Wake County Schools

Wake schools' split over student assignment affects 2011-12 planning

Posted November 30, 2010 3:43 p.m. EST
Updated November 30, 2010 6:57 p.m. EST

— Divisions over student assignment that have bitterly split the Wake County school board and many residents landed on the table Tuesday at the board's Student Assignment Committee meeting as it took up possible changes in where students will go for the 2011-12 school year.

Next year was supposed to be the third year of a three-year assignment plan approved in response to community anger about how frequently students were being moved from school to school as growth drove demand along with a district policy that tried to keep any school from having more than 40 percent of its students in the low-income program called free and reduced lunch.

The committee had not been considering any changes for the 2011-12 school year.

Tuesday, however, some community members on the assignment panel suggested dozens and dozens of areas – called nodes – whose hundreds and hundreds of students they said should be moved to other schools next year to embrace the district's new policy that emphasizes proximity to schools.

Watch the entire three-hour meeting

That policy change, approved 5-4 by a board that had four of its nine members elected last year, has been a bitter subject.

"What is the best thing educationally for the children who need us most?" committee community member Anne Sherron asked committee chairman and board member John Tedesco.

"We clearly have a disagreement in the board and in the community" about whether moving students to avoid high-poverty schools helps them achieve or if they would do better in schools closer to their neighborhoods, largely in southeast Raleigh. Schools in that area all are magnet schools, ones designed to draw in more affluent students whose parents want special programs for their children and volunteer to have them go there.

Opponents of the new policy have argued that bringing southeast Raleigh students home will cut out magnet seats. The school board has stated that magnet schools continue to be the centerpiece of voluntary desegregation.

Many of the nodes suggested for movement Tuesday are in southeast Raleigh.

Assignment committee members disagreed about whether achievement data is on the side of moving students or keeping them dispersed.

"An 'a-ha' moment for me," community member Tracey Noble said, was seeing achievement data that showed students moved out of economically disadvantaged areas sometimes did worse in distant schools.

Sherron countered by asking how it would make sense to move students who were achieving in their assigned schools to other schools. That brought a flare up from Tedesco, who asked her if she was calling the potential new schools "crappy" and was saying students could not achieve there.

"John, I did not say that!" Sherron shot back

Tedesco, who has been an architect of the move to community-based schools, joined members who said that students in some nodes who are bused from near WakeMed Hospital to a school in the southwestern part of the county should not have to make that long trip.

"We have a lot of nodes like that," Tedesco said.

The long list of proposed moves – which may or may not be accommodated in a proposal that the district's Growth and Planning staff will bring to the school board next week and that will be debated and possibly revised into early 2011 – would come in what was supposed to be a year of minimal change.

Asked if the laundry list of moves suggested to implement the new policy's proximity goal contradicted the intent of the three-year plan, Tedesco said it was not working anyway.

"Minimize changes? They moved 24,000 kids last year," Tedesco said. Starting to implement proximity now is "not at all" in conflict, he added.

Most of the meeting Tuesday was devoted to a report from the staff about changes it seeks to make to balance student load in overcrowded schools and to accommodate the opening next year of Willow Creek Elementary School.

Until October, the Student Assignment Committee had been charged with drawing up a new assignment system to implement the new policy for the 2012-13 year. One of the policy supporters on the board, Debra Goldman of Cary, voted with policy opponents Oct. 5 to pull the plug on that, however. The effort was going too fast and had too little input from the community and some board members, she said.

Absent any movement now toward the 2012-13 plan, proponents of the new policy are focusing on ways to begin implementing it next year by moving nodes used in the current system.

Laura Evans, who heads the Growth and Planning Department, said the full board has set a work session for Dec. 14 to discuss the proposals it gets next week. Public hearings will follow, she said, with staff hoping to have a final plan approved by the board at its first meeting in February.

Meanwhile, the board has yet to schedule a work session for which member Kevin Hill, a policy-change opponent, won support two weeks ago. Hill wants members to agree on what it means with terms such as "proximity" and "equity" before it tries to redo the entire assignment system.

Neither Hill nor Goldman were at Tuesday's committee meeting.