It’s been a long time since I posted. Recent progress on the assignment plan has been slower and more “behind the scenes,” so there hasn’t been much to analyze. But the Board has now been briefed on the evolving plan several times, and WCPSS has recently announced and begun conducting a series of community meetings to discuss the latest iteration of the choice plan. I will call this plan, which is not summarized in one document, New Blue.
When I last posted, there were still two main alternatives: a choice plan, Blue, and a neighborhood schools plan, Green. In that last post, I suggested that if the Blue plan were improved to give children from low achieving areas a better deal, it was the better plan. If not, the Green plan was better.
The Green Plan is no longer an option. At least until the October elections, the Board is committed and will remain committed to some form of choice plan. This means there is not much point in comparing New Blue to Green. Accordingly, this post focuses on New Blue.
Much good could still be done with a choice plan, but it is unclear whether New Blue will accomplish it. As originally posited, the Wake School Choice Plan (“WSCP”), on which Blue was based, had four pillars: proximity, stability, choice, and achievement. Achievement was the weakest link in the WSCP and the original Blue plan. In all likelihood, the new Blue will place less emphasis on achievement than the original, rather than more. It may not consider achievement at all.
These developments are unfortunate, and they should be fought at the Board table and the ballot box. I offer some suggested improvements below, but this is mainly a discussion of what New Blue is, rather than what it ought to be.
To proceed, I’ll describe New Blue as it now exists, with some discussion of how it would change current practice. Then I’ll look again at questions I asked about the original Blue plan, some of which have now been answere, and some of which still haven’t. Finally, I’ll wrap up with some concluding thoughts about what could still be done.
New Blue is a choice plan with application magnets. This means that all students who don’t want to apply to, or are not accepted at, magnet schools will choose schools from a list rather than attend predetermined “base” schools like they do now. New Blue “grandfathers” students who want to stay at their current schools, with transportation provided. It provides traditional, year-round, and magnet options. As with current practice, it all but guarantees a spot to incoming students who already have siblings at a school. In a departure from the old Blue, New Blue also incorporates guaranteed feeder paths designed to maximize stability of assignment. More details follow.
The magnet application process will precede the choice process, just as it does now. Apparently, it will also operate the same way, meaning that applicants can choose from every magnet program, but not every magnet school.
For the time being, the schools housing existing magnet programs will remain unchanged. (Staff continues to think about adding two magnet schools, with the last known candidates for the programs being Fox Road Elementary, Creech Road Elementary, and East Garner Elementary.) But I would not count on the locations of these programs remaining constant, as one additional Republican Board member would probably result in the reassignment of some of these programs from inside to outside the Beltline.
According to the latest news reports, neighborhood transportation for magnets is probably on the way out. Shifting to express busing will save some money by shifting cost and time burdens onto magnet parents, whose benefits are felt to be too great. It is also claimed that this will reduce the duration of existing (and entirely voluntary) magnet bus rides, but this is stupid. Now there will be car rides to go along with the bus rides, for parents and kids alike, and no particular reason to believe the kids will spend less time in transit.
Magnet numbers have been regularized by placing the schools into three groups with similarly-sized magnet populations: the Group 1, or “diversity” magnets, with 55-60% magnet students (now 62%); the Group 2, or “capacity” magnets, with 40-45% magnet students (now 54%); and the Group 3, or “Title I” magnets, with only 10-20% magnet students (now 29%). This regularization is also a reduction. It looks like about 800 magnet seats would be lost so that fewer kids from magnet-heavy areas are bused away from them.
Which schools are in each group? The Group 1 Magnets are Brentwood, Bugg, Combs, Conn, Fuller, Hunter, Millbrook, Poe, Powell, and Washington. The Group 2 Magnets are Brooks, Douglas, Farmington Woods, Joyner, Partnership, Underwood, and Wiley. The Group 3 Magnets are Smith, Wendell, and Zebulon.
In addition to these changes, important changes have been made to the way feeder patterns work for Group 1 and Group 2 magnet schools. See the feeder pattern discussion below.
Students who do not wish to attend a magnet school and students who do not get in will still have choices. Generally speaking, such students will choose from “[a]t least five of the most proximate elementary schools, including traditional, year-round, and high-performing options, plus the middle and high schools associated with those elementary schools” under the new feeder patterns.
In the earliest proposals, each residence had its own choice list, and the demise of the node system was promised. But those nodes have proven stubbornly useful, and New Blue will apparently compile the choice lists so that everyone in a given node has the same choices. Because of that, and because populations are not evenly distributed throughout the county, students will not always see the closest possible choices in each category. If they did, some schools would appear on the choice lists for 1,000 kindergarteners when they only have 50 spots, and the choice would be largely illusory, while others would appear on the choice lists of only 25 kindergarteners despite having 50 spots.
