School assignment: Wake County pulling off the gloves

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 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.

9 Responses to “School assignment: Wake County pulling off the gloves”

  1. G. David Frye Says:

    I’d be happy to tell you to get over it, but would you? Just sayin’.

    Wake County is a lot different from C-U. I actually know the area pretty well, my folks lived north of Raleigh for a while while my mom was going to graduate school. East Wake County looks a lot like Piatt County, while the Raleigh metro area is more similar to a small Indianapolis – very widespread geographically, some inner city, a lot of new upper-end development on the fringes. It’s large enough that a Unit 4-style busing scheme – i.e., after your school is assigned somewhere in the district, we’ll get you there – would be completely impractical.

    The more important takeaway is that the district is proposing to do what Unit 4 doesn’t, and probably SHOULDN’T, have the nerve to do – tell every kid where they’re going to school, end of discussion. They’re talking a one-address, one-school plan. I think they’re going to get crucified.

    I do not think we can do neighborhood schools in a practical sense. I recall you posted a link a while back to the data that shows school proximity, and schools like Kenwood are way overpopulated, while Dr. Howard is way underpopulated. To the extent you might be able to make a neighborhood plan work, there would be a definite “diversity issue” with schools (Robeson and Barkstall and the new Carrie Busey come to mind) that are in neighborhoods that are pretty monochromatic.

    I have said this before, but perhaps not as bluntly as I should: What Dr. Alves’ product gives us is diversity coupled with transparency AND equality (in the form of plausible deniability). To him, these kids are just dots on a map. He doesn’t have a bias. Could I have devised an algorithm that assigns Kindergartners to schools, based on choices, demographics, and location? Sure. But I live here, and I would be forever in the crosshairs of people who are convinced that I’ve skewed the algorithm to benefit someone. If people want to be hatin’ on Dr. Alves, he’s a pretty distant target.

    Maybe the district can find a new product that will give similar results, and perhaps cost less. But bear in mind that diversity isn’t the only benchmark.

  2. Karen Says:

    Re: Pam Dempsey’s article. Nathaniel Banks states:

    ‘It’s the perception of the white community that we need to work on so that white families don’t automatically assume that just because black students are there that it is a bad system,” Banks said.

    I am not sure why Mr. Banks would be speaking on behalf of white/nonblack people in this article given that Pam Dempsey did interview some parents (myself included) who removed their kids from Unit 4. Perhaps quoting directly from those people in an article would be preferrable to hearing what Mr. Banks perceives (the perception of others to be). Perhaps such an article is forthcoming. It’s just disappointing, I guess, to see speculative comments from various people as to the reasons for the shift in demographics in the local public schools when parents were actually interviewed. My apologies if I have missed (quite possible these days–doing the best I can) another article.

    WRT Mr. Banks’ reference to ‘white flight.’ It’s an automatic that race is driving people away from local public schools, huh. Couldn’t be issues related to academic rigor? lax discipline/ classroom environments that do not support learning? and a host of other DIVERSE reasons? Have there been any white/nonblack people who said they left the local public shool sytem/s because they wanted to get way from black people??? Maybe there have been, but, I know the people I have talked with about the issue have never mentioned that as a reason. Go figure.

  3. Karen Says:

    ‘Once families of means see their children will get a good education, they’ll stay.”

    Banks said that the public perception just hasn’t caught up to the reality yet, however.’

    How about checking the reality of some people’s educational experiences in Unit 4, Mr. Banks. Many people are not merely perceiving that their kids are not getting a good education–it’s the reality they are living with their kids.

    And when were these focus groups last fall that involved parents who had left Unit 4 (per Lynn Peisker)?

  4. Jackie Says:

    Karen, I am a white person and I totally support what Mr. Banks is saying. My Unit 4 kids’ test scores are outstanding — better than any of the the less diverse schools in the area–by a mile! And, they have learned to become concerned about social justice, equity, and racism because they see those issues at work every day at school. I am sick of white moms and dads who think (that because I’m a white person) they can talk to me “in confidence” about the troublesome “behaviors” they think happen at school when it is obvious that they mean troublesome black students. I am soooooo tired of the “veiled” and lamely disguised racism in our community. I spend a good deal of time at my childrens’ schools and I see firsthand what the situation is in reality–it’s not perfect, but it’s not the imagined scenario that many suggest. And clearly, just as in all professions, there are some teachers who are better than others.
    If you really and truly think it’s lax academic standards, I know because I have studied it at length that the larger and more diverse schools (Champaign Centennial, Central in particular) do NOT have lax academic standards and offerings. White students in those schools (e.g., those students least likely affected by poverty or English language acquisition) have test scores significantly higher in all areas than those of the surrounding more homogeneous school district. Look it up on the Illinois Interactive School Report Card site–you have to sort by AYP groups, and look at racial groups separate from one another as well as low income/non low income to get better picture.It’s not accurate to compare “overall” scores from a Champaign or Urbana school to a homogeneous all-white, low poverty school because of the effects on academic achievement of poverty.

