It looks like there's still going to be a priority for Wake County students from high-performing nodes to get into magnet schools, but there won't be a transfer priority for applicants from low-performing schools to get into high-performing ones.
Both issues became intertwined during last week's student assignment work session as board members and staff worked through the details of the draft 2013-14 student assignment plan. The final vote will come during Tuesday's meeting.
During last week's discussion, you had discussion about how far the board should go to keep students from leaving some schools and who should get priority for magnet access.
During last week's work session, staff reported back on how they'll define selection priority two for magnet elementary schools and priority five for magnet secondary schools. It reads "students residing in an area designated as 'high performing' whose first-choice is a magnet school."
"High-performing area" is defined as a a node where the three-year average proficiency rate is in the top third of the district in rank order. Proficiency rate averages are based on all state tests taken by any student living in that node (i.e. EOG, EOC, Writing Test) over the past three years.
In addition, staff is restoring the setting aside of 10 percent of magnet seats to be filled randomly based on board discussion from October.
Magnet selection priority two drew concerns from board member Jim Martin, who has previously raised concerns that the existing magnet criteria prevent high-performing students from low-performing nodes from getting selected.
Martin has talked about doing things such as revising the magnet criteria and changing the transfer priorities for non-magnet schools to boost the chances of students from low-performing nodes to get accepted.
"This is something that you know has always bothered me a bit," Martin said of magnet priority two. "I believe that our magnet schools, if you look at our mission statement, the reason that we have the magnet schools - educational opportunities is one of them.
So I have every reason to try to give opportunities for high-performing students. I have more problem with people just coming from a high-performing node. Now I have no problem with priority three, coming out of an overcrowded school.
But I hear from a bunch of families and I understand their situation. I’ve got a high-performing student who doesn’t happen to live in a high-performing node and what I’m really left down here is this 10 percent chance. I guess I’m not willing to let that be a show stopper at this point, but this troubles me.
I don’t see it particularly addressing economic distribution. I don’t see it particularly addressing facilities utilization and I don’t see it particularly addressing achievement, which are the three things that we say are our priorities for our magnet schools. I struggle with priority two.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more," chimed in board member John Tedesco.
Martin continued by saying he doesn't know what the solution would be for defining high-performing students.
“I’ve seen far too many people try to game the system to get my kid tested for this, that and the other thing," Martin said. "My student is a Lake Woebegone student where everybody is above average. But I’ve seen too many cases where we have children who really need that higher level that we offer at our magnet schools and I am sick where we’re at."
“We’re better than where we were," interjected board member Christine Kushner, pointing back to how the 10 percent random seat set aside is back.
“There should be some fairness for them to have access to that,” Tedesco responded.
"They do some," said board member Susan Evans.
“Just like Dr. Martin said, they’re down to the last 10 percent chance of the luck of the draw," Tedesco responded.
"It’s better than they had a few weeks ago," answered Susan Evans.
“I agree that it’s better than what we had a few weeks ago, but I’m looking for alignment with our magnet school priorities," Martin said.
The issue would be revisited when they moved to discussing the selection priorities for the newly created first transfer period.
The focus turned to transfer priority nine, an outgrowth of the idea from Martin. It reads "students whose base school is identified as low performing and request assignment to a school that is designated as high performing as their first choice school."
“This one concerns me," said temporary Superintendent Stephen Gainey of priority nine. "What happens to the school that they leave? We have it there, but I can tell you staff…"
“We’re not comfortable with it," said Laura Evans, senior director of student assignment, to complete Gainey's sentence.
The following discussion has similarities to the other discussion last week about whether the year-round options for base schools shouldn't be made too attractive. In both the year-round options and this priority nine, staff expressed concern about what would happen to the sending schools if they lost too many students.
“The other thing that concerns me is I want us to be on firm footing for what our definition for regional choice is if we’re going to use that term," Gainey said. "I’m not sure that at this point in the ballgame that we have a good one that really can be explained. The high-performing area, we have a good definition for that.
I’m not sure we have a good one for regional. When you're on that footing you’ve got the possibility that when a student leaves a school what it does to the school they left. That kinds of puts it in a real grey area for us whether to keep it or not."
