February 8, 2010


Assigning students to their closest school


Following the election of four new board members this fall, a majority of the Wake County school board is interested in a student assignment plan that allows families to attend schools as close to home as possible.

The purpose of this review is to help parents and others better understand what effect that approach might have on individual schools. Charts containing information for every school as well as interactive maps can be found here. Distances between homes and schools are measured in miles driven. 

This is the second topic review in an ongoing series. The first review covered issues associated with an end to mandatory year-round school assignments. It can found here.


Regardless of the type of assignment plan used, any proposal that relies on sending students solely to their closest schools would quickly create dozens of capacity problems.

If all of today’s students were assigned to their closest schools, for example, about two dozen buildings would be at 150 percent of capacity. About two dozen more would be at less than 50 percent capacity. The system has 159 schools.

The socio-economic balance of schools would also change significantly. In at least 15 schools, two of every three students would qualify for subsidized lunches. At the other end of the range, 27 schools would have a student body where fewer than 10 percent of the students were poor. The map below shows where those schools would be located.

View Free and Reduced Lunch in a larger map

If all students attended their closest school, the schools with the heaviest concentrations of poor children, shown in pink, would be found on the eastern side of Raleigh and Wake County. Less than 10 percent of the students would be poor in many schools, shown here in green, in the western and northern parts of the county. Click on the link below the map to see individual school data.


While some parents believe “neighborhood schools” means all children will attend their closest school, it’s important to understand the new school board majority knows this isn’t possible.  There simply aren’t enough seats where needed. Enrolling all students at their closest school would require, literally, tens of thousands of reassignments.
But in broad terms, the school board is committed to providing more choices to parents, including the option of attending schools as close to home as possible. In that light, a review of what would happen if all children were assigned to their closest school allows people to gauge the possible effects of future assignment proposals.

Wake Education Partnership is not endorsing any particular plan in presenting this topic review. The intent is to help readers better understand an issue that is expected to attract intense interest in the coming year.

Understanding the details:

Magnet schools

It’s often assumed that assigning students to their closest schools would create severe crowding in suburban areas while leaving downtown schools half empty. That is a true, but incomplete, picture. As the map below shows, schools exceeding 150 percent of capacity would occur throughout the county.

View Traditional Capacity in a larger map

Schools marked in red, including several high-poverty schools located downtown, would exceed 150 percent of capacity if students were assigned to their closest schools. Those marked in purple would be at less than 50 percent of capacity. If students were moved from their overenrolled downtown schools to the next closest school that was under capacity, it would create at least 20 high poverty schools in the system. Click on the link below the map to see individual school data.


The reason schools downtown would exceed capacity is rooted in the way magnet school assignments are currently handled. In order to attract middle-class families to downtown magnet programs, some of the poorer children who live closest to the magnet school are assigned elsewhere.

At a magnet school such as Powell Elementary, for example, assigning the students who live closest would mean operating the school at 193 percent of capacity with 90 percent of its students from low-income families.

While some low-income students are assigned to middle-class schools as far as 10 or 15 miles away, it is far more common for poor children who live near downtown Raleigh to be assigned to schools much closer to their homes.

A closest-school assignment plan assumes that would always be the case, and the result would be a greater concentration of poor schools inside the Beltline.

This is partly because of the large number of poorer students located downtown and partly because schools such as Martin Middle School, Joyner Elementary and Wiley Elementary are located in older neighborhoods. While the neighborhoods themselves are not necessarily poor, many of the families have aged out of the school system.

Magnet programs are currently used in those neighborhoods to both fill the schools and attract additional middle-class families.

Neighborhood cycles

It isn’t unusual for neighborhoods to go through cycles where the children graduate and the parents wait for years to sell their homes to younger families. It was the hope of the school system that magnet programs could hold school enrollments stable during such neighborhood cycles.

That‘s true for schools inside the I-440 Beltline, as described above, and also for schools just outside the Beltline.

Sometimes the pull of the magnet works well and other times it simply isn't enough to counter the effects of aging neighborhoods.  That's especially true when the neighborhoods contain large apartment complexes with a heavy concentration of low-income families.

But an assignment plan that relies mostly on assigning children to their closest school would remove the effects of magnet schools entirely. That would leave older neighborhood schools under capacity, disproportionately poor or both. 

Schools that are disproportionately poor do not automatically trigger middle-class flight from the system, but it is often the first step. It is something the system is already seeing in certain neighborhoods inside and along the Beltline.

Click here to see a map of the schools most affected if students downtown were assigned to their closest schools with any overflow distributed to nearby schools that are severely underenrolled.

Suburban growth

Issues involving concentrated poverty are largely absent from closest school assignments outside the Beltline. But assigning students close to home creates many of the same capacity problems.

Cedar Fork Elementary, Davis Drive Elementary and Davis Drive Middle, for example, would exceed 150 percent capacity if students were assigned to their closest school. On the other side of the county, Wake Forest Elementary would be at 267 percent of capacity.

A snapshot of assigning students to their closest school today also illustrates a constant problem for every growing school district. School leaders must decide whether to anticipate growth or wait as long as possible before adding a school and reassigning students.

Lake Myra Elementary on the eastern side of the county and Panther Creek High School on the western side of the county are good examples.

Lake Myra was built anticipating the new students who would live in a development planned and approved for the area. But by the time the school opened, plans for the development fell apart. The school now operates well under capacity.
But when growth is faster than expected, it can also be next to impossible to get ahead of the curve. Panther Creek, for example, was over capacity within two years of its opening on the west side of the county. But even today, it is still not the closest school for many of its students.

Given the amount of land needed and the spiraling costs for new schools, it may never be possible to assign all families in western Wake County to their closest schools.

Next steps

As discussed above, the school board understands it cannot assign all children to their closest schools regardless of what the public believes is possible. That is just one of many questions that will be addressed in a new student assignment committee chaired by board member John Tedesco.

Tedesco has not presented a plan, but he has publicly discussed the idea of using as many as 20 assignment zones designed to offer families as much choice as possible as close as possible.  A closer look at those plans and others will be the focus of future topic reviews by the Partnership.

The Partnership has spent much of the past year bringing attention to what it means to create a world-class school system that graduates every student ready to compete in a global economy. The report can be found here.

While the quality of teaching – not school assignments – is at the core of a world-class system, the makeup of any given school has an obvious effect on how educators approach the job. It is in that context that the Partnership encourages the public to consider future assignment plans.


To see how closest school assignments would affect all school enrollments, go to  www.wakeedpartnership.org/news/closestschool.html

Tables include schools sorted by capacity, free and reduced lunch participation, students taking limited English Proficiency classes and alphabetically by school name. The interactive Google maps shown above can also be viewed with additional information.


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. Most of its financial support comes from local business. For questions about this report, contact Tim Simmons, VP of Communication (tsimmons@wakeedpartnership.org) or Julie Crain, VP of Programs. (jcrain@wakeedpartnership.org ). This topic review can also be found at our website, www.wakeedpartnership.org, under the tab titled News Center.