Schools blueprint takes shape

Monday, November 1, 2010

GARNER -- Wake County students in neighboring houses could be assigned to different schools on the basis of how well they score on tests and even their projected ability to learn under a new plan being developed with the backing of two influential nonprofits.

Going into detail as specific as whether a student comes from a single-parent family, the emerging blueprint is not official, but is the only student assignment plan known to be on the table now. Wake school board members recently scrapped a 16-zone plan that was being crafted by a committee headed by Republican member John Tedesco.
The unofficial plan, designed by Massachusetts consultant Michael Alves, would give families a range of school choices while dividing the district into a handful of attendance areas that reflect the county's demographics and have similar student achievement levels, officials of the nonprofit Wake Education Partnership said Wednesday. The Wake Education Partnership and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce are co-sponsoring Alves' work.
"Schools are about student achievement," Tim Simmons, vice president of the Wake Education Partnership, said after a presentation to the Garner Chamber of Commerce. "This is a student achievement plan."
Under the still-evolving plan, families would make multiple choices of which school their children would attend. But school administrators would make the final decision, looking at the guiding principles of family choice, proximity to home, stability and student achievement.
The goal would be to avoid having too many low-achieving students at any school. For older students, administrators would look at their test scores. For children entering kindergarten, Simmons said, Wake school administrators might look at such factors as whether the child attended preschool or came from a single-parent home and the education level the parents attained.
Simmons stressed Wednesday that the plan would guarantee that students can stay at the school they're attending at the time the assignment program is implemented. Once students are accepted into a school, they won't be reassigned, he said.
But the Alves plan quickly drew charges Wednesday that it was just another attempt to bring back the diversity policy the school board discarded in May. By factoring in the economic station of students' families, the old policy attempted to keep individual schools from having too many low-income students. Students from poorer backgrounds on average don't do as well academically as their more affluent peers. The long-standing policy had withstood challenges until a new Republican majority emerged from last year's school board elections.

A mirror image

"It's a way to create another proxy," said Tedesco, whose election last fall helped form the majority that killed the diversity policy. "It's still a quota-based system," he said after hearing the presentation.
Tedesco said that most of the Alves plan mirrors what his committee had been working on before the Oct. 5 vote to kill that effort, a measure made possible by Republican board Vice Chairwoman Debra Goldman's break from the majority. But the differences, including the use of academic achievement as a factor in assignments, amounted to a deal breaker for Tedesco.
"It's just a repackaging of what they did before," added Kathleen Brennan, a co-founder of Wake CARES, a parent group that backed the new school board members elected last year. "The Wake Education Partnership and the Greater Raleigh Chamber just want to keep schools balanced and not help individual students."
It's also uncertain whether the school board will embrace this new plan.
School board member Carolyn Morrison found elements of the plan "promising" and predicted that the board will be able to reach a compromise on student assignment.
"It will all work out," said Morrison, a Democrat who attended the Wednesday presentation.
But Republican school board member Chris Malone said the plan was "dead on arrival." He said it would be "hypocritical" of the Democrats and Goldman to use the plan when it still has zones and doesn't have base schools.
"Mr. Alves should buy his wife a mink with the fee for the plan, because it's the only good thing that will come from it," Malone said.
Simmons, the Wake Education Partnership spokesman, denied that the Alves plan was an attempt to restore the old diversity policy or to create quotas at schools. He said keeping schools from being swamped with low-achieving students would improve expectations and make it easier to retain high-quality principals and teachers. Orage Quarles III, president and publisher of The News & Observer, is a member of the board of trustees of the Wake Education Partnership, an advocacy group that had been a strong supporter of the school system's discarded diversity policy.
Simmons said the plan being developed by Alves would still be governed by the new student assignment policy adopted in May that eliminates socioeconomic diversity as a factor in determining where the 143,000 students attend class in North Carolina's largest school district.
Simmons said Alves is basing his plan on the board's priorities of proximity, stability and family choice, while also adding in student achievement as a factor.
"There is no point in our providing the school board a plan that is immediately outside the box of what they have said they wanted," he said.
Alves is working to avoid the creation of any school population with large numbers of low-achieving students, a potential outcome of the zone plan that the school board had been considering. The plan Tedesco's committee was developing would have divided Wake into 16 community school zones.
In contrast, the Alves plan envisions two to four much larger attendance areas, Simmons said. He said having fewer areas would make it easier to balance achievement levels across the zones and in individual schools.
One of the reasons Goldman said she broke with her Republican colleagues on Oct. 5, fracturing the majority, was because the Tedesco plan didn't include guaranteed base school assignments. Goldman did not return calls Wednesday.
Families still wouldn't have a guaranteed base school in the Alves plan. Instead, every family would have a "base option" they would have to exercise in order to apply to a school near where they live. Simmons said that option would likely be the closest school to a family's home.
But Simmons also said that crowding at a particular school or a conflict with other principles guiding the plan, could mean that a family wouldn't get an assignment to their "base option."
Distance counts

In all cases, the starting point for sorting out who gets priority for an assignment will be whether the family lives within 1.5 miles of the school. But the plan doesn't provide absolute guarantees on assignments.
Simmons said his group expects to present a detailed plan with cost estimates to the school board in December. Alves, Simmons said, was told not to increase transportation costs in his model.
Any student assignment plan eventually drawn up by the school board will have to balance goals that are factional priorities with a projected shortfall of about $100 million in next year's Wake schools budget.
"If there's a plan to improve stability, that makes it more palatable, but if it costs a lot more money, that's going to be a hard sell," said former Wake Commissioner Yevonne Brannon, with the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a nonprofit group that backed the old diversity policy.
"I think this is going to cost more money. I'm not saying I'm against that, but we're going to have to figure out whether as a community we are prepared to pay for being more involved in decision-making."


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