April 23, 2010


Creating stability and balance in Wake County’s schools


For almost three decades, Wake County used a student assignment model driven by efficient use of buildings and the desire to create socio-economic balance in every school. A new school board majority voted March 23 to replace that model with one that emphasizes community-based assignments.

The debates leading to that vote attracted national attention, divided many in the community and triggered the departure of school Superintendent Del Burns.

It has also left many people confused about what the school system might look like in the future, particularly following a decision this month by the board majority committing the district to a voluntary desegregation plan using magnet school programs.

“Stability and balance” is a phrase that is sometimes used in these debates without much discussion about how the goal would be achieved. The purpose of this topic review is to address some of the approaches that could be used. The review also offers a summary of the key points any plan will need to consider.

The Partnership considers stability and balance critical parts of any assignment plan that expects to provide all students a chance to reach their potential.

This is the fourth topic review offered by the Partnership involving student assignment issues. The previous reports – which covered the topics of magnet schools, neighborhood schools and mandatory year-round schedules – can be found here.


This review is not a student assignment plan. It is an explanation of different approaches or tools that can be used to create stability and balance. Some of the tools are complementary. Others can only be used within specific models.

Ultimately, the approach is less important than the community’s belief that the process is transparent and open to compromise. Countless interests rest on the success of a good student assignment plan, especially in a system as large as Wake County. Widespread support is critical.

There are also several key issues that any assignment plan will need to address in its efforts to create stability and balance. Some are unique to Wake County while others are true for any school system in the country. Specifically:

  • It is not possible to create a plan that relies solely on neighborhood schools. This topic was reviewed in detail in a Feb. 8 report released by the Partnership. It shows a severe mismatch between where families live and the number of available seats. It is also the approach most likely to create high-poverty schools.
  • It is difficult to attract and retain experienced teachers and principals in high-poverty schools. There is no disagreement in the research on this point. Moreover, the link between experienced teachers and student achievement is well understood. Some of the best-known work in this field was done by William Sanders and June Rivers in 1996. The couple now works for SAS in Cary where their earlier work provides the foundation for a highly-regarded school assessment model known as EVAAS.
  • Magnet schools are located mostly in the interior of the county and only about 40 percent of all magnet school applicants are accepted. That leaves few options for school choice among those who live well beyond the 440-Beltline. These issues were discussed in a March 9 report released by Partnership that detailed the role of magnet schools.
  • Growth drives reassignments. The county has opened 21 new schools since 2006 to handle growth. Two more buildings are scheduled to open this summer. Each school opening creates a cascading effect on reassignments – with or without considerations for socio-economic balance. Any new plan must address this issue squarely if families are going to enjoy school stability.
  • The focal point of discussion about balance will be east Raleigh, north Garner and a large section of eastern Wake County. This is where most low-income families live and where the issues of balance and building efficiency are the most difficult to resolve. That is partly because some neighborhoods in this area have more students than nearby schools can handle, not less.
  • The one issue that will make or break almost any assignment plan is parental choice. This is a political reality rather than an academic necessity. In the simplest terms, families in suburban areas must feel they have enough meaningful choices to guarantee their support of the bigger system. At the same time, the school board must be able to exert enough control over those choices to guarantee schools do not become segregated.

The Wake County school board has a range of choices when it comes to a new student assignment model. It can modify the system’s existing approach to address its weakest components. It can tailor any number of school choice plans found in large and small districts throughout the country. It might also choose to create stable feeder patterns designed to produce balanced enrollments without a strict regard for school proximity.

Conflicts and disagreements are, of course, inevitable. But there is a single standard that can be used to keep the process on track: The plan must provide all children – from those who struggle academically to the highest achievers – a real chance to reach their full potential. Anything less would be selling students short for the sake of convenience.

Understanding the details
Changing the current model:

Given the rhetoric and emotions triggered by the school board’s approval of community-based assignments, modifying the current assignment model might not seem politically feasible to some.

