Thursday, March 3, 2011


By Cash Michaels

            EDITOR - This is part 2 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?”
            Since he’s come onboard, new Wake Supt. Anