The News-Observer has been reporting over the past few weeks a number of articles that highlight the displeasure of some folks about the “choice” school assignment based on Dr. Michael Alves’ program. Personally, I find all the riff-raff of anonymous haters and rare thoughtful comments to be confusing, only making the waters more muddy. In the latest piece, supposedly the Wake County Board is directing the superintendent to develop a “node-based” assignment process (fancy talk for “neighborhood schools”).
I ran this by our Unit 4 Board, and one of the emails I received in response was that the “directive” looks very much like the system we have now; a hybrid solution (a mix of Proximity and SES priorities, weighted towards Proximity by the way), a “stay where you start” clause, and still some measure of unpredictability.
In all my reading of Wake County and Unit 4 articles, blogs and comments, what strikes me the most is the perception that people have of the system. I am inclined to think that for the most part, the current system gets the job done. Not perfectly – there are still some big issues with those who end up on a wait list. But the bigger problem, I think, is when folks either have an expectation of having the privilege of choosing one (or maybe two) school and getting it (for any number of reasons) or being totally overwhelmed and drowned in all the technical details (Proximity? Priority? SES?). The system, as it operated in March 2012, did not avail itself well for either end of that spectrum.
I don’t know what the perfect system is. Greg Novak had some pretty interesting ideas that tweaked the current system just a tad more, but I am not sure if those plans will ever see the light of day. I hope they do, if for no other reason than to start a discussion. So here is what I suggest to improve the current system:
- Make it simple and easy to use. For instance, you give me your address, I show you how far away each school is. If we are using a neighborhood school paradigm, you get slotted to the closest school. If we are still doing the “choice” thing, you can choose as many as you like in order of preference.
- Instant feedback; If you choose school A, know that 200 other people have chosen it also, so EVERYBODY’s chance goes down. If you only choose 3 schools, be aware that you might get waitlisted – are you positive you don’t want to pick any other schools?
- Put it online and have the folks at the FIC be intimately familiar with the online version so they can walk drop-ins through the exact same steps.
- Lastly, I think the FIC needs to acknowledge that sometimes frustrated, annoyed and angry parents call, and when that happens, they need to be epic in their patience, understanding and sympathetic to heroic extents.
In my mind, the big variable component is “fairness”, “equity” and “social justice”. We need a big huge community discussion about that. We do not all subscribe to the same definitions of these words, nor do we give them standard weighting. These words are probably the most significant factor in what makes “Choice” so dastardly complex.
Our community is changing. Not only is Champaign growing (as is Savoy and Mahomet), but the demographics of the population continue to shift as well. Pam Dempsey and Melissa Silverberg have an excellent piece on CU-CitizensAccess.org talking about how “local schools see a drop in white students“. They quote Regional Superintendent Jane Quinlan, Unit 4 Superintendent Judy Wiegand, former Board Member Nathaniel Banks and Psych Professor Mark Abers. The story goes to paint a picture that Champaign, Urbana and others like Rantoul and elsewhere in the state, have seen a noticeable drop in white students over and above the population drift, while other schools (local private schools, Tolono, St. Joe and Mahoment) have seen an increase in white students. Also in their article they include a chart and a potentially very cool tool from GeoCommons that would totally rock if it worked properly (timelapse for demographic shifts according to US Census data).
Pam also has another article on “low income students up more than 50 in Champaign County Schools“. Simply stated, she quotes Urbana Superintendent Preston Williams, Champaign Community Liaison Lynn Peisker and St. Joseph’s elementary schools superintendent Todd Pence, all talking about why they think parents are choosing the schools they are. Lynn also mentions the “choice” program and how it can be tough for some.
After typing all this up, I begin to wonder if I am making too much ado about this. Nobody has had the guts to tell me to get over it already (yet). 🙂 Personally, I think part of what drives me on this topic is that it touches on so many other key aspects of a healthy community (ie, the need to figure out how to help each other, some kind of a deliberative democracy to figure out what fair is, etc), and doing a school assignment system seems very tangible, a very practical way to implement those ideas. When it comes down to it, I just want a assignment system that is very transparent, simple and easy to use.