  5. pattsi Says:

    Again, I suggest that time, effort, and discussion ought to be directed to working toward economic integration of housing throughout the community. This is not on the board study session agenda. If we start working toward this solution, in “X” number of years the issue of school assignments and busng would be moot, basically. As the definition of insanity, we keep having the same discussions and expect different results. This is a pattern that I have seen for over 40 years now. Is this not an indicator?

  6. Karen Says:

    White parent to mixed kids here. My child should not promote out of fifth grade still counting on her fingers to do basic math facts. My child should not have been sent to the office to be checked by the nurse for an ‘ear ache’ when she was telling a teacher the classroom/her table was so loud that it was hurting her ears (she’s the fairly well-behaved quiet kid who is usually seated with louder more distracting students to balance things out—-ending up unable to focus). Have you ever been asked by a public school teacher if you’ve ever considered home-schooling your kid? ‘because she just doesn’t seem happy here.’ It wasn’t said meanly or anything, but, isn’t that kind of backwards? If the mission of public schools really is to reach ALL students? Also a recess supervisor for a number of years. Front row seat for how various discipline issues are dealt with. I am concerned for ALL students that reading at grade level by 3rd grade has to be a goal at all with one of the public school districts in the area. That’s a problem, IMO. Glad that it’s being addressed now, but, shocking to know that it has not been a requirement for promotion, seemingly at ANY grade!! This does not serve students well at all. They will have a difficult time functioning in ANY kind of 21st century community, global or otherwise, if they can’t read.

    How can you claim cause-effect with the diversity-test score stuff (more diversity = higher test scores)? If you have studied it, I would be interested to see the citations for that claim. I didn’t think you could even do research that would give such a statistically ‘clean’ cause-effect………so many variables to tease out of the equation. Then again, I am not a stat analysis person, so maybe there are statistical techniques that can control for the many potential other variables that affect test scores.

    Anyway. I am glad you have had good experiences and regard the high schools in Unit 4 highly. How are the school violence stats for those schools? Or, are those records no longer kept because of SROs? Is it wrong to not want to send your kids to a school that has ‘fights’ almost every day? We all make choices to do what we think will serve our kids best. I know I did not make my choices lightly or make them based upon information that was not first-hand experience.

  7. G. David Frye Says:

    I think the only correct answer to the questions in your last paragraph, Karen, are that my own child’s school violence stats are perfect (i.e. none). He knows well that if he gets into any kind of trouble at school, he’ll get double at home. He’s not going to be in the middle of fights. It sucks that there are fights in school, but a) there were fights in my rural nearly-all-white high school, and b) I feel the district has essentially a no-tolerance policy toward fighting and backs it up with suspensions and in some cases expulsions. Similarly, there were kids at my high school who were only there to play football or some other sport and were either disruptive in class or total non-participants. That’s 40 years ago. It wasn’t about their color – moronic behavior knows no color boundaries.

    My son will be taking three or four AP courses next year as a senior, which is two or three more than I did, he’ll earn college credit if he does well on the AP tests, and some impressive universities are already mailing, emailing and calling him (and us) about the possibility of him applying. The education is there for the taking! I’m sorry that it appears (from your last paragraph) that you made your choice on your perception of the environment, not academics, and an apparent fear that your child would be affected by other children’s behavior.

  8. pattsi Says:

    Maybe there is legitimacy to both perspectives. So is not the question–why such diametrically opposite reports? Different schools, different staffs, perception, how policies are implemented, no avenue to share these concerns toward a solution/resolution, levels of expectations, etc. Just “he said,” “she said” does not get us to the root of what is happening.

  9. G. David Frye Says:

    Gently, I will point out that no matter what the perceived problem or the proposed solution, there are parents who will not be satisfied. People often hear what they want to hear, as opposed to what has been said. Public education is not a perfect system and I doubt I can count all the times we’ve had to compromise – with the school, our children, or other families – in one area or another, all while keeping some focus on the “big picture” – a quality education that prepares them for college, career, and adulthood. Some people simply will not compromise, i.e. accept that something other than the school is at least partly responsible for a problem (real or perceived) with their child’s progress academically or socially.

    A while back Charles asked for input into the purpose of education. I did not respond. I did write up a lot of thoughts but it got kind of long and I set it aside. I’m not convinced it’s worth the effort to post it here. There are lots of problems with the public school system that have nothing to do with the board/district/administration/staff and everything to do with the fact that public school is a microcosm of society. As parents we have to tiptoe our way through that minefield the same way we deal with the rest of our life and career, and we have to help our kids learn how to do the same successfully.

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