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N.C. District Begins School Year Under New "Controlled Choice" Plan

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By guest blogger Kimberly Shannon
The first group of students to be enrolled under the Wake County Public School System's new "controlled choice" plan started school on Monday, beginning yet another chapter in the North Carolina district's contentious student-assignment history. Now, there are signs that this latest plan will need some more tinkering. (Today's blog post on this from the News & Observer also provides some more of the back story.)

Until 2009, Wake County students had been assigned to schools based on socioeconomic diversity, and over 50 of these schools were on a year-round calendar. When Republicans took control of the board in 2009, they eliminated the socioeconomic factor in deciding assignments. The plan to incorporate school choice has drawn considerable opposition.

After giving a survey on parents' opinions of school choice in 2010, some board members were surprised to find that more students had been denied access to year-round programs than traditional schooling, reported WTVD. The plan was initiated, the board said, in an effort to give families more choice over their school calendars.

The new system allows families to rank-order their preferences from a pool of five choices within a certain distance of their homes. Each family is offered a minimum of two traditional options and two year-round options. The choice is given to families with rising kindergarteners, families that are new to the district, and families that want a transfer for their child.

Now that the plan is in action, it is facing a number of obstacles, according to WRAL. Although school leaders have said that a majority of parents are happy with the new plan, many parents were confused about how the system would operate, and still do not know which schools their children will be attending.

Additionally, critics of the plan, including the NAACP, have said that because it replaces the old diversity-based method, placing students within close proximity of their homes will only re-segregate school populations.

Another problem has been the struggle for students to get into the best schools. Nine schools have reached their full capacity with new kindergarteners, while others still have many open slots. Barwell Road Elementary School, for example, has almost 100 seats open, and is one of lowest performing schools in the system, according to WRAL.

Still, many other parents were able to get their children into their first-choice schools, and are happy with the way the system is working out, according to news reports.

Wake County is encouraging parents to fill out another survey that they have provided, online or in schools, in order to give feedback to the board.

Only time will tell how effective the new plan is before it is revisited in 2013, a decision that board member Keith Sutton says is not intended to scrap the new plan, but is instead meant to incorporate suggestions from the plan's first year.

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