by Bob Geary
(Update: Will the Alves/Chamber/WEP Plan avert the creation of high-poverty schools? I think that's a huge question — it's THE question — especially since the plan includes no hard trigger to signal that student achievement levels in a school are unacceptably low. I've added something about this in the form of a comment at the end.)
As of 10 a.m., when the veil is officially lifted, the proposed student assignment plan we've been calling the Alves Plan (for consultant Michael Alves) should henceforth be known as the Wake Education Partnership's plan, or perhaps the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce/WEP Plan. Because, having worked with Alves, it's now these two organizations recommending a new way of doing student assignments to the Wake school board. At 10, the Wakeschoolchoice.com website is supposed to go live with lots of details.)
The WEP/Chamber plan is, above all, a parents' choice plan, though not a wide-open one; it's also a proximity and stability plan. Interestingly, it contains no assignment zones at all — none — nor any assured "base assignment" schools. That will be controversial. It also strikes me as the best way out of perpetual fights over where the zones lines should be drawn.
And diversity? The parent-choice method will "promote diversity," its sponsors say, but indirectly rather than as a goal in and of itself.
Chew on this: With parents choosing schools, any "bad" schools that develop will either need to be fixed in a hurry — before their bad rep means nobody's choosing them — or else they'll have to be abandoned and taxpayers forced (expensively) to supply a new school somewhere else.
This, then is the so-called "student achievement" goal in the mix — as diversity's proxy — along with proximity and stability. The authors don't put a fixed number of the achievement goal, however (e.g, "no school below 70 percent performing at grade level" or whatever the measure is), unlike the old assignment policies which sought to maintain diversity by keeping free & reduced lunch-eligible students at less than 40 percent of any school's student body. Will this work?
More on the concept below.
The choice idea: Every parent (and child) would be offered a list of at least 10 elementary schools to which they can apply, and 5 middle schools and 5 high schools. Each list would contain year-round and traditional calendar choices and at least two magnet school choices. Parents would be asked to rank their top five choices from the list of the 10 elementary schools and to rank the 5 middle and high schools in order of preference.
Would you necessarily get your first choice? No. But you'd be highly likely to get either your first or second choice, according to Tim Simmons, the WEP's expert vice president who worked closely with Alves on the plan. About 80-85 percent of parents will get their first choices, and 93 percent either their first or second choices, based on Alves' experience with similar plans he's done for other school systems around the country and the simulations Alves, Simmons and the helpful computer geeks at SAS ran.
On that last point, this is not merely a hypothetical plan. WEP and the Chamber have put together possible lists of 10 & 5 & 5 schools for every neighborhood in Wake County. The lists aren't supposed to be perfect, and Simmons said that if the school board accepts the basic framework, there's much work ahead in tweaking those lists and making sure every child "has a solid list of choices."
That may, in some cases, require that for a given neighborhood, the list may expand to more than 10 elementary schools and/or more than 5 middle schools or high schools, he said.
So this would be a parent-driven assignment process, not one driven (as current assignments are) by the school board itself or by Wake school officials.
Other important points:
1) Stability. One you're in a school, you stay there — if you want to — to the end. Only at the entry points (kindergarten for elementary, 6th grade for middle schools, 9th grade for high schools) does the parental-selection process come into play. That is, of course, unless you want it to.
1A) Ultra-stability. Whatever school you're in now, you're "grandfathered" in it and can stay to the end if you want. Only at the next level (6th, 9th) will you be asked to select. "If you're happy, you can stay" is the principle, Simmons says. "There's not going to be any mass reassignment from this plan." Rather, the plan seeks a gradual transition from the old way of doing things to the new, parental-choice way.
2) Proximity: Applications to a school would be accepted according to a rank order of factors, and proximity — how close you live to the school — would be the first on the list. Preference would be given to students who live within 1 1/2 mile of the chosen school. Interestingly, about half of Wake students don't live within 1 1/2 miles of any school, and of course the odds go down as you get older (i.e., there are fewer middle schools than elementary schools, and fewer high schools than middle schools).