But it is possible to change the current system so it provides more stability, balance and choice. Moreover, people are now willing to consider changes to the current approach that would have been unthinkable even a year ago under the old school board.

For example, assignment areas could be drawn in such a way that every family would have a choice of school calendars, nearby schools and at least one magnet school within a specific attendance zone.

The current magnet school program would operate with its current lineup of schools – or possibly with a few additional schools – under a plan such as this. Parents would also be able to choose a school outside their assignment area.

The map below is solely an illustration of this concept to show how it might work. For example, applicants could be granted preferred status for any magnet school program in their immediate assignment zone or an adjoining zone. In return, the school system would agree not to assign students any farther away than an adjoining zone.

Using this approach, overlapping assignment zones would both define a family’s choices and create a stable assignment area.

Overlapping Zones

Overlapping zones could provide more choice and stability



The illustration above shows only a cross-section of the county, but the concept would remain the same as overlapping zones were added.

One of the biggest disadvantages of this approach can be traced back to the roots of the current assignment model. That is when much of the county’s poverty was concentrated in southeast Raleigh. Integration, as it was called then, was far easier when Strickland Road defined the northern boundaries of development and property west of NC 55 was mostly farmland.

As the two maps show below, the number of schools and the overall growth of the county’s towns and cities have changed dramatically in just the past seven years. The current assignment model has had a difficult time maintaining growth and balance during that time. Overlapping assignment zones would struggle with some of the same issues.


2004 Locations 2009 locations







One other drawback to modifying the current plan involves parental and political expectations. School choice was still novel when Wake County made its full-scale launch of the magnet program in 1982. Today, many parents expect choice. The current model was not built on that expectation. 

Choice plans:

While Wake County was being held out as a national example of success for much of the past two decades, some of the more popular models of assignment elsewhere were parental choice and controlled choice.

Both models start with the same assumptions. Most plans begin by breaking the district into regions or zones and then give parents choices within each zone. Both early research and recent reports show that the vast majority of parents get one of their first three choices, but the schools within a zone can’t be balanced if the zone itself is fairly homogeneous.

School districts such as Forsyth County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg have tried to address this to some degree by controlling the shape of the zones. The skinnier end of the zone often holds the poorest families while the wider area – typically found closer to the suburbs – has more affluent families.

But there is a limit to how effective this approach can be in encouraging socio-economic balance. Without exerting some kind of control over assignments, districts find that many schools still tend to segregate along lines of race and class. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, for example, has more than three dozen schools with poverty rates exceeding 80 percent.

To avoid that outcome, many school districts use a variety of controls that limit the number of seats available for various groups of students while also encouraging families to choose schools outside their neighborhoods.

This approach has the advantage of still handing over much of the decision-making to parents, although research and news reports suggest it is often difficult to get families, especially in poorer neighborhoods, to leave a school even when the school is considered under-performing.

Controlled choice plans that focus on socio-economic balance have been used for years. Manchester, Conn., has used the model since 1995, according to Michael Alves, who has helped more than 40 school districts design choice-based plans during the past 25 years. The public schools of Champaign, Ill., adopted a choice plan designed to increase socio-economic balance just last year.


In most choice plans, attendance zones are self-contained and contiguous. But that isn’t a requirement and Wake County could create assignment zones based on demographic clusters.

A variation of controlled choice and parental choice, demographic clusters would pair sets of schools in two areas that are geographically close but not necessarily contiguous. The schools within the clusters would be chosen to help create an overall balance.

If the system continued to use a student’s eligibility for subsidized lunch as the indicator of poverty, balance would be defined along those lines. That is the measurement currently used by Wake County and most other school districts that pursue balance.

However, it is not the only measure or even the best. Researchers know, for example, that the education of a child’s mother and whether a student lives in a household with one parent is a powerful indicator of a child’s needs, according to Alves.

That’s why some districts ask parents to fill out surveys that request such demographic data, along with records on who is eligible for subsidized meals, before deciding on assignments. Defining demographic clusters in this way can provide a district with more flexibility in deciding what sets of schools would be paired.

