This week marks what could be a potentially major week in the history of Wake County student assignment.
As noted in today's article, the school board's policy committee will meet Tuesday to begin discussion of rewriting the student assignment policy to reintroduce diversity as one of the components. On Saturday, the school board will go over the 2013-14 draft student assignment plan that could potentially be rewritten to reflect the diversity changes.
One of the questions the school board will face is how to word the diversity component in the assignment policy. Should it be a general statement, as proposed by staff, or a more explicit document that would have a variety of income and achievement targets?
In line with the board's June directive, the assignment policy strips wording about "community-based schools" and replaces it with assignments "within a reasonable distance" of a student's home.
In terns of the diversity/achievement portion, the staff wording is pretty general. It reads that "in building a base assignment plan consideration will be given to avoiding high concentrations of low-performing students in a school."
In the distance section, the policy reads "assignments should be made to avoid high concentrations of low-performing students with consideration of proximity to residence."
Contrast that with this draft policy from board member Jim Martin, who chairs the policy committee. It's part of the list of comments that Martin and fellow board members Susan Evans and Christine Kushner had provided to staff before the plan was released.
"The assignment of students to schools should reflect the population of Wake County, creating learning environments that challenge all students to achieve and provide the opportunity for all students to learn from and contribute to its diverse culture," according to Martin's draft assignment policy.
To help achieve that "diverse culture," Martin's draft policy lists a number of student achievement targets:
"Consistent with the Board's strategic goal to eliminate achievement gaps and the shared responsibility to meet student achievement goals, this student assignment process establishes as targets the following goals:
* The composite proficiency of the lowest quartile of students at any school should not be below 50 percent proficient.
* The composite proficiency of the highest quartile of students at any school should not be below 80 percent proficient.
* The number of students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) assigned to any school should be within +/- 10 percent of the Wake County average.
* The number of students requiring Individual Education Plans (IEP) assigned to any school should be within +/- 10 percent of the Wake County average.
* Using an appropriate socioeconomic indicator, such as median family income in an assignment area, low-wealth assignment areas will be recognized. The percentage of students assigned to any individual school from low-wealth assignment areas should be within +/- 10 percent of the average number of students coming from low-wealth assignment areas in Wake County.
Whenever these targets are exceeded, the Board directs the Superintendent to review the reasons for exceeding the target, study trends across several years, and recommend ways in which the student assignment process could help achieve the targets."
Martin suggests using median family income from Census or real estate data because Wake can't use school lunch data any longer for assignments.
The IEP component refers to special-education students.
Martin said last week he still supports the goals in his draft.
How will the other board members, particularly Martin's fellow Democrats, line up on the issue?
"Our directive indicates that Student Achievement be the first consideration followed by stability and then by proximity and I would like the rules to flow from Student Achievement downward," Evans wrote in her comments to staff. "I feel that was has been presented thus far in the drafts is geared towards proximity first and then offering other fixes to address student achievement challenges."
"Use student assignment as a tool to build healthy school populations that are 10 percentage points above or below district average as a target," Kushner wrote in her comments to staff. "As much as is possible, the demographics of assignment areas assigned to a school should reflect the demographics of the entire district."
How will board chairman Kevin Hill and board vice chairman Keith Sutton go on the question of Martin's targets?
Sutton said “in theory” that Martin’s proposal is the right thing to do. But Sutton said it might be very difficult to "operationalize" Martin’s ideas so a more general policy might be better.
“Sometimes you have policies that are very descriptive,” Sutton said. “Other times you want to give more flexibility and leeway on how to implement it.”
Hill said he agreed on the need to avoid having too many low-performing children in a school. But he said that some “give and take” may be needed on what’s included in the policy.
From the perspective of Republican board members, busing for achievement is something they're leery of backing.
"Student achievement is vital; that is why we are here," said board member Debra Goldman. "But when I start to hear about assigning schools as a way of managing student achievement, I think they are missing the point. Achievement has to be at the forefront of everything that we as a board of education do, Busing for achievement, not so much."
Goldman added that she wants a neighborhood-school component in the new plan.
"I'd like to see the end result be something that can quell the fears of the county, something that gives families a chance to go to their neighborhood schools," Goldman said. "I don't view children as the resources that should be moved. High-quality teachers and high-quality construction materials are the resources that should be moved."
Board member Chris Malone argued that adopting achievement goals like what Martin proposed would just “aggravate parents.”
“If you raise the student achievement pillar too high, that’s a problem,” Malone said. “You’re going to have people thinking their kids will be moved if they’re too smart or too challenged.”
Malone also argued that the board majority is moving too fast to adopt the policies and get the new base plan in place for next year.
Board attorney Jonathan Blumberg said at last week's meeting that the various policy changes would need to be adopted before the plan could be approved.
“It took us eight months to put together the choice plan, and people were claiming we were going too quickly,” Malone said. “Now we see them trying to get it done in two months. I find it to be quite irresponsible and outrageous.”
Instead of rushing, Malone said the majority should take their time with the changes. For next school year, Malone said it would be better to just make some revisions to the choice plan.
But the Democratic members insisted they can adopt the policy changes and adopt the plan in time for next year without rushing the process. They did concede that the staff-proposed Oct. 30 deadline for adoption of the plan is "ambitious."
“We’ll do it correctly,” Hill said. “I’ve seen staff do things over the years correctly and quickly.”
Sutton said there's enough of a "cushion" to get the plan in place for next year even if takes two months to get it adopted.
“If we’re really focused, make sure we’re doing our due diligence, we will be able to get it done,” Kushner added.