By Cash Michaels
EDITOR - This is part 1 of a multi-part look at Walnut Creek Elementary School, and the other high poverty schools that the conservative-led Wake County School Board will be creating in Southeast Raleigh as it moves forward with its controversial neighborhood schools policy. Studies consistently show black and Hispanic students are relegated to poor instruction, a lack of resources and a second-rate education in high poverty, racially identifiable schools. The property values in neighborhoods with high poverty schools also suffer, as families move away.
The Carolinian examines the question, “Will all or any of this happen in Wake County?”
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“This board does not intend to create high poverty, low-performing schools in the new zone assignments.”
Chairman Ron Margiotta
Wake Public School Board
July 20, 2010
Ten years ago, when Wake Schools Supt. Bill McNeal was faced with a handful of what he called “unhealthy” system schools that exceeded the forty-percent threshold in free-and-reduced-lunch (F&R) student population, his plan was simple.
Supply those schools - designated in other school districts as “high poverty” - not only with the tools, but unqualified support and attention needed to give low-income, low-achieving students every chance to learn, and grow.
“We made very certain that we chose the right leadership for that school - a strong, effective principal,” McNeal told The Carolinian last fall. “We made very certain that we had the caliber and quality of teachers that we considered to be very effective, and then we put the support dollars there in order to make sure that the children had the equipment; that we had the after-school programs and the before-school programs.”
“We tried to extend learning for the children to make sure that we made up for what we deemed to be some of the deficiencies that existed in the schools.”
During McNeal’s 2000 - 2006 tenure, some schools had F&R populations as high as 60 percent, levels that exceeded Wake School Board policy. But the only reason they existed at all was because the school system’s resounding academic success, through its innovative socioeconomic diversity policy (which balanced the schools economically and racially), ignited the kind of systemwide population growth McNeal and his team didn’t have the resources to keep up with.
Needed additional resources that the Republican-led Wake County Commission Board, at the time, denied the school system.
So how did these “unhealthy” schools, with high percentages of academically and economically challenged students, fare under McNeal?
There was “very little” principal turnover, according to McNeal, because the system was responsive to their needs. And teacher turnover in Wake’s high poverty schools at the time was around eight percent, the system average.
Teacher turnover in neighboring Durham, by contrast, was around 17 percent.
Academic growth was continually and consistently measured. Student subgroups, like black males, were intensely focused on. New strategies, with teacher input, were devised, and successes were widely heralded to inspire further progress in these schools.
“We understood that if we did not keep a handle on what we deemed were healthy schools, then we would be looking at teachers moving from certain schools, and not having the best teachers there,” McNeal says. “We were successful.”
Ultimately, over 80 percent of black students, even some in so-called “unhealthy” Wake schools, were performing at or above grade level on the state standardized tests of the time. And while conservative critics today note that the state end-of-grade testing in math and reading between 2000-2005 was comparatively easy to today’s, out of North Carolina’s 115 school districts, Wake’s students consistently logged the best numbers.
“It worked for us,” McNeal says, looking back with pride.
The man who was honored in 2004 as NC Superintendent of the Year,” and in 2005 as the nation’s Superintendent of the Year, refused to allow the schools under his watch to fail, especially the high poverty schools. But when he couldn’t get the kind of resources to adequately keep up with growth and maintain the level of support he knew not only the school system, but its most challenged students needed, a frustrated McNeal left, knowing that things would fall apart fast, challenged students would fall behind, and more high poverty schools would result.
“Sustained growth over a period of time created mammoth problems [for us],” McNeal said.
History has proven him correct. From 2006 to the present, Wake Public Schools have fallen behind. Less than 60 percent of economically disadvantaged students are graduating on time. Almost 60 of the system’s 163 schools are classified as high poverty.
And with an estimated 200,000-student population by the year 2020, growth management, without the necessary resources to adequately deal with, is still the big concern.
Now, five years later, a Republican-led Wake School Board is doing the unthinkable in the minds of traditional Wake Public School supporters.
Not only has the board dismantled Wake’s successful student socioeconomic diversity policy in favor of a community-based neighborhood schools plan, but this August, the system is scheduled to open Walnut Creek Elementary School on Sunnybrook and Rock Quarry roads - a new $25 million facility in Southeast Raleigh on 19 acres, with a predominately black and Hispanic student population of 81 percent F&R, and 52-percent low-achievers.
The board’s Republican majority used its neighborhood schools policy to modify the last year of the previous school board’s three-year student assignment plan. Thus, staff was restricted to populating Walnut Creek Elementary based on neighborhood proximity, not diversity, as was the previous policy.