For students who don't live within 1 1/2 miles of a school, they'd be given preference at whatever school is closest to them, Simmons said.
3) Magnet schools. The recommendation is, keep the magnet system intact. It's working; don't mess with it. Currently, some 10,000 students are coming "in" to the downtown magnets from somewhere "outside." To make room for them in the magnet schools, about 5,900 students who would otherwise be assigned to those schools are bused "out" from Raleigh — most of them from historically black Southeast Raleigh — to other schools. (Do the math: Without the magnet students, these downtown schools would be half-empty.)
Currently, too, those "bused" SE Raleigh students aren't given a choice of schools or access to magnet schools. In the new plan, they'd be given both ... every student would be offered a list of 10-5-5 schools and it would include at least two magnet options.
3A) Southeast Raleigh. Plans based on proximity and stability, AKA a "neighborhood schools" plan, bumps up against the fact that low-income families are concentrated in the eastern Wake County and especially in SE Raleigh and along the Capital Boulevard corridor. So, won't schools in these neighborhoods by default be chosen predominantly by low-income families, resulting in high-poverty schools that will be seen as "bad" schools?
3B) Student Achievement. This is where the student achievement goal needs to come in, the WEP/Chamber report says. Once a school gets a reputation for lousy achievement, it's almost impossible to turn it around. So what's the magic number? Well, there isn't one, Simmons says, but when the number of parents choosing a school falls below its capacity, that's your danger sign. 70% would be a good number, he says. 95% would be even better.
I took it from our conversation that the sponsors were loathe to put a number of this goal that wasn't the school board's own number, first of all; and secondly, any number tends to be honored in the breach, as with the 40 percent diversity goal that slipped to 50 percent and then 60 percent ...
Here's what the executive summary of the report says:
"A recent proposal by the school board's Student Assignment Committee suggested at least 70 percent of the students in every school [should] perform at or above grade level. We believe that is educationally sound. The school system in past years set a goal suggesting that 95 percent of all students perform at or above grade level — a laudable goal."
What's the situation now? 85 percent of Wake students perform at or above grade level on state math tests, and 76 percent on state reading tests.
Bottom line: The lists of schools that students in SE Raleigh get won't be as gilt-edged as the lists given to students in Apex and Cary. No way around that. So the challenge for the school system, under this plan, would be to make sure that: (1) all students get a list of good schools, and (2) schools drawing heavily from low-income neighborhoods are given the staffing — good principles, good teachers — and the money they need to do the job of keeping achievement levels high.
Otherwise, as Simmons says, you'll get in Wake County what Charlotte-Mecklenburg got when it dropped its diversity policy and moved to a "neighborhood schools" plan: Over-capacity suburban schools with lots of classroom trailers on the grounds, and empty downtown schools now slated to be abandoned.
4) Lottery. Under the parent-choice process, if there are more applications for a school than it has seats available, the following criteria would be used, in order, to select students: a) sibling goes there; b) proximity; c) school type desired — i.e., magnet, non-magnet, year-round calendar; d) whether the school's student achievement goal is helped or hurt. If needed, a lottery would be used to make the final sort.
5) Cost. Simmons says this plan was put together in close consultation with Wake's (and state DPI) transportation planners. They're confident, he says, that this plan won't add to Wake's school-bus costs and may well save some money.
How will this plan be received by the school board, and especially the 5-4 conservative majority? That remains to be seen. One of the five, Debra Goldman, has split with his four allies lately on student assignment issues, arguing that every student should be guaranteed a "base" school. This plan doesn't do that; rather, it guarantees every student a list of schools, a choice, and a good shot at getting their first or second choice.
The old Student Assignment Committee headed by John Tedesco was trying to fashion a plan not terribly different from this one, but with fixed zone lines and no student achievement or other diversity goal.
Acceptance of this plan will hinge on whether Goldman or Tedesco — and preferably both of them — are willing to sign on to this compromise approach, either as part of the majority-five members or in concert with the minority-four members who are likely to give this plan a good reception.
Is my guess.
New Supt. Tony Tata? A wild card. He may have his own ideas —