It's not an understatement to say that Thursday's Wake County school board discussion on the student assignment policy was a free-wheeling discussion.
The variety of topics discussed, such as how explicit to make an achievement goal and what to say about socioeconomic diversity, set the stage for the long process to follow to come up with a revised policy.
Unlike most committee meetings, nearly every board member including new appointee Tom Benton attended. That's a sign of how important the discussion was viewed.
Interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey opened up the joint meeting of the student achievement and policy committees by saying staff wants parameters to work under as the policy is fleshed out.
"We want to get in a situation where the board can have as healthy a discussion without being pressed for time," Gainey said.
Gainey said he wants the policy to be "something that stands the test of time" and doesn’t need to be constantly revised.
“The board and staff are on the same page on this," Gainey said. "We need to get it right. That’s the bottom line.”
Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore said they need to address the policy by spring and early summer so they can start work in the fall on the 2014-15 plan for adoption in early winter.
They reviewed this draft policy from the Sept. 25 policy committee meeting.
As they reviewed the goals and factors listed, board member Jim Martin said he'd like to keep the stay-where-you want stability piece from the 2013-14 plan.
Looking at the long list of items in the draft policy, Gainey said they should keep the policy simple and more direct to "help parents who don't read it every day to understand it."
Moore pointed to how board policies generally tend to be short with the details developed by staff in the R&P.
“If we can get definitions of achievement, stability and proximity to work from, then staff can look at revising a policy that’s shorter and more focused," Moore said.
Board member John Tedesco said he almost universally agrees that policies should be short and concise. But he said that due to the nature of the assignment policy it's important to outline the board's goals.
Martin said the policy needs to be flexible.
“It needs to be big enough to cover what it covers but not to cover every eventuality," Martin said.
Tedesco said they need to keep in mind that it's information for parents of 150,000 students
Martin said that while they weren't planning on voting Thursday, he asked if they could get consensus that the pillars should be proximity, stability, achievement and facilities utilization. Tedesco said he thought that's something they had already agreed upon.
Gainey said the board will have to decide "where the slide is" to weigh how to balance the pillars in each assignment plan. He said that the value of each pillar might be different at different times.
"Stability is a high priority right now," Gainey said. "We need to give ourselves some flexibility with that, or maybe not."
Board member Kevin Hill said they can leave the wiggle room for that for staff in the R&P.
Moore said the policy might say there would priorities while the R&P and plan would list the priorities. She said this would provide more flexibility.
Board chairman Keith Sutton said that whlle they may be "hesitant" to mention it, they need to discuss the diversity piece.
"I still believe strongly that it (diversity) needs to be part of our policy and part of our effort in some way," Sutton said. "It needs to be in policy somewhere.”
Sutton he said he might be willing to support a compromise by not mentioning diversity in the assignment policy as long it's put somewhere else in policy.
Sutton said they might address diversity "in a very strong way" in these proposed closing the achievement gaps and equity policies.
Board member Susan Evans said she wouldn't want to see any discussion of diversity completely left out of the assignment policy.
"There needs to be at least some recognition in the assignment policy that it’s taken into consideration," Evans said.
Tedesco said "where the rubber meets the road" will be in how they implement the diversity component.
Tedesco also said that facilities utilization was a critical component that had been missing as a pillar from the assignment policy that should be in there now. Evans said she "absolutely agrees" with Tedesco on that point.
Martin said the assignment policy should talk about avoiding high concentrations of "difficult factors" that will lose stability of teachers and stability of performance at a school. He said these high concentrations have a negative impact on a school's operating efficiency.
"It’s not about social engineering, as some people like to poke their fingers at," Martin said. "It’s about the operational efficiencies and the stability of the schools. We need to pay attention to socioeconomics."
Sutton said that achievement has bee used as a proxy for diversity when that's not always the case. He said his goal of bringing up diversity was to put it squarely on the table for discussion.
Martin said they need to get their definitions for the pillars lined up.
Bard vice chairwoman Christine Kushner says there's already "great consensus for stability," pointing to what was done in in the 2013-14 plan.
Gainey again brought up the issue of how to weigh the four pillars. He asked which one should they start with when drawing up plans.
While praising the stability component from the 2013-14 plan, Martin said that just because they're talking about stability at the meeting doesn't mean they're saying it's the top priority of the four pillars.
“To pick which is the most important is like picking your favorite child," Martin said. "You can’t do that.”
Gainey said he's trying to think of how they're going to assign students based on the priorities.
"At some point I’m not sure we won’t have to get a priority of something,” Gainey said.
"Ultimately the rubber is going to meet the road and you’re going to have competing interests," Tedesco said.
Tedesco said that because the old policy had definitive targets for the percentages of low-income and low-performing students at schools, some people felt that when the rubber met the road staff tried to reach those benchmarks.
“As we go through this process, we’re going to have to define our values for when the rubber meets the road," Tedesco said.
For instance, Tedesco said he liked stay where you start being used in the 2013-14 plan. He said he wished they had also guaranteed the choice plan feeders .
School board attorney Jonathan Blumberg said the board might want to consider holding a separate meeting for each of the pillars to discuss how to define them.
Gainey said he's still trying to figure out how this will look with all the priorities/pilllars/factors. Gainey said he's already seeing that operational efficiency/capacity dropping below the other three.
Gainey said that once they come up with some definitions for stability, proximity and achievement they might want to run scenarios based on how assignment would look based on each factor. For instance, he said they could see what it would look like if everyone went to a school within 10 miles from home.
Gainey said they need more language on stability, pointing to how they had in the 2013-14 plan applied different rules for people reassigned to new schools than existing ones.
