On Tuesday Wake County schools held a kindergarten registration and choice drive at Martin Street Baptist in downtown Raleigh as part of an effort to increase participation in its choice assignment plan. Tiffany Patterson is a single parent who lives just two blocks away at Birchwood apartments. She didn’t even know Wake had moved away from a base assignment model.
As the second and final round of choice rapidly advances toward its April 12 closing date, WCPSS is making its final efforts to reach out to the roughly 2,500 kindergarten families — about 20 percent — who did not participate in the first round or magnet selection. Children of kindergarten families who don’t participate will be placed wherever there is capacity.
That’s what will happen to Patterson’s son, Andrew, if she doesn’t choose. She’s not a new parent to the district. She has a child at Hunter Elementary already and was under the impression Andrew would automatically attend the same school. That’s what she wants.
“I don’t see the news,” Patterson said. “A nice, bright note in your child’s bag would have been nice. Just something to tell you that there aren’t base schools anymore, maybe some fliers or more information outside the schools.”
At the registration drive, Marcela Maldonado, who has four children in the system and one entering kindergarten, waited in a room in Martin Street Baptist Church with other parents who knew they had to make a choice.
The uncertainty of where her child might go to school weighed heavily. She lives near Spring Forest Road and Capital Boulevard and does not want her child to go to school in her neighborhood. She wants her child to go to school near Wake Forest.
“Close to home is good for meetings and emergencies,” Maldonado said. “Wakefield is a good area.”
After speaking with an assignment counselor, Maldonado was feeling better. She found out that since she already has a child at Wakefield, her rising kindergartener has the highest priority to get into Wakefield—a school where there are still seats available.
But the people that showed up to be served are only half of the story. They’re the ones that know or have time to invest in making a choice.
A Record reporter and photographer only had to travel two blocks west to find families who weren’t getting the same positive help. Tiffany Patterson was the very first person the Record spoke with after leaving the church.
Two blocks further into downtown sit Eastwood Court apartments, where Sharlyn Williams lives with her family. She had heard about the choice process on the news, but didn’t make the cutoff date to participate in the first round. She’s still hasn’t made a choice for her rising kindergartener, with just two days left in the final selection round.
“Why should you have to pick?” Williams asked. “You should only have to pick if you don’t want to go to your district [base] school.”
Williams said it’s difficult for the many resource-strapped, single-parent families in her neighborhood to invest the necessary time and energy to make an informed choice.
“It wasn’t confusing,” she said. “It was just like ‘wow!’ You’ve got to go through all this just to get your kid in school.”
Simply from a mathematics perspective, choosing in the second round provides no advantage. Some schools had most, if not all, of their seats filled in the first round. And while there are fewer people choosing in the second round, there are also far fewer seats.
Valerie Smith is the grandmother of a rising kindergartener who lives in Eastwood. Even though they are not new families to the district, they’re also making their choice in the second round. The choice process has been difficult to navigate for her daughter, who is a single mom and a student.
People in Eastwood are “fighting to get out,” Smith said. “It’s almost impossible if you don’t have family support. I tell my grandchild every morning that he can do whatever he wants to do.”
But even for engaged families like Smith’s, the choice process presents a hurdle.
In some ways, “it’s better to have choice,” Smith said. “But the process of making a choice is more difficult.”
“We’ve often said that the success of this choice plan will hinge on the community’s engagement in the process,” said Keith Sutton, who represents Southeast Raleigh on Wake’s school board.
“When you take a community like Southeast Raleigh, where a digital divide exists—and quite frankly an information divide—or you have single families that know about it or hear about it but don’t have time to get to it, then it makes it difficult for families to engage in the way they need to for the plan work for them,” Sutton said.
“Some people here don’t have access to the news and the internet as we would like to have,” Patterson said. “That makes it really hard for us.”
The school system estimates it will have 12,500 kindergarteners next year. Less than 10,000 made a choice during magnet selection and choice round one. In a written response they told the Record, “The number of those participating in Choice [Round] 2 is currently not available.”
At its registration drive, Wake served 21 families, which represented 59 students (not all kindergarteners). They were almost exclusively Hispanic and in most cases both parents were present.
Sutton said it’s still too early to tell if the choice plan is working for resource-strapped families like Patterson’s.
“That’s one of the reasons why there were concerns about the choice plan to start with,” he said.
Click on an image to view full size or learn more. Photos by Karen Tam.