by Bob Geary
Strap on your skates, public participators: Wake Schools Superintendent Tony Tata put a competing pair of school assignment plans on the table today along with a schedule that would see him recommending one or the other to the school board in about three weeks.
In other words, time to do your reading — and put your thinking cap on.
Tata has his staff hustling to schedule nine public meetings next week — nine feedback sessions — probably on just two nights, Tuesday and Thursday.
The idea is to hold a meeting in a high school in every school board member's district.
"We are not near finished this process," Tata insisted, and they won't be finished, he added, even after he chooses a single plan to take to the board.
He may not be finished. But he's closing in on it. [Re-reading this, I should say that whichever plan is chosen, many details are TBD by October, when Tata wants a final plan "shrink-wrapped" for public consumption. Once that's done, and especially if "Blue" is the choice, the marketing will be critical and require several months so that parents are equipped to start making their choices in February.]
Tata briefed reporters this morning on the "Blue" plan and the "Green" plan on condition that we not go live with our stories until 4 p.m., when the Wake County Public Schools System (WCPSS) website is scheduled to go live with a chapter-verse-and-bibliography version.
At 4 o'clock, parents can access the website, type in their address, and see what their kids would be offered as choices under the Blue and Green Plans, respectively. (And ladies and gentlemen, it's live.)
Here's a once-over of the competing options (and btw, the N&O reversed their blue and green this morning, at least in the edition that was delivered to me; the Blue plan, in fact, is the one called Community-Based Choice, while the Green Plan is the one called Base Schools Achievement):
(1) The Blue Plan is a variation on the controlled-choice idea presented last fall by Michael Alves, the consultant hired by the Wake Education Partnership and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. It has the additional flourish that every student's list of choices would include at least one high-achieving school.
More on the Blue plan later, but the way Tata talked this morning, he's leaning to the Blue plan and most of the teachers and school administrators he's consulted like the Blue plan better too. The reason: It offers much greater flexibility for responding to the county's forecasted high growth rate.
I also liked the Alves concept when he presented it but worried that, as executed by our school board, it might or might not preserve diversity in every school. I still have some qualms, but Tata's task force has improved on Alves' basic framework, I'd say. And unlike our school board majority, Tata not only uses the word diversity, he seems to mean it when it says diversity is important.
(2) The Green Plan is a variation of the existing, nodes-based assignment plan. The difference? Mainly that socioeconomic diversity (poverty) would not be a factor in which nodes are assigned to which schools. However, student achievement would be a factor — that is, neighborhoods (nodes) with low achievement levels would be identified, and assignments would be made so that no school fell 10 percent or more below the WCPSS average in terms of student proficiency.
While the Green Plan's 10 percent figure would seem to be a harder — stronger — standard for maintaining diversity than anything in the Blue Plan, in fact Tata said the Blue Plan will also have a floor below which a school will not be allowed to fall.
In addition, it occurs to me that because every student would be offered a base assignment (actually, a choice between a traditional-calendar base school and a year-round base), with proximity to home the main factor, that 10 percent standard would be very difficult to attain — and harder and harder to sustain as time goes on and people move to be in nodes with "better" schools.
A few other points Tata made that are worth repeating:
a) The current magnet schools would be retained with at least as many magnet seats (11.750) in them as now; Tata's budget — so far, pending legislative cuts to state aid — has money for up to three new magnet schools, but Tata said he doesn't intend to dilute the existing schools by spreading their seats more widely.
b) All of the projected 146,657 students for 2011-12 are guaranteed that if they want to stay in their current school, and they haven't aged out of it, they can; any sibling coming into the same age range of K-5, 6-8, 9-12 is guaranteed that if they want the same school, they'll get it.
c) However, the Green Plan includes an option for the school system to reassign a student once within a given age range to accommodate growth or fill a new school. Under the Blue Plan, once a student chooses an elementary school option, h/she is guaranteed to stay in that school unless wanting to choose a different one. Also, feeder patterns are guaranteed from the chosen ES to a designated MS to a designated HS "when possible." In a few cases, a middle school may feed more than one high school; then, "assignments will be structured such that elementary cohorts stay together through K-12."
The key to the success of the Blue Plan, Tata indicated — and I certainly think this is true — is establishing enough attractive magnet schools in high-poverty neighborhoods to integrate them ...
... and then to designate enough seats in high-achieving non-magnet schools so that the "displaced" kids from high-poverty neighborhoods — the ones for whom there's no room in the magnet schools because of the magnet students — don't all end up in the same small set of "other" schools.
Tata called this "the splash zone" — it used to be called the "rim schools" — but it's the idea that you create high-poverty schools by busing low-income kids to a few schools outside of, but very close to, the high-poverty neighborhood they came from.
To avoid creating a splash zone under the Blue Plan, Tata said, it's likely that the parents of kids being bused out of high-poverty neighborhoods would be strongly encouraged to choose the best available high-achievement school rather than simply the nearest alternative.
He compared it to employees and their 401(k) retirement plans. When 401(k)s were new, participation rates by employees were low because the choice of where to invest their money was left up to them and many didn't know what to do.
Later, companies designated specific investment choices for employees unless they opted out, and their participation rates shot up.
Tata said the same approach could be used with parents who feel unable to make the best choice for their kids. The system would make it for them, offering a high-achievement school as the "default" unless they insisted on a different school.
Discussing diversity, Tata pointed to the $13 million now spent on magnet schools over and above what they'd receive if they weren't magnets as a huge bargain — it's about 1 percent of the system's $1.2 billion budget to attract the 8 percent of Wake's students who sit in magnet seats (11,750 out of 146,000).
Contrast that to what it costs to lift up a failing school once you've allowed to fail —
Next year, Tata said, Wake will use an additional $10 million from the federal "Race to the Top" program to supplement the budgets of four low-performing schools — Barwell Road, Brentwood, Creech Road and Wilburn, all elementary schools — that will henceforth be called Renaissance Schools.
It's a lot cheaper to avoid creating low-poverty schools than to save them later, he said.
He makes no assumption, Tata went on, that diversity alone produces better results for any individual student. But diverse schools do save money — resources — and abundant research shows it.
Let schools slip, Tata said, "and we'll have to pour the money in" to fix them.