"We have 59 schools, right now, above the old plans' target of 40 percent (of students receiving free or reduce-price lunches), which is an indicator that it became cumbersome and that the plan was unable to keep up with the changing demographics of the county," he said.

After more than a year and a half of debates on this issue, it appears two sides are getting closer.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," board member Kevin Hill, a supporter of the old student assignment policy, said, "but I'm concerned about the timeframe we're being asked to do this in."

Based on what he heard Tuesday, Hill hasn't ruled out supporting Tata's proposal. Neither has Keith Sutton, also a proponent of the old student assignment policy.

"No plan is going to be fool-proof or perfect, but I think we have seen a lot of progress," Sutton said. "If there is one thing I would change, it would be to see (achievement) more built in the plan, but I think we have a good start."

Other board members say they've been involved in the process throughout and that it's time to move forward.

"I think we're moving in a very powerful, positive direction that's changing the culture of Wake County to empower our parents, support our students and put taxpayers first," Board Vice Chairman John Tedesco said.

Tata and a special task force began work on the plan seven months ago and studied how 22 school districts across the nation assigned students. They held 20 public hearings, providing interpreters and Internet access for those who didn't have it.

More than 20,000 families participated in a test drive of a previous version of the plan, and the student assignment task force looked at more than 4,000 comments.

"This truly is Wake County's plan. We have been open, transparent and approachable," Tata told the board. "We have listened to every viewpoint presented."

The Oct. 13 public hearing is at Broughton High School in Raleigh. Online registration begins at the school system's website at 9 a.m. on Oct. 8. Anyone interested in speaking can also sign up at the door between 4 p.m. and 4:50 p.m. on the day of the hearing. Speakers are limited to two minutes.