According to Tea Party-backed District 2 school board member John Tedesco, this is a good thing.
"If we had a school that was, like, 80 percent high-poverty, the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful," Tedesco told The Washington Post in January.
Tedesco’s remark prompted Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert to mercilessly skewer the Republican, quipping, “I think we all know, nothing captures Americans more than concentrating the poor in one location."
Exactly one year earlier, during a meeting with parents at Combs Elementary in Southwest Raleigh, when asked if he was concerned about the board’s neighborhood schools policy creating more high poverty schools, The Independent Weekly quoted Tedesco as replying, “Not if we have the achievement.”
And yet, it was just last August, a few weeks after Wake School Board Chairman Ron Margiotta made his infamous, “… this board does not intend to create any high poverty, low-performing schools…” remark, that Tedesco told The Charlotte Observer, “We've been saying the entire time that our system was not going to create any more high-poverty schools.”
Two weeks ago, at a Southeast Raleigh community meeting about Walnut Creek Elementary, Tedesco told WRAL-TV, “This is where the people live. The kids are here. They are in Wake County. We need to educate them."
The politics, confusion and rhetoric that has fueled the Wake School Board’s policymaking, coupled with the undeniable fact that there isn’t one public school district anywhere in the nation where a system of high poverty schools is successfully working, is making education advocates like Calla Wright, president of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African-American Children, very nervous about the future of Walnut Creek Elementary, and the Wake School Board’s true commitment to it.
“They won’t be getting the same quality of education that other children in surrounding schools are receiving,” Wright, who would prefer that the board rethink its plan, says. She’s also concerned about what options parents have if they don’t want to send their children to Walnut Creek Elementary. The children there will not have the same enriching experiences as they would in diverse student populations, and Wright worries that this will limit their ability to meet the challenges of a global society as they mature.
The school board voted recently to offer a $7,000 “signing bonus” to the right principal to take the helm, and the board is using other merit incentives to attract committed teachers to the school.
Translation - a brand new and expensive high poverty, low performing school - the very thing Wake School Board Chair Ron Margiotta twice said last July 20 the board “does not intend” to create.
If by “does not intend,” Margiotta meant that the board would pour resources galore into the startup of Walnut Creek and other racially identifiable high poverty schools the board’s neighborhood schools policy creates, then the question is, “How much and for how long, especially during an economic downturn where the school system is already looking down the barrel of a $100 million budget shortfall for next school year?
"This is the policy the school board voted on, so this is the reality," says new Wake Supt. Anthony Tata, who dealt with neighborhood schools for the past 19 months as the Chief Operating Officer of the Washington, DC Public School District, considered one of the worst in the nation.
Community leaders, like Southeast Raleigh District 4 school board member Keith Sutton, aren’t pleased with what the conservative board majority has done, but are trying to meet the challenge head-on to minimize the negatives.
Sutton says he’s trying to be “proactive and intentional” in making sure that the right principal, teachers and resources are placed in the school. The curriculum and instructional focus are just as important, Sutton adds, with the instructional school day extended by 45 minutes, and tutors from the nonprofit groups lending a hand.
In short, Walnut Creek Elementary will require a lot of heavylifting, not just on the part of the school system, but the Southeast Raleigh community as well, Sutton says, to make Walnut Creek Elementary successful.
“But I think we can do it,” Sutton told The Carolinian.
“If you get in front of it, you can keep those challenges from occurring,” Wake Supt. Tata insisted at the Feb. 11 community meeting.
That’s the same sentiment the black community had in Charlotte years ago when they were told that they could make the racial resegregation of their once integrated public school system work. The result since has been a plethora of high poverty schools; high teacher turnover; low achievement; a Wake Superior Court judge accusing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public School System of “academic genocide;” tens of millions of dollars spent, and lost maintaining high poverty schools; diminishing property values; the layoff of hundreds of teachers and staff; and finally, the scheduled closing of at least ten schools in order to save money.
When the Wake School Board completes it neighborhood schools planning, many say expect much of the same.
“Let’s assume we had the money, we can have high poverty schools and we can put those extra support pieces in, history tells us that never lasts,” former Wake Supt. Bill McNeal told The Carolinian last October. “Pick any school district that’s gone down that path, and pretty soon, the question is asked, “Why should we be spending that extra money over there, and then all of a sudden, that money begins to dry up. It becomes political, and it is the political drumbeat that ultimately ends that practice.”