Desegregation Efforts Taking an Important New Direction in WCPSS Schools

Wake County has been a national leader for its desegregation efforts for more than 40 years, and the Board of Education is poised to continue that leadership with a new approach to improving integration in its 191-and-growing schools.

The work the board is doing together with Wake County Public School System Superintendent Cathy Moore, her staff, and an outside vendor aims to stem the growing segregation that is happening within the school system.

This is an important topic for the business community to stay focused on, and as the business champion for public education, WakeEd will provide updates along the way. This project aligns with WakeEd’s Public Policy Agenda item: Strong Schools in Every Community. It also matches the WCPSS Vision 2020 Strategic Plan in several areas, particularly in Core Belief #2: Every student is expected to learn, grow, and succeed while we will eliminate the ability to predict achievement based on socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity.

Maintaining strong schools will require support from business leaders, just as it did in the early 1970s when local leaders petitioned the General Assembly to merge the Raleigh City Schools and the Wake County Schools despite a voter referendum that defeated the idea with a 2-to-1 vote against.

Undertaking this work now not only continues the work that began five decades ago, but it will set the region up for a prosperous future. With more than 11,000 graduates (read: future employees and entrepreneurs) each year, WCPSS is a major economic engine crucial to sustain the unprecedented growth of the past 30 years. Many economic forecasts show the Triangle Region continuing to grow for many years to come, which means the need to replenish the workforce will be similarly sustained.

\"\"Right now, though, fast-growing parts of Raleigh and its suburbs are trending whiter and more affluent, and it is creating a distinct line of demarcation along the US 1 corridor. Schools west of that line are composed of students from homes and neighborhoods with higher socioeconomic status than those of schools east of that line as shown here. The trend has led to about a quarter of elementary schools and a fifth of middle schools falling into extreme ends of the wealth spectrum based on students attending the school.

As has been shown in local and national trends, the wealthier a school population is the better it performs on various measurement methods, while schools with students in low-wealth areas have lower performance scores. These metrics compound on themselves the farther away from the median wealth a school’s population gets. It also happens that income levels have a strong correlation to racial and ethnic composition of a school’s student body.

In fact, a research paper just released by Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project concluded that economic status is a better indicator of academic achievement than race. From Page 33 of, Is Separate Still Unequal? New Evidence on School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps:

“Once we control for racial differences in school poverty, racial segregation is no longer predictive of achievement gaps or the growth in the gaps. Instead, it is the difference in school poverty that matters. This implies that high poverty schools provide, on average, lower educational opportunity than low-poverty schools. Racial segregation matters, therefore, because it concentrates black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools, not because of the racial composition of their schools, per se.”

While still in the early stages of this project, the school board is taking steps to define a range on the economic spectrum that it will want almost all schools to fall into based on who’s attending the school.

In the past, WCPSS used socioeconomic status of students based on their eligibility for the Federal Free and Reduced Price Lunch Program to determine if a school was predominantly high- or low-wealth. Until 2010, student assignment attempted to keep the number of students receiving subsidized lunches to no more than 40 percent.

That plan was eventually replaced with the current model that uses four co-equal “pillars”:

  • Proximity – Assign students to the school as close to home as reasonably possible.
  • Stability – Students may stay at a school through the exit grade even if their home is assigned to a different school.
  • Operational Efficiency – Avoiding over- and under-enrolled schools and transporting students reasonable distances.
  • Student Achievement – Aim to make sure schools are not underperforming because of a large population of high-needs students.

The school board, to its credit, publicly recognized in June that this policy structure hasn’t adequately addressed the changing diversity of a growing district. Since then, the board is researching the economic health of the students at each school. That information will be used to reduce the number of schools at the far ends of the economic status spectrum.

In years past, the school system relied on participation in the subsidized lunch program as the sole indicator of a low- or high-wealth student population. Free and Reduced Price Lunch participation is voluntary and requires enrollment. Not everyone who could qualify would participate, so the true economic status of a school’s student body wasn’t fully known.

Instead, the school board is using the Wake County Economic Health Index (follow link to interactive map), which is a figure composed of US Census Bureau data such as household income, food stamps participation, rental or mortgage housing cost as a portion of salary, and individuals who live between 100 percent and 200 percent of the poverty level. These figures better represent the economic status of households in each Census tract.

The goal of the early work is to identify a median value for economic health of all students enrolled in WCPSS schools, and then make sure that school populations are within a defined range above and below the median. Elementary schools would be within 20 percent above or below, and middle and high schools would be within 15 percent above or below the median value.

Based on the information presented recently to the school board, there are 30 elementary schools – 14 very high wealth and 16 very low wealth, which fall outside the range. Fourteen middle schools – eight very high wealth and six very low wealth – and 12 high schools – seven very high wealth and five very low wealth – fall outside their respective proposed ranges The ranges are being used for modeling and discussion only. No votes have been made to change any policies yet. 

In total, 56 schools are on the farthest ends of the economic health spectrum. The goals being discussed wouldn’t move all schools to the median simply by moving kids around through reassignment. While some reassignment may be necessary, the school system has other options available to give families more choices.

This work will not be done entirely around the school board’s table. As the study progresses, the board plans to solicit feedback from about two dozen distinct stakeholder and community groups, including leaders from the business community.

Strategic planning of this magnitude is never easy. The school board members and school system staff could very easily continue to use its current assignment policy to send students to great WCPSS schools without any regard for the impact their economic status on the likelihood of their future achievement.

Bringing as many schools as possible within a defined range of economic health is more than a noble gesture. It’s the type of leadership that made WCPSS a national voluntary desegregation model several decades ago at a time when school districts across the nation were forced by court order to balance their schools. This leadership shows that the school system and its leaders are truly committed to bringing the best out of every student each day.

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