"The reality is people won’t move to new schools on their own," Gainey said. "They’re invested in their school.”
For instance, Gainey said what about if they factor in only reassigning students to a new school or limit it to a maximum number of times per grade span.
Evans said she wasn't prepared Thursday to revise the assignment policy. She suggested forming a task force to have people brainstorm ideas. Or she said they could schedule several more committee meetings on the issue.
Martin said the discussion of these definitions would be a good thing to do during a Saturday board retreat.
Hill said they can agree on the four pillars and have staff come up with definitions in R&P. Hill said he thought staff's role was to take the board's rough ideas and draft a policy. He said he was concerned the board was getting into the weeds.
"We know what stability is or we think we have an idea of what it is," Hill said. "Staff tries to paint the idea in R&P."
Martin said he's hearing that staff wants more guidance.
Moore said they've already got some guidance on what proximity would be based on how board policy and R&P sets time limits for bus ride times.
Moore said they have some guidance on stability based on the 2013-14 plan.
But Moore said they need more guidance on the achievement component. She pointed to how the June directive talks about setting achievement targets.
Blumberg also pointed out that the June directive talks about the board revisiting socioeconomics, which hasn't happened yet.
Kushner said diversity and achievement should be addressed in more than just the assignment policy.
Blumberg brought up the possibility of the board holding off until they fill the remaining vacancy.
Moore said that the equity and achievement gaps policies have been in the works for years and haven't been resolved yet. She said those policies could also impact achievement.
As they discussed this draft equity policy, Martin said that equity of resources needs to be a goal and a commitment. But he said the question is how you define it in policy.
Sutton said that everyone recognizes that race and socioeconomic status are the two things that influence a child’s education. He said this was done in the past in the assignment policy.
Calling "a spade a spade," Sutton said that the achievement component proposed for the assignment policy doesn't adequately address race and socioeconomics.
"At what point is this board is going to seriously address the issue of race and socioeconomic status in assigning students?" Sutton said.
But Hill all the variables used over the years, such as race and socioeconomic status, have been proxies for achievement. At the same time, he said they've got to not be afraid of tackling these variables.
“The bottom line is achievement and how we can assign students to give them an opportunity to be successful in school," Hill said.
Moore said the F&R and achievement targets in the old policy may have made sense when first implemented in 2000. But she said that as the district's demographics changed, the targets remained the same.
Moore said that if they use definite academic targets in the new assignment policy then they need flexibility. She said they'll need to look at achievement at both the aggregate and subgroup level.
Assistant Superintendent Marvin Connelly said they need to remember that the no. 1 finding from the 2007 curriculum management audit was that African American, Hispanic and low SES students didn't have equitable access to resources in the school system.
Connelly said that the board doesn't currently define equitable access to resources in policy, hence the need for the new equity policy that was recommended in the curriculum management audit. He said they shouldn't lose sight of that finding from the curriculum management audit.
Martin said they need to remember that assignment is but one tool for addressing achievement. He said they must also assess programs.
Moore said this would mean looking at a lot of things, including choice options such as access to magnet schools. Moore asked if it should be specifically mentioned in the assignment policy, Sutton, who had noted he had lobbied for achievement to be made a principle of the magnet program, answered no.
Sutton said at the end of the day due to housing patterns and growth they may end up with schools at 82 percent F&R. He said this shows why they need to have other policies in place to address meeting the needs of minority and low-income students.
Evans said there needs to some acknowledgement in the assignment policy about addressing achievement. She said they need have to some kind of goal or target while being fluid and mobile.
Evans said they need to try to keep schools from going too far way from the system average. After the meeting, she said she wasn't necessarily saying that they need to reassign students to do that.
Martin said that the old policy was in "error" in having a static goal. But he said it was very right in not prescribing what to do when schools were above the F&R goal.
Martin said they need to have targets in the assignment policy. But he said the policy shouldn't tell you what to do about it. He said it can be addressed in some other policies.
Tedesco said Sutton can use his authority to put the equity and achievement gaps policies on the board agenda.
Tedesco said to Hill that he knows that the F&R goal was ultimately supposed to be a proxy for achievement. But he said the problem was that in using the goal they lost sight of individual students.
Tedesco said lots of F&R students were not being treated well under the old assignment policy even when they were high achievers.
"We need to be able to pay attention to the individual student and not lose track of them in the subgroup," Tedesco said.
On the closing the gaps policy, Connelly said it was the result of minority students not getting access to advanced courses.
Martin said that some things they can look at include how many electives are offered at each school and the longevity of students at each school.
Martin said they need to bring data to the table to help with the resource allocation issue and with the assignment issue.
“We need the courage to do what we can do," Martin said.
Tedesco said the data was shared with the ED task force. But Martin, who was a citizen member of the ED task force, said the problem was the data wasn't shared with the board itself.
Connelly said the thinking is that if the board adopts the equity policy it could guide all other policies such as financial resources, assignment and placement in courses
Sutton said all these policies can and should work together
"We’ve been trying to address diversity just with assignment," Sutton said. "We’re too large for that."
Sutton said he'd like Wake to emulate the Guilford County school system, which he said has an Office of Diversity to see if diversity is being addressed in areas ouch as assignment, recruitment and retention of staff and the materials distributed to parents.
Gainey said that they're going to take a hit on the equity policy being too loose. But he said the problem is how you don't make it too specific that it's 500 miles long.
Gainey said that Wake has let student assignment be the controlling factor for diversity when there are many other ways they're also dealing with the issue.
"We weren’t just moving people around just to minimize stratification, but because we wanted to minimize economic stratification because it impacted achievement," Evans said.
The meeting ended with them agreeing to resume the discussion on the policy revisions.