My Convertible Life

Monday, September 24, 2012

Student Assignment 2.0

The devil is in the details.

That ought to be the tagline for the Wake County student assignment plan.

The latest twist in the on-going (and seemingly impossible) search for the perfect plan involved returning a base school assignment tied to each address in the county. Until last year, every house in the district was automatically assigned to a specific school -- if you didn't apply to a magnet school or some other option, then that's where your kids went to school (we'll call this Old Plan).

For this year's plan (we'll call it New Plan 1.0), the school board did away with base assignments, having every family rank their preferred schools from a list of options (based on your address) and then placing them depending on certain criteria and available seats. Doing so gave the district more flexibility in filling available seats and avoiding wildly overcrowded schools.

Real estate agents (as a group) and some families protested this element of the new plan, saying it was unreasonable for newcomers to the area to be able to buy a house without knowing  where their kids would go to school. The new approach also meant that, depending on a variety of factors, it was possible to live across the street from a school and not get a seat there. You can see why people were frustrated.

So this summer the school board instructed district staff to revise New Plan 1.0 to reinstate base assignments tied to addresses. And regardless of the plan, they've promised to allow anyone already in a school to stay at that school until they graduate. Sounds like they're being responsive to legitimate complaints and frustrations, right?

Enter those devilish details.

Because when the district released the base assignment plan (we'll call it New Plan 2.0) on Friday, it turns out that they didn't simply go back to the school assignments that people remembered from Old Plan. In some cases, they got new assignments that pulled them away from where they were used to attending. And that left lots of people with a big surprise (translation: trauma) when they plugged their address into the online school finder Friday night..

So while I'm quoting cliches, I'll add You Can't Win for Losing as the clear motto for the Wake County Public School System. Seems that every time they try to adjust for one problem, they create six new ones in its place.

This scenario may not have played out in every neighborhood, but I don't think mine is the only one. With New Plan 2.0, here's what I think the school district was trying to do:
a. Keep a whole neighborhood together instead of splitting between two elementary schools.
b. Keep people at schools close to home, even if not at their absolute closest school.
c. Connect elementary schools to middle schools on the same calendar.
d. Relieve overcrowding at one school to fill empty seats at another school.

These all sound like good things, except that (ah, there's those details again) their solution was to assign most of my neighbors to:
a. A different school than the one they (or their address) have attended for many, many years.
b. An elementary school that is less than 2 miles away but would require riding the bus or at least crossing a very busy 6-lane street with no crossing guard instead of the school that they can currently walk less than a mile to.
c. A middle school that is 9 miles away and on a year-round calendar even though there's a traditional calendar middle school in our walk zone.

Yeah. They're not happy.

There are bigger policy issues at stake here -- how do we ensure that every school is a great school, how do we support teachers and principals to do great work, how do we help students get the attention and services they need, how do we ensure that no school is overwhelmed by poverty? But no one can think about those big questions because all they hear is more change, more uncertainty, more arbitrary decisions.

Oh, and tomorrow it sounds like the school board might fire the superintendent. Because nothing helps calm nervous or angry parents like a sudden leadership vacuum.

Oy vey.


  1. Great post. I'd like to add this -

    School “choice” by whatever brand people want to call it, never works. Just apply the math to the “market forces”. Successful schools will always attract more students than they can seat. Less successful schools will most likely have empty seats. Someone is always unhappy or a school is disadvantaged.

    The new system as you stated is clearly a gigantic lurch back to the left, likely pissing off more people than the current plan did.

    But no one should blame Tony Tata. He and his team have worked diligently trying to fulfill the impossible dream. Surprisingly, many dreams were filled. And many families are very happy with their school assignments - including mine.

    The current assignment policy -- with known biases against newcomers -- was rushed to implementation at the direction of the newly formulated (Democratic) school board (which I voted for). This same board could have delayed implementation in October looking for a better, more stable solution. But no, this board punted good policy in a brazen failure of political courage. It chose to implement the current plan, knowing it would fail, then hold it up as a poster child for failed Republican policy.

    Now the Board wants to pin it all on TT and oust him for the county's busing problems, forgetting that WCPSS has not been fully funded for years now thanks to our beloved (sarcasm) county commissioners.

    The Board needs to get a hold of itself. Take a deep breath and think about parents and families instead of politics and pride. Dems take note: Wake County cannot go back. Repubs listen up: we need fair policies for all kids. Both of you need a "cranial-rectal-extraction". TT has demonstrated that he can serve, given adequate communication and resources. He cares about kids in all schools - you don't take the job to screw up the system.

    As the Board should not hasten to throw Tata out, we should not hasten to throw this board out. Stability, thoughtfulness and inclusiveness will create a more informed assignment policy.

    I just hope we get it.

    1. Yeah. What you said. Going to have to post that tomorrow as a guest blogger.

  2. And so the whining gets louder. i totally get your point and yet there's others who are so upset. A woman who had be walk her thru the assignment process last years sent me a irate email because her assignment reverted to the old school, the one she so desperately wanted to get away from.

    My neighborhood has never been stable because for years it lacked any "close school" and now only has a walkable elementary. My node has historically been bused out to low-performing schools to even out then out. When the old plan my neighborhood stop had 6 buses after plan 1.0 we went to 9 buses. my neighbors just look at it like its par for the course, but others are complaining about how their neighborhood has 5 buses now.

    no plan will ever make everybody happy, and Tata who been on the job 1 year putting in place a plan 1 board told him too and then a 2nd plan a different board told him to in as many years doesn't help anybody. I hate people calling for his head, I've met him, talked to him and and am so happy with what he's done for disabled students in the district. The board irks me to no end but its not going to change with the partisan voting, and no at-large seats.

  3. Great job Cyndi! Should have hired you to write my comment letter. many times can we file a complaint on the WCPSS website? Daily? Only joking!! What a nightmare this is turning into. ~Connie

    1. oops, sorry!!!! new to responding and wasn't even thinking!


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