Wake school administrators say student assignment’s role should shift

khui@newsobserver.comMarch 28, 2014 

  • Evaluating which Wake County schools need help

    Wake County school administrators proposed Thursday a new formula for determining which schools need help. The new formula, whose components are still subject to change, is divided into five areas:

    • School performance (60 percent): Nineteen different measures such as passing rates on state exams, performance by subgroups, evaluations of incoming kindergarten students, high school graduation rates and scores on SAT and ACT exams.

    • Teacher characteristics (10 percent): Turnover rate and percentages of teachers who are nationally board certified, have three or more years experience and meet or exceed goals for student growth.

    • Demographics (10 percent): Percentages of students who are economically disadvantaged, limited English proficient, have disabilities and not passing state exams

    • School climate (10 percent): Short and long-term suspension data and eight measures from the N.C. Teacher Working Conditions Survey, such as whether parents support teachers, is the school environment safe and is there an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.

    • School leadership (10 percent): Feedback from staff and area superintendents, principal years of experience and items from the Teacher Working Conditions Survey such as whether faculty and staff have a shared vision.

— Wake County school administrators say that student assignment should shift from being the principal way to help struggling schools and become one of several tools, including boosting educational resources.

School administrators on Thursday unveiled a “performance management” formula for determining which schools need more help based on factors such as test scores, teacher quality and the demographics of the school enrollment. But administrators said that assignment is just one of the approaches, along with providing additional resources, that they will recommend using to help schools in need.

“We wanted to make sure that we took a comprehensive look at our schools to help prioritize needs, look at existing resources,” Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for school performance, told school board members. “Assignment should not be necessarily a primary tool, or the first tool, that we go to when we are looking at how to address school needs.”

If put into effect, it’s an approach that could shift how the state’s largest school system has traditionally tried to help struggling schools. Because of the correlation between poverty and low test scores, Wake has historically relied on student assignment, usually moving low-income students out of struggling schools.

The degree to which students have been reassigned, particularly to balance student demographics at some schools, has caused decades of controversy on the school board and contributed to several political power shifts on the panel.

The new formula is being proposed as the school system develops a plan to fill the 16 new schools that will be built with financing from the $810 million school construction bond issue approved by voters in October. At least one school board member, Jim Martin, repeatedly raised the concern Thursday that the new formula could result in the creation of “separate but equal” schools.

A word of caution

“I don’t believe separate-but-equal exists,” Martin said. “I don’t think we want to get into a situation where we look at a school and say, ‘OK, you’ve got these challenges. Here, we’re going to give you extra resources, but we’re going to keep you with a challenged population, for example.’

“I just would want to make sure that we balance these ideas with the assignment ideas.”

Martin is one the board members whose election in 2011 helped unseat a Republican majority that had eliminated balancing schools by income and performance from the assignment policy. Last year. the Democratic board majority restored wording into the policy about minimizing high concentrations of low-performing students and low-income students at each school.

Thursday was the first time that board members had seen the new formula. For the most part, board members said they wanted to spend additional time reviewing the draft formula.

“It’s going to be another tool for the staff to look at to make recommendations on resources and school enrollment issues,” school board chairwoman Christine Kushner said after the meeting.

Thursday’s meeting left unanswered questions: In which situations would Wake use assignment, instead of more resources, to help a school? And the panel still lacks a method to balance the assignment policy’s four “pillars” of stability, proximity, operational efficiency and student achievement.

Moore asked board members to be ready at the next assignment work session on April 24 to discuss how they want to apply all these aspects into the new plan.

Moore said several other large school systems in the Southeast use a similar formula.

“This is more of a managerial tool to be certain we’re spending time in the schools with greatest needs,” Superintendent Jim Merrill said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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