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Few who are bused take guarantee

When the first round of school choice started last fall, tens of thousands of students were given the chance to opt out and stay right where they were.

This was called "grandfathering," and it took the chance out of choice for those students. To be fair, grandfathering was extended to another group of students _ those who were bused from their neighborhoods to desegregate schools.

Those students were given two choices: They could remain at the distant school to which they were bused or be assigned to a school closer to home, or at least one within the new attendance area.

This "alternative grandfathering" provision was offered to more than 3,000 children, black and nonblack.

Children who aren't black who are bused usually go to schools out of their neighborhoods on two-year rotations. That means that during grammar school, these children would be bused for two years but would be able to attend a neighborhood school for four years. If they choose grandfathering, they could pick either school.

But black children who are bused often have never been able to attend a neighborhood school. So black students who had been bused to schools in primarily white neighborhoods were given the choice of remaining at the school outside their attendance areas or being placed at a school within the attendance areas where they live.

Administrative staff members, including representatives from the student assignment department, developed a policy to govern how this second group of "satellite" students could be given an alternate grandfathering option at a school within their choice area.

"At first, some people were saying, "This is going to be easy. It's going to be like rezoning.' It was not," said district demographer Marshall Touchton. "When we did rezoning in the past, we were saying, "This is your assigned school. You must go there.' Under this process, we were saying, "We promise to hold a seat for you if you want it.' "

District officials followed a three-step plan to ensure that all 3,354 satellite students would get a seat in a school closer to home. First, they identified the number of students affected and their locations by looking at the county's 1,118 grid zones and developing tables that contained student enrollment data _ including black and nonblack student totals _ for each of them.

Next, they identified the schools that could be alternate grandfather sites by looking at the maximum number of student stations available at each school and subtracting the projected student enrollment. The difference was designated as the space available for alternate grandfather students.

Finally, officials used statistical software to generate a set of random numbers and assigned the numbers to every zone grid eligible for alternate grandfathering. The list was sorted in ascending order based on the random numbers. Beginning with the grid with the lowest random number, they matched grids sequentially to schools in the students' choice areas. Each zone grid was matched to the nearest school that had space available.

"We did not go above the maximum number of students we wanted to be at any school in any case," Touchton said. "In no single case did we say, for example, "Here are 604 seats and we're going to place 630 students.' "

They also considered racial ratios, which are in effect through 2007 and stipulate that no school can have a student body that is more than 42 percent black.

In the end, a very low percentage of those eligible for alternate grandfathering chose to exercise that option. As of Dec. 16, only 265 of the 3,354 students who were offered the choice took it.

"The alternative school would have been closer than the school they were originally going to," Touchton said. "However, closer is relative. Area A is geographically large. We didn't have to offer the closest school in their neighborhoods."

For example, Touchton explained, a child living in the Childs Park area who had been bused to Rawlings Elementary in Area B would have been closer to home if he were offered the option of Campbell Park Elementary. But given the option of Blanton Elementary, he may prefer to stay at Rawlings, because Blanton is not be much closer to home.

Not all students will be attending the school that would have been their first choice, but Touchton thinks the alternative grandfathering plan comes closest to giving as many people as possible the most options.

"The language of the choice plan guarantees that every student would have a home school within their area where they would be guaranteed a seat," he said. "This was the fairest, most equitable way we could come up with doing it."