“The choice process showed we really didn’t see that happen," Kushner responded, pointing back to the choice plan results. "I think we need to think through how to get to what Dr. Martin is talking about in a way that’s a real choice for parents."
Martin expressed his reservations about dropping priority nine when it got to his turn.
“To be honest, I’d have less problem losing priority nine if we could address the issues that I raised before in our magnet selection," Martin said. "I understand the issue. I fully understand the issue. We have to protect a bleeding school because you don’t want to get into that vicious spiral and that can happen and that costs us all more than it would cost us to take care of it in the first place.
But I’m also torn with at what stage do you hold a child or a family hostage for the fact that we haven’t addressed the issues of the school? We have an obligation to be addressing those issues at the school and we haven’t done that yet. We’ve worked at it in a few cases. We’ve made some progress.
But before the choice plan, before I came on the board, I listed about 15 schools that I knew in the choice plan were going to see those schools become even more high risk because people didn’t want to go there. Guess what? It panned out.
This is where I’m just torn because I feel like while we have to pay attention to that issue, students and families are the ones that are being held hostage. I would be happiest if maybe we could deal with it somewhere in the magnet priorities and liberalize those with more people coming from the low-performing nodes.”
Gainey said he understands Martin's concern about penalizing students because of the performance of their node instead of their own performance. Gainey said the question for magnets is how to define a high-performing student vs. a high-performing node.
Based on the "fair debate at the table" and "just for the sake of discussion," board attorney Jonathan Blumberg asked what would be the impact of eliminating magnet priority two.
“I think if we are looking for the magnet program to reduce high concentrations of poverty, we need a priority similar to priority two," Kushner said with Evans chiming in with a "yes."
“I would trust staff and the superintendent to work through what that should look like," Kushner continued. "But if we are serious about magnet schools reducing high concentrations of poverty, I think that needs to be in there.”
Tedesco said he can "certainly understand that concern" from Kushner, noting how the prior board had two years ago dropped the magnet priority for students from low F&R nodes.
"I think you are bringing up a serious values debate that this board should have," Tedesco said. "I’m not saying this is the time. We do need to put this in the parking lot and have this discussion because the idea that you’re impacting the racial balance at the magnet school for the goal of diversifying the school is one idea and one goal.
The idea that every child should have equal access to quality programming is another idea and a goal. To simply say that because you come from a poor neighborhood you should have less access to quality programming, even if you are a gifted and talented child, you should have less access to that quality programming that someone who might come from a different neighborhood or node has.
If I come from a high-performing node, the idea that I get better access to the better programming in the district seems inherently unfair to me. I’m telling you where my values are and we have to have that conversation."
"And I would say magnet programs are a different quality program," Kushner responded. "There is high-quality programming throughout this county. I would wager that they are in non-magnet schools at a higher level that at magnet schools in some cases simply because of the demographics of our county.
The magnet program is a discrete program to reduce high concentrations of poverty. That’s one of its three priorities: to improve utilization and offer different programming.
It is not higher quality programming. We can’t look at it that way in my mind because we are one school system. One-hundred sixty-nine schools have to all be strong in different ways, serving different roles in our county.”
“Shouldn’t there be equal opportunity for our children to access those programs?" Tedesco asked.
“I agree and I think that’s the purpose of bringing back the 10 percent, which wasn’t there before," Kushner responded. "That’s really important to have that open chance."
Outgoing board chairman Kevin Hill closed the debate, which saw the board agreeing to table priority nine and to keep priority two as is in the new plan.
“I agree with John that this is a parking lot issue," Hill said. "I think this is an issue, amongst many, that we will talk about once we have this assignment plan in place for the rest of the spring and summer. I think we’re agreeing on some of the same things.
I also agree with Ms. Kushner that the magnet programs, particularly when tied to magnet grant applications, have got to serve a fundamental purpose as well and that is reducing high concentrations of poverty and in terms of the magnet grant application, the federal government doesn’t mince words: It’s to keep from resegregating our schools.
I think one of the flaws we had with our last application was that the resolution was focused at the three schools that were going to be in the grant. And I think the feedback that we received was that it should be districtwide in terms of those goals. So I think this is a parking lot issue. I think it’s an important parking lot issue that we’re going to have to look at this spring.”
As they have the future big-picture discussion, Laura Evans said it should include discussion of the impact on sending schools.