June 21, 2012
Board explores changes to student assignment
Less than a year into a new school choice student assignment plan, Wake County Board of Education members voted this week to spend the summer exploring changes. Those changes are likely to include assignments that provide a base school for each address.
Any changes ultimately approved by the board would not affect assignments or transportation routes that are already established for the coming 2012-2013 school year.
The board’s decision was delivered in a directive to staff to develop a plan that focuses on student achievement, stability and proximity. It does not use the word “diversity,” but calls for the development of “appropriate socio-economic factors to consider in the assignment process.”
Board members Jim Martin, Susan Evans, Christine Kushner, Vice Chair Keith Sutton and Chairman Kevin Hill supported the directive. Board members Debra Goldman, John Tedesco, Chris Malone and Deborah Prickett voted against the measure.
The directive calls for a proposal that evaluates the “best practices and strategies” of current and previous assignment plans. During his motion seeking approval, Sutton asked that the proposal be ready for board discussion by September.
Michael Alves, a consultant working with the district on the choice plan, said it was possible to merge elements of choice and base assignments. But ultimately, no plan will be able to create capacity in schools that are simply full. In those cases, the district will need a tool to decide how to distribute students.
In past years, that tool was reassignment. Under the choice plan, parents were given a list of schools to pick from in case there was not room at their first choice.
The directive suggests a “possible feature” of the new proposal be a “stay where you start” policy that limits reassignments. It does not detail how that might work given the limited number of seats available in some parts of the county and the continued addition of more than 3,000 students a year.
The directive also requests that base assignments be within “a reasonable distance” of a student’s home.
The directive does not address what an appropriate socio-economic mix would be, but suggests income and parent education levels might be used as factors.
The current choice plan was originally designed to address the mix of a school by focusing on academic diversity, but that element was never approved by the board. Wake Education Partnership was involved in the early design of the choice plan before it was given to the school district in 2011 and eventually approved in October with a variety of changes.
This week’s vote attracted wide media attention, partly because it triggered a partisan debate lasting well past midnight. The following day, the Partnership issued a statement critical of the full board’s handling of the issue, but supportive of the directive’s goals.
“Our school board and community must move forward together in pursuit of these improvements,” said Partnership President Steve Parrott, and it should be done in a way that is “representative of the skills and behaviors demanded from our students for college and career success.”
Budget picture improves – relatively speaking
It has been awhile since the phrase “overall increase” has crept into budget discussions involving Wake County’s schools. But after four consecutive years of cutting, an increase was likely at some point. It finally happened this week.
The first increase will come from county commissioners who agreed to provide the public schools with $3.9 million in additional funding compared to last year. The past several years of funding have been flat at roughly $313 million.
The amount from the county is less than the $8.8 million requested by the school board and proportionately smaller than county’s overall revenue growth, but as Chief Business Officer David Neter told the school board, the schools aren’t the only cash-strapped group seeking money from the county commissioners.
The second “increase” was a decision by state lawmakers to rescind a cut that was expected for the coming year. That decision will restore more than $8.4 million the school district had not planned on getting. The final amount won’t be certain until lawmakers approve a budget, which is expected within the first few days of July.
The additions hardly represent a windfall for the schools, which have a total operating budget of more than $1.2 billion for roughly 150,000 students. But it will provide a one-time bonus of $500 for non-certified staff, principals, assistant principals and others. It should also allow for a 1 percent increase in supplemental pay for teachers, although that won’t become effective until later this summer when the state figures are final.
While the most recent budget news was positive, it does not significantly alter the big picture. The district nearly depleted its fund balance reserve to cover the coming year’s expenses, enrollment increases appear to be accelerating again and there is a long list of delayed projects that can’t be ignored much longer. But relatively speaking, this year could have been worse.
Teachers looking for more time, parent support
Teachers believe their schools are good places to work and learn, but a growing number find themselves pressed for the time they need to get the job done while getting less support from parents.
Those highlights are contained in the most recent Teacher Working Conditions Survey released earlier this month by the New Teacher Center. The survey is conducted every two years in North Carolina and represents one of the best tools available to track teachers’ opinions over time about a wide range of issues.
From class size and facilities to parental involvement and leadership, the survey asks more than 80 questions and typically has a participation rate of more than 80 percent. About 86 percent of teachers in Wake County and statewide participated in this year’s survey.
Among the notable changes in Wake County between 2010 and 2012 are responses to questions about the time available for teachers to work together. About 72 percent of teachers said they have the time they need to work together – a drop of roughly seven percentage points from 2010.
The percentage of teachers who say they work in professional learning communities also dropped more than five percentage points, although that figure still stands at 90 percent in 2012.
The category that stands out the most, however, involves parent support. The percentage of teachers who felt parents support them and contribute to the success of students dropped more than eight percentage points to 73.8 percent in 2012.
Teachers also felt fewer parents understood what was going on in the schools, fewer were influential decision makers in their schools and community support in general had declined.
In a school district the size of Wake, results vary widely by school. Schools where poverty is more highly concentrated, for example, can show a difference of as much as 50 percentage points or more when compared to middle-class schools on certain questions involving parent involvement.
But the one question that is often the litmus test in the survey is quite simple. It asks whether teachers agree that “Overall, my school is a good place to work and learn.” In 2012, that number in Wake County stood at 84.6 percent.
…As schools move closer to using the new Common Core standards in math and language arts, as well as the NC Essential Standards in other subjects, presentations that summarize the transition are becoming more common. The same is true of the highlights the public must understand, as outlined this week in a presentation by Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore. The highlights: The standards are higher, classroom work will be far more rigorous and those in middle school will probably have the most difficult time with the transition, Moore said. A video in which Moore offers the narrative to the presentation can be found here at the 2 hour and 28 minute mark.
…A new national study released last week shows that most students can solve grade-level science problems, but a far smaller percentage understood the logic behind the answer. That left them unable to make predictions when variables change. The findings, summarized in an Education Week article, are notable in part because the ability to apply knowledge is a skill that will take on far more importance as schools transition to the new Common Core standards and NC Essential Standards beginning next year.
…School officials and county leaders are focused on May 2013 as the likely date for a school bond referendum where voters would be asked to approve the sale of bonds for school construction. No final numbers have been decided, but it appears the district and county will ask voters for several smaller requests in the coming years rather than one complete request. A large request would likely top $1 billion based on earlier predictions by school planners. Wake’s enrollment is expected to top 150,000 students in 2012 and the last bond referendum was in 2006. About 17 percent of students are likely to be in classroom trailers this fall.
…The decision by the U.S. Department of Education to grant North Carolina a waiver on No Child Left Behind standards means local districts can now generate the specific targets schools must meet as part of the new waiver guidelines. Those details were offered this week in a presentation to the school board. Video for the presentation begins at the 3 hour and 12 minute mark. The waiver requires overall improvement, but emphasizes the closing of achievement gaps by race and income.
Wake Education Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit created in 1983 to support public schools, in part by educating the community on current school issues and serving as a strong advocate for student achievement and world-class academic standards. Most of its financial support comes from individuals and local businesses. Please send comments or questions to Tim Simmons, VP of Communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website at www.wakeedpartnership.org.