The Wake County, N.C., school system is scrambling to find seats for thousands of students after a judge’s ruling threw a monkey wrench into its plan to accommodate explosive growth by converting more schools to a year-round schedule.
By this week, district officials will know exactly how many families will allow their children to attend school on a multi-track, year-round schedule, which alternates 45-day sessions with 15-day breaks. Children whose parents don’t consent—or don’t return consent forms—will be enrolled in traditional-calendar schools, which hold class from late August through June.
The trouble is that the 128,000-student district, which includes the city of Raleigh, is growing so quickly that it doesn’t have enough seats for all its students. It has gained 30,000 students since 1998, and anticipates another 65,000 by the fall of 2015. Eight thousand of those children are expected by this coming fall. Classes have overflowed into 1,100 trailers, and into gymnasiums, media centers, and closets.
The district had hoped to expand by pursuing an ambitious building program and running more year-round schools, which can accommodate 30 percent more children. But in a May 3 ruling, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. said state law does not allow the district to mandate year-round attendance. Rather than abandon plans to convert more schools to year-round classes in July, district leaders opted to ask parents’ permission for the year-round assignments. They are also pursuing an appeal of the ruling.
On May 11, the district sent letters to the families of 30,500 students who have been assigned to year-round schedules at 52 schools. That includes children in 26 schools that already operate on a year-round or modified year-round calendar, and 26 more scheduled to do so in July or August. All but one of the 52 are elementary or middle schools. Wake County’s other 95 schools run on a traditional calendar.
Last Thursday, district officials announced that 80 percent of the forms had been returned so far, and of those, 90 percent of the parents gave their consent to year-round schools. District spokesman Michael Evans said that if that pattern continued in the rest of the responses, which were due on May 18, the district would have to find seats in traditional-year calendar schools for 2,000 to 3,000 students, a prospect he said would be tough but probably manageable.
The judge’s ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed in March by parents from Wake County’s western flank, its fastest-growing area and the one scheduled for most of this summer’s year-round conversions.
Patrice Lee, who faced the prospect of having her 4th grader on a year-round schedule and three older children on traditional schedules, said she would not have helped organize the lawsuit if the district had let parents choose.
She believes there is enough enthusiasm for year-round schools that the district would have gotten as many families as it needs to shift from traditional schedules.
“It was really the mandatory piece that upset me,” Ms. Lee said. “That got me concerned about where the school system was heading. They showed very little concern about the effect on children and families.”
Patti Head, the chairwoman of the nine-member board of education, said the district found itself between a rock and a hard place. The pressure was on to build schools as quickly as possible, but voters, fearful of a tax hike, rejected a bond issue in 1999. They approved bond issues in 2000 and 2003.
District officials needed more than $2 billion to build enough schools to keep year-round conversions to a minimum, according to Ms. Head, but a poll showed that voters would not approve a bond of more than $1 billion. So the district took a middle road by converting more schools to year-round calendars and securing voter approval of a $970 million bond last November.
“It’s not that the board of education is hard-hearted or doesn’t know that this makes an impact on families,” Ms. Head said. “It’s a process of dealing with tremendous growth and capacity issues, and having a no-tax-increase mentality that puts a cap on what you can ask for.”
If too few parents ultimately consent to year-round-school assignments, district leaders and families could face a number of unpleasant prospects.
To comply with Judge Manning’s ruling, the district guarantees families whose children were assigned to year-round calendars places in traditional calendar-year schools. But if demand for those seats outstrips supply, buses might have to take children up to 30 miles away to schools that do have space.
Board members said the district might also have to consider holding more classes in nonclassroom space, or putting art and music teachers “on carts” to move from classroom to classroom. They hope to avoid operating some schools on split shifts—with some students attending from 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and others attending from 1:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.—but they haven’t ruled out that possibility.
Some activists and district leaders are concerned that parents’ response to the calendar shift could resegregate schools racially and socioeconomically. Since 1999, the district has based school assignments in part on families’ socioeconomic status to avoid extreme concentrations of poor or minority students. (“Broad Effort to Mix Students by Wealth Under Fire in N.C.,” May 22, 2002.)
The district had begun making some mandatory assignments to year-round schools in 2003 because too few low-income families chose those schools, said board lawyer Ann L. Majestic. Judge Manning’s ruling now forbids such mandatory assignments.
Bruce Lightner, a civic activist who owns a Raleigh funeral home, is organizing outreach to African-American parents to urge them to return their consent forms. Informed consent by all facets of the school community will preserve diversity in the schools, he said. If too many parents of any one group fail to respond, or reject year-round calendars, the schools could resegregate, he said.
“Hard decisions have to be made,” he said. “They might be unpopular in some quarters, but they’re necessary for the whole system to survive.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2007 edition of Education Week as N.C. District Polling Parents on Year-Round Schools