Because eight hundred or so students will have to leave magnet-heavy areas to accommodate magnet students, students who live near those Group 1 magnets will have additional, but more remote, choices. These will include two nearby magnet elementaries from Group 1, a nearby traditional-calendar nonmagnet elementary, a nearby year-round nonmagnet elementary, one magnet elementary from Group 2, one under-utilized elementary non-magnet from within region, two high-performing elementary schools within region, and the middle and high schools associated with these elementary schools. However they choose, though, approximately 800 students will leave the South and Central Raleigh area to make room for magnet students, roughly 200 going in each direction.
Traditional school placement appears to be guaranteed. Year-round placement is not. Families who are interested in or simply willing to go year-round will be asked to identify their preferred year-round track. While there is no guarantee they will get it, the plan does promise that siblings will not be placed on two different year-round tracks.
Choices will be made in early spring and later, but folks who don’t choose in early spring will be severely disadvantaged and will take what is left. As you would expect, choice will be limited by school capacity. At magnet schools, capacity will be reduced by the set asides for magnet students.
Apparently, the criteria for ranking students based on their choices remain unchanged. After (1) siblings who chose the school first, the selection priorities are (2) students who live in the school’s state-defined 1.5 mile walk zone; (3) students outside the walk zone whose nearest school is their first choice; (4) students from lower performing areas of the County whose first-choice school is an “achievement choice” school; and (5) students whose nearest school is severely overcrowded who select a school that is not overcrowded as their first choice.
WCPSS will apply these priority criteria to the pool of students’ first choices, then to the second choices of students not placed, then to the third, etc.
New Blue makes no effort to diversify schools by race or income. Because of that, and its emphasis on proximity, New Blue will feature more high poverty, majority-minority schools than there are now, as well as more affluent, predominantly white schools. It offers parents some opportunity to select away from a low-achieving school or for a more diverse school, but it does nothing for those students whose parents do not choose or choose poorly. New Blue appears to have abandoned the earlier, controversial notion of assigning to high-growth schools those kids whose parents don’t participate in the choice process at all. As a result of this omission, these children will likely be assigned to the schools no one else wanted instead. This is not the best recipe for the success of kids who obviously face some challenges outside of the school environment.
New Blue has also abandoned the controversial notion of set asides at reasonably nearby or high performing schools for the children near Group 1 magnets who are displaced by magnet students. This means they can choose all they want, but they will only get in if the schools they choose are not filled by students with sibling and proximity preferences.
Questions have been raised about whether New Blue will provide more choice than now exists. As long as efforts are made to equalize the number of choice lists each school appears on, there will be more choice. The better question is whether the increased choice will include the choices you want and whether anyone cares about the increase. In general, choice outside the magnet system will be of most interest to those who want to attend one of the new theme schools or a school other than their currently assigned base.
To aid students in making choices, the system will identify available seats by school and grade. Unfortunately, this will not be much help unless you also know how many folks have a particular school as a choice, where you fall in the priority system as compared to those others, and how those others have chosen in the past. It would be difficult, but not impossible, to make this information available. New Blue does not, at the moment, include a plan to do so.
Like the current system, New Blue has its winners and losers. There is nothing WCPSS can do about the fact that popular schools have finite capacity. But New Blue does change who the winners and losers will be. Because New Blue is not a system of neighborhood schools with a base assignment, for example, parents can’t ensure that their children will attend a given school by moving to a given neighborhood. If your preferred school fills up before your child’s priority rolls around, you will be sent elsewhere. This is likely to occur, for example, if you move near a popular school in a growing area and have children who are already of school age. There will be very few slots at such a school for “lateral” entries. In that case, your children will probably attend a school farther away than your neighbors’.
New Blue incorporates big changes here. Instead of automatically reentering the choice process at the middle and high school levels, as originally contemplated, students now have a default middle and high school based on their elementary school. If they don’t like the default middle or high school, they can reenter the choice process at any time. Apparently, they will not lose their existing seat by doing this, but their likelihood of switching to a popular middle or high school in this way is probably poor, because the feeder patterns will already have filled them up, and few will have opted out.
These new feeder patterns differ from the ones we have now in important ways. First, entire elementary schools, rather than individual nodes, share the same guaranteed path from K-12. An effort—incompletely successful—has been made to feed year-round elementary schools to year-round middle schools. This school-by-school approach to feeder patterns is harder to adjust for capacity management than a node-based system. Further, since our elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools do not come in standard sizes, it was challenging to find combinations of reasonably proximate elementary schools that fit into every middle and high school. As a result, a number of historical node-based feeder patterns have been disrupted, many kids are slated to attend more distant middle and high schools than before, and many of their parents are upset.
Second, the feeder paths are ostensibly guaranteed from K-12. I expect there should be a footnote here that says, “this will change if we build a new school or two,” because it will have to change unless we build all such schools in clusters like 3 elementary/one middle/one high. When these changes occur, I expect they will generate some unhappiness too.
Third, Group 1 and Group 2 magnet schools no longer have separate base feeder paths. If students attend a magnet elementary, their default feeder pattern sends them to a magnet middle school and a magnet high school that offer the same program pathway. In the past, students who attended magnet elementaries as base students were generally able to have their cake and eat it too, in that most could successfully apply to the magnet middle program if they wanted (the priority rules made acceptance likely but not guaranteed), but they could also remain on their base pathway instead. This is no longer true. Students no longer have a base school, so they no longer have a base pathway either.
It is unclear whether grandfathering will extend to current feeder patterns. I think it will be difficult to accomplish this.
In my last post, I asked some questions about both plans. I provide below any answers that may have become apparent with respect to New Blue.
1. How much will [New Blue] cost?
This is still unknown. It should be easy to keep WCPSS transportation costs the same or less by replacing neighborhood transportation with express transportation as required, though this shifts costs to the affected parents. Establishing programs to make underchosen schools attractive will cost money, but that is money we probably should have been spending all along.
2. How will magnet seat numbers be changed at each existing magnet school?
This is discussed at length above.
3. Where will non-magnet seats be reserved to accommodate calendar and achievement choice by students who live near magnets, and how many will be reserved in each school?
Apparently, they won’t be.
4. What will the new guidelines for adding and removing magnet programs be?
This is still unknown and probably depends on who is elected in October.
5. In Blue, does magnet application remain a separate process, or do you select magnets in your rank-ordered choices?
It’s a separate process.
6. In Blue, is the walk zone defined by crow’s flight or road mileage?
The Superintendent told me some time ago that it was road mileage.
7. In Blue, what is the exact formula for determining whether a school is an “achievement choice” school?
It’s complex, but these schools ought to be quite strong, particularly for children who are not proficient in reading and math. Here’s the complete description.
8. In Blue, what schools are “achievement choice” schools for 2012?
The latest draft is here.
9. In Blue, which schools are “severely overcrowded” and how might the capacity audit change this before 2012?
This is still unknown.
10. In Blue, what exactly does it mean when you say that “[f]amilies who decline to make selections will be assigned to a school by the school system based on the overall intentions of the plan”?
At present, this appears to mean nothing more than they will get the schools that aren’t full after everyone else has chosen.
11. In Blue, why do you need to run two selections in one spring? Who besides new entrants can participate?
This remains unclear to me.
12. In Blue, do you intend to publish information about the percentage of applicants who got their first choice and the percentage of students at each school who were enrolled because they satisfied each of the priority criteria?
I don’t think they contemplate publishing data at this level of detail.
13. In Blue, how are the choices for each address derived?
The choice are determined by the node you live in.
As noted above, New Blue is not summarized in one document. In this post, I’ve drawn together a variety of sources. In the process, I may have made some mistakes, and I may have misunderstood some things. If so, I hope you will use the feedback link to let me know.
New Blue addresses many of the complaints about the old assignment system, though its extraordinary emphasis on proximity and stability will surely create some new ones. More importantly, New Blue terminates the socioeconomic diversity policy and any other effort to balance poverty, race, or achievement in schools except as necessary to make room for magnet students in the relatively few Group I magnets. As a result, excepting the ten Group I magnets and the middle and high schools they feed to, schools in areas of concentrated poverty, high minority populations, and/or high concentrations of low achieving students will be poor, racially isolated, and filled—at least in the near term—with low achieving students for whom few special resources have been set aside. That’s still not right, and it’s still not unavoidable.
On the other hand, New Blue may be more efficient than our current assignment practice. It still has a fair chance of increasing parent satisfaction and still offers the best opportunity to move past polarizing assignment debates in the future. Most critically, it could still be improved as an engine for driving achievement. I hope it is.
Just after I posted this entry, WCPSS released "updated draft proposed" feeder patterns. That's about as tentative as you can get. But they are here. In a nutshell, they appear to restore the option for Group 2, or capacity, magnet students to follow their neighborhood path if they want, as well as change the feeder patterns for Baileywick, Brassfield, Jeffrey's Grove, and the proposed Hilburn K-8. According to the WakeEd Blog, Mordecai and some other neighborhoods remain unhappy.