My Convertible Life

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Can I Have My School Assignment Plan in Turquoise, Please?

If you're starting to think that I spend a lot of time soapboxing blathering on and on writing about our public schools, you're probably right (just click the "school" or "politics" or "soapbox" labels from the cloud on the left to see them all). But there's a lot going on here to write about -- and sometimes (like this week) I get requests from friends (yes, plural) to share thoughts on these issues.

So brace yourself -- Dr. Convertible Life is about to step up to the podium again. Just remember that some of you asked for it. The rest of you can just re-read yesterday's post and have a good cry. 

Here's my short answer to questions about the two proposed student assignment plans put forth by the Wake County Public School System:
  1. If you like the school you get assigned to and/or if your child has a good experience there, you'll love whichever plan gets picked.
  2. If you don't like the school you get assigned to and/or if your child has a bad experience there, you'll hate whichever plan gets picked.
  3. Either way, there's no perfect solution that will make everyone happy and you're guaranteed to piss off at least one loud group of people (if not more).
The whole thing makes me wonder why anyone would ever want to be a school superintendent or run for school board. Delusions of grandeur? An intense love of hate mail? A desperate need to be on public-access television?

Anyway, here's my longer answer, in case you're looking for more:
  • Both plans offer a grandfathering option -- if you're already in school and you like it there, you can stay and any younger siblings can come, too. The WCPSS website adds that they'll continue to provide the same transportation as well, which sounds like it could get complicated and expensive, depending on the choices people make. (See #1 above.)
  • The Blue Plan appears to offer a lot of choices for parents in selecting an elementary school, but you would no longer have a base school assignment. For real estate agents and homebuilders, that's going to be tricky at best -- there's no promise that links a certain address to a certain school. If you move into a neighborhood after everyone else has already picked their schools and the two closest schools are overcrowded, you will get bumped to a school that is farther away in order to find an available seat.
  • Having all those choices with the Blue Plan is only nice if a) you like the schools on your list and b) the district assigns you to your top choice. Even with a "choice plan," the district still holds the final say in your school assignment. There's no such thing as a total choice plan because, at some point, schools get full and they'll have to send kids somewhere else. If you don't like all the choices available to you, does it still feel like a choice? (See #2 above.)
  • They're suggesting that 90 percent of people will get their first or second choice with this plan. That might be true, but it still only works if a) you like the first two schools on your list and b) you're not in the other 10 percent. (See #3 above.)
  • Priority placements under this plan will first be given to siblings of current students and then to students who live closest to the school. That means that if there are lots of families with lots of siblings living within 1.5 miles of a school and you live 2 miles away, that school will probably be full before they get to your name. (See #1-3 above... you get the idea.)
  • As new schools are opened, they will be filled by choice only under the Blue Plan. No students will be reassigned from an existing school to a new school. It's hard for me to imagine how this will work (like what if only 12 2nd-graders choose that school -- will they be able to hire a 2nd-grade teacher for only 12 kids?), but presumably there would be enough people who want to be at a shiny new school that is perhaps closer to their house than whatever school they were attending.
  • The Green Plan retains the base assignment, which includes a year-round and a traditional calendar option, and is essentially a tweak of the current assignment plan. It uses the existing node system, which is complicated and illogical at times (like when the node line dividing two schools goes down the side of my yard and bi-sects my one-block street).
  • If your base school is a year-round school and you prefer a traditional calendar school, you are guaranteed a spot in your traditional calendar option with the Green Plan. That option, however, is determined by the district and may or may not be close to home.
  • Families will still have a list of magnet options to consider and could apply for those schools through the magnet lottery. In some ways, the magnet options in the Green Plan give you just as many choices (if not more) than in the Blue Plan.
  • While both plans mention a strategy for ensuring that no school is overwhelmed by low-performing students, the Green Plan identifies more specifically how students from low-performing areas will be placed in high-performing schools.
  • No student will be reassigned more than once in any given grade span (K-5, 6-8 or 9-12) under this plan. Some reassignments may be necessary to fill new schools or relieve overcrowding, but current students and siblings could still grandfather in to stay at their existing school.
So I think what it all comes down to is this:
  1. If you're already in a school and you like it there, nothing changes. You are free to form an opinion about which plan is best for the county as a whole without worrying about what it will mean for your child's personal school assignment.
  2. If you are comfortable without a seat in a guaranteed base school, then you'll probably like having the "choices" offered in the Blue Plan.
  3. If you would rather know that your house (and maybe your street or your neighborhood) is assigned to a specific school, then you're probably more comfortable with the "stability" offered in the Green Plan.
  4. Regardless of which plan gets chosen, you'll still have kids within a neighborhood (or even within a single block) going to different traditional calendar, year-round, magnet, charter, parochial and private schools.
And now here's the real bottom line:

I don't have an answer about which plan is best.

We've had a good school year at our year-round base assignment. The schedule suits us well and Junius has learned a lot. We've invested time, energy and money in our school and its PTA, knowing that commitment from parents makes a difference for Juni and all his classmates.

I had hoped for a magnet school -- one that offered languages and extra arts classes -- but we weren't selected and I hate that he's missing all those extras. Junius attends school with one of his best friends, but not with lots of other kids from our neighborhood who get to walk to school together. If we lived in the house next door, we'd be walking to that (magnet) school instead. And even though we've had a good year, I'm still annoyed about that.

The irony of it all for me is that nothing changes for my address in either plan. Regardless of what the board decides, I would still have the same menu of "choices" available as I have right now. The difference is only whether I can request schools through ranking my options or applying to the magnet lottery, but the results are the same.

I find this fact both disappointing and comforting. The former because it seems like the whole assignment debate is all sound and fury, signifying nothing; the latter because at least I'm not bracing for personal change.

What would really solve this whole question? Living in neighborhoods that are racially and socio-economically diverse and ensuring that every single school in the entire county is a great place to teach and learn. But no student assignment plan can accomplish that task.

Map image from WCPSS.
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