Retired Wake County Assistant Superintendent Chuck Dulaney argued Monday night that student assignment can be an effective tool for helping academic achievement.
Dulaney, the first speaker at the Great Schools in Wake Coalition's back-to-schools forum, said that using student assignment to balance schools can provide students the opportunities and support they need to succeed. Along the way, he said the distance that students travel to school is less important than what's at the school they attend
"Student assignment has a lot to do with opportunity," said Dulaney, who oversaw student assignment until he retired March 1. "The mixture of students in schools have a lot to do with the opportunities in those schools."
Dulaney said the two things parents have in common is they want their children to have opportunities and support.
"The opportunity given to my child should be equivalent to the opportunities given to any other child," Dulaney said.
Dulaney listed what he called four generalizations that guided student assignment when he was working in Wake. He acknowledged there can be exceptions.
Dulaney said the first generalization is that middle class families have a very different impact on the life and success of schools than lower income families.
Dulaney said middle class families are thinking about the future, such as how to get their children into college and a professional career. In contrast, he said families struggling to make it day to day tend to lack the long-term thinking because they're thinking about how to survive.
Dulaney said this perspective shows in middle class families more likely to hold schools to high standards. They're also more likely to be involved in their children's education, to be the core of PTAs and helping to raise funds for schools.
"There are lots of things that middle class families can bring to a school that enhance a life of the school for all the children," Dulaney said.
He said the second generalization is that middle class families will leave a school if they don't feel their needs are being met. He said this is particularly noticeable when middle class families feel they've become a small part of a school population and are outnumbered by low income families.
Dulaney said the third generalization is that teachers will migrate away from schools with large low-income populations to schools with strong middle class populations.
“When teachers are confronted with a harder teaching job year after year they will migrate to other schools," Dulaney said.
Dulaney said the fourth generalization is that distance to school has nothing to do with the quality of education received. He said it makes little or no difference if you're one mile, five miles, eight miles or 10 miles from school.
"What really matters is the environment the child will be in at the end of the bus ride," Dulaney said.
Dulaney said what Wake had sought was to try to make the opportunities close so that you don't have a situation where a student can't get advanced math at a school or can't get advanced tutoring.
"We can’t have writers in residence and cultural arts programs in one school and not have writers in residence and cultural arts programs in another school," he said.
So for the past two decades, Dulaney said, Wake had tried to make schools "roughly equivalent" with "a strong middle class base."
Dulaney said that reassignment has been "strictly a function of growth." In addition to filling the new schools, he said they also had to move students to balance crowding.
Dulaney also took a shot at the new school board majority.
"When our Board of Education says they have a master plan that’s going to guarantee stability, I have to demand the evidence they’ll provide stability in a county that will grow 3,000 to 5,000 students a year," Dulaney said.
Dulaney said the only way to avoid reassignment is to have schools that are vastly overcrowded and vastly underenrolled.
During the Q&A, Dulaney faced some tough questioning from the crowd. More than 50 people attended the forum at the YWCA in Raleigh.
For instance, a woman complained her gifted granddaughter hasn't been able to get the Advanced Placement courses she's wanted at Knightdale High School. She said the student's transfer request has been turned down two years in a row.
Dulaney said he'd be willing talk with her after the session to help her with her individual case. But in general, he said the high schools with the most AP classes are magnets like Enloe and Southeast Raleigh to get students to voluntarily attend.
Dulaney said the next largest in terms of AP classes are the most affluent schools like Green Hope and Leesville.
He said the schools with the fewest AP schools are those with the least affluent students like East Wake and Garner. Dulaney said the board's conundrum is that funding AP courses at those schools means taking funding away from places such as Green Hope and Leesville.
But in general, Dulaney said student assignment should allow for schools to have a large enough population to provide students with the desired opportunities.
Dulaney added that you can't make every school a magnet school or else people wouldn't leave their own schools.
The grandmother shot back that she's not talking about magnet schools. She said she's talking about her granddaughter.
Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Great Schools in Wake, interceded to note the new AP partnership between Knightdale and Green Hope. The woman said that none of those new courses are what her granddaughter wants.
Brannon added that high poverty schools require more resources, If there's not enough resources, she said they'll have to take them away from affluent schools, leaving parents there unhappy,
Brannon said unhappy parents are more likely to hold their money even tighter when it comes to things such as bond issues.