Raleigh's 143,000-student district aiming for "integration by achievement" plan

The public schools here may be in turmoil right now because of the move by Memphis City Schools to force consolidation with the currently all-suburban Shelby County Schools, but it's not the only place in the South vexed by big disagreements over the best way to structure their public school system.

The New York Times fine education reporter, Michael Winerip, last week explained the situation in Raleigh, N.C., where the Wake County schools are experiencing a schools showdown of their own. Go read the whole thing and determine for yourself how relevant the situation there is to what is happening here -- or might happen here if the March 8 referendum is approved and consolidation moves forward.

The story begins with a statement that might seem shocking to those opposing consolidation of Memphis and suburban schools here out of a belief that it would create a too-large, too-cumbersome, unmanageable district.

For decades, the Wake County Public School System -- the nation's 18th largest -- has been known as a strong academic district committed to integration.
That's right -- the Wake County district now has 143,000 students, or close to what a consolidated Shelby County district would be. Enrollment was just 101,000 as recently as 2001, but has "exploded," according to Winerip, in part because of the success generated by a student assignment policy guided by the goal of socio-economic balance at all schools.

The idea was that every school in the county (163 at present) would have a mix of children from poor to rich. The target for schools was a 60-40 mix -- 60 percent of students who did not require subsidized lunches and 40 percent who did.
In 2009, a new, more conservative school board took control and changed policy to a neighborhood-school approach, in part because keeping a socio-economic balance created frustrations from parents unhappy about their children having to change schools every few years. A battle ensued, but two weeks ago a new plan was created and unveiled by, of all things, the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

In September the chamber hired Michael Alves, a nationally known consultant who has been developing school integration plans since 1981. SAS Institute, a global software producer owned by James Goodnight, the richest man in North Carolina, with a reported worth of $6.9 billion, provided two doctorate-level programmers free to do data analysis for the plan.
The result is a plan that focuses on "integration by achievement," such that "no school would have an overwhelming number of failing students. Instead a school might have a 70-30 mix -- 70 percent of students who have scored proficient on state tests and 30 percent who are below grade level."

Now, the dynamic of Memphis's city and suburban schools are far different from those in Raleigh, so it's hard to gauge how applicable the lessons in Wake are for Memphis. But reading about it helps put the schools tumult here into context. The head of the Greater Raleigh Chamber says businesses are hopeful the new plan will help the economy.

He says integration by achievement will be good for business because no matter where a family lives in the county, their children can attend a high achieving school. "Companies can come into this market and not have to pay extra for employees to send their children to private schools," he said.  


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