Foreseeable Failure: Wake County’s first week

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Wake County’s first week of school has been an overwhelming fiasco. Despite the administration’s repeated protestations to the contrary, the root of the school opening debacle is the school board’s insistence on adopting a student assignment plan so focused on eliminating diversity that other important values were eliminated too: transparency, community engagement, attention to legitimate public concerns, and efficient resource management. Subverting these core values to prioritize so-called “neighborhood schools” and “choice” has left Wake County students behind.

When the school board abandoned diversity-based assignment in 2009, community members began raising concerns about resegregation and the creation of high-poverty schools. Without offering any explanation, board members first assured the public that there would be no racial or socio-economic segregation; later they conceded that if it did occur, additional resources would be targeted to minimize its impacts.

Months passed without a new assignment policy in place, creating confusion and frustration among residents. It became clear that the motivating factor in the board’s actions was to eliminate the diversity plan, not the pursuit of an assignment policy suited to the needs or values of the community or the educational interests of all students. Meanwhile, interim re-assignments confirmed what advocates had predicted: students of color were moved from more diverse settings into schools with higher concentrations of poverty and racial isolation.

With the deadline to adopt a new assignment plan approaching and unable to reach consensus, the board majority settled on a modified “controlled choice” plan. Incomplete alternatives were presented to the community for its approval, even though many of the most basic elements were not in place, and despite the fact that the administration could not answer fundamental questions about feeder patterns, transportation or diversity. The board nonetheless quickly adopted the half-baked plan.

Community advocates immediately raised several concerns about the proposed choice plan—many forecast by the plan’s designer Michael Alves in his own writings-- that diversity was not a factor in the assignment criteria and that there were no means of assuring lower-performing students seats in high performing schools. Finally, and most significantly, that without outreach to parents-- especially in traditionally underserved communities of color, limited English proficiency, and low wealth-- a controlled choice plan risks decreasing racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools while increasing confusion for parents and school personnel. As the choice model became more difficult to manage and community confusion about it increased, so did the potential for resegregation, split neighborhoods and over/under-enrolled schools this fall.

Unfortunately, even when community frustration over the new plan resulted in the election of a new school board, the concerns went unheeded amidst claims by the administration that it was “too late” to fix the predicted and rapidly emerging problems. Instead of addressing the issues experienced by parents trying their best to engage the flawed system, the board continued to merely tout the supposed virtues of neighborhood schools and parental choice, prioritizing politics over the needs of the next generation of Wake County’s students.

Official school data shows that dumping the successful diversity model resulted in increased isolation of high-poverty students. The same data also shows increased racial isolation, such that students from different backgrounds miss the opportunity to learn from one another—part of a sound, basic education if one plans to succeed in our modern, diverse global economy. These increases were inevitable given the way in which the new “choice” plan was developed and implemented. Equally inevitable were the over- and under-enrollment and transportation problems reported this week. Richland Creek Elementary, with capacity for 368, opened with just 97 students, and that number only came up from 34 after newcomers to the area were steered to the school after submitting their “choice” requests. Despite Superintendent Tata’s admonishment to “handle growth,” the Board cut 53 buses and doubled up on routes, resulting in the recent mire of longer bus rides, overlapping routes, confused parents, and stranded kids.

The school board recently voted to revise the student assignment plan to again include socio-economic diversity, as well as address-based school assignments. It is hoped that as this plan goes forward, it will reflect a true commitment to diverse, quality education for all students, as well as ensure meaningful engagement by parents, students, teachers and education advocates, and be responsive to the entire community.

Posted by Elizabeth M. Haddix on Fri. August 31, 2012 9:35 AM
Categories: Education, Race Discrimination, Wake County
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