It’s possible that the additional information might not dramatically change the way clusters are designed. Schools in north Garner, for example, might still be clustered with schools just outside the southwestern portion of the Beltline if that is the best way to keep the two clusters close together.

The additional information, however, does give a school district a better understanding of what it should – and shouldn’t – consider when setting up assignments.

While a certain percentage of seats would be set aside for students who live close by, the goal is to offer choices in each cluster that attracts families out of their immediate neighborhoods. 


Regardless of the tools used to create stability and balance, handling growth will be a constant challenge.

Wake County grew by more than 250,000 people between 2000 and 2009, according to state estimates. While the increases ceased to be daily news at some point, the growth is still staggering by just about any state or national measure.

Throughout much of that time, Wake added more new students per year than the entire student enrollment of 48 other school districts in the state. In just 2004-2005, the system opened 11 new schools. It has opened 21 news schools since 2006 with plans to open two more buildings this summer. As the map below shows, almost all are located outside the central part of the county.

Twenty-one schools have been built since 2006 to handle increased enrollment, mostly in high-growth areas. Two more buildings will open this summer.View Wake schools 2006-2010 in a larger map 


While the recession has created an unusual amount of excess capacity in Wake County’s schools  – the system overall is currently at about 92 percent of capacity – the school board is already thinking about when to return to voters for permission to sell more school construction bonds.

This rapid rate of growth makes stability difficult under any assignment plan. There are some obvious approaches the school system could take to increase stability, although most of the choices would cost more.

The simplest is to bring in more mobile classrooms. This will almost certainly be needed anyway if the economy recovers enough to trigger a spike in enrollment. That would blunt its value as a tool to increase stability, but it would help. It costs about $830,000 to purchase, permit and install the quasi-permanent units that provide eight classrooms worth of space.

It is also possible to increase stability by capping enrollments. This is very effective at providing stability in the short run for families that are already there, but is ultimately disruptive to an orderly long-term assignment plan.

New schools could also be populated more slowly so they take longer to fill. This works best in middle school where there are only three grade levels. It is workable, although a bit problematic, in high school. Starting with only a freshmen class in each new high school makes it hard to offer a full range of classes for ninth graders. This could possibly be addressed by giving sophomores an option to transfer without requiring it.

Even the most creative assignment plan can’t stay ahead of growth in elementary schools where families hope to spend six years. In fast-growing parts of the county, it is more realistic to suggest students might only be reassigned once.

The current board has already liberalized some “grandfathering” options that allow students to stay at a school if they provide their own transportation. This could be expanded a bit more.

It’s worth noting that while it is popular to point to neighborhoods that are reassigned multiple times, the number of times an individual child is reassigned is far more important. A review of school district data suggest that figure for the past four graduating classes is less than 2.5 percent.

That’s still a lot of children in a district the size of Wake. More importantly, it is enough to make many parents wonder every year if they will be lucky enough to avoid reassignment. Calming those fears will be at least as important – if not more so – than reducing the overall number of changes.

Next steps:

With careful planning and community involvement, Wake County can create a student assignment model that provides both stability and balance.

Public support will be critical, which means the financial costs must be obvious. Computer simulations also should be run so parents and policymakers know what to expect before the buses roll.

It has never been easy during the 34-year history of the Wake County Public School System to maintain diverse schools, but it is just as important today – if not more so.

Much has been made in the past few years about what it means to be a world-class school system in the 21st century. It is an issue of great importance to the Partnership, as evidenced by some of its recent work on the topic.

But at the very least, a community that cares enough to have world-class schools is a community that cares enough to give every kid a chance to reach his or her potential. For Wake County, that means finding ways to provide both stability and balance in a rapidly growing system.

There are many tools and models that can help Wake achieve those goals. Used wisely, the biggest winners in a good assignment plan will be the future graduates of the public school system.


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 individuals and local business. For questions about this report, contact Tim Simmons, VP of Communication) or Julie Crain, VP of Programs. This topic review can also be found at our website, www.wakeedpartnership.org, under the tab titled News Center.