Schools plan wins early nod

Monday, February 14, 2011

BY T. KEUNG HUI - Staff Writer (

After more than a year of intense debate that has brought harsh words and even arrests, a radically new model for assigning students to Wake County's schools is getting support from different factions on the school board.
The proposal, presented Friday by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the Wake Education Partnership, is billed as a way to let more families choose to attend neighborhood schools while also offering something to those who want diversity in student assignments. Instead of being assigned to a specific school based on their addresses, families would rank where they'd want to go from a list of school choices. Efforts would be made to prevent schools from having too many low-performing students.
Republican and Democratic school board members said they're willing to study the new proposal, known as "controlled choice."
"It's a very interesting first step," said school board member Anne McLaurin. "It has a lot of data and a lot of well-thought-out research."
School board member John Tedesco favorably compared the new model with the one he had been working on to divide the county into 16 assignment zones. "This is a plan that's 80 to 90 percent right," he said.
School board Vice Chairwoman Debra Goldman, whose October swing vote killed Tedesco's zone plan, suggested that the new proposal be referred to Superintendent Tony Tata for staff review.
"It gives us a starting point," added school board Chairman Ron Margiotta.
The new plan comes out at a time of uncertainty about student assignment in the state's largest school district.
The GOP school board majority voted last spring to eliminate the use of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in student assignments. Instead, the majority favored sending children to neighborhood schools. But Goldman's defection on the Tedesco plan left the school board without a long-term proposal of its own for implementing a new student assignment policy.  In effect for 2012-13
Staff members will be developing a long-term assignment plan that would be in effect in the 2012-13 school year. Goldman said Friday she wants the board to speed approval of the plan so that parents will know by the end of this summer their assignments for next year and have time to prepare.
Goldman added that she's not necessarily saying that Friday's plan is the one that should be used.
With the school board at a standstill, the chamber of commerce and the Wake Education Partnership presented the plan Friday that was developed by education consultant Michael Alves. Orage Quarles III, president and publisher of The News & Observer, is on the board of trustees of the Wake Education Partnership.
Alves was asked to develop a plan based on four guiding principles - proximity, stability, family choice and student achievement. All of those except student achievement are factors that are part of the school board's revised student assignment policy.
Using those four principles, families would be given a variety of schools to choose from, based on where they live. A computer program would evaluate various factors to determine which school a student would get.
"It puts a large part of control in the parents' hands, which is what they asked for," said Steve Parrott, Wake Education Partnership president.
Both the leadership of the Wake Education Partnership and the chamber had supported Wake's old diversity policy. But they said they were mindful of the board's desire to send students to schools closer to where they live. They pointed out how people who ask for their closest school would get priority under the controlled choice model.
At the same time, both groups said efforts to limit the percentages of low-performing students at schools would produce diversity.
"Diversity matters in all of our lives," said Gary Joyner, chairman of the chamber's board. "We expect diversity to be a natural outgrowth of this plan. But this plan does not mandate diversity."
Tim Simmons, vice president of communications for Wake Education Partnership, said student achievement would be considered in determining which schools to offer to families.
Student achievement - in the form of test scores or whether a child entering kindergarten had gone to preschool - also would be used in helping to determine individual student selections. But Parrott stressed that parents of low-performing children who want to get into their closest school would get their choice if seats are available.
School board member Chris Malone said he has questions about whether the use of student achievement is a proxy for restoring the old diversity policy. But he said he's willing to look at the plan.
"This is coming from groups that aren't partial to the [school board] majority, so I'm keeping a wary eye," Malone said. "It's worth it to keep it in consideration and to give it to staff to look at."
Harvey Schmitt, president of the chamber, said he expects the school board to review and change the plan if it's adopted.
"This is not the Alves plan," Schmitt said. "This is the community's plan. This is just the starting point for the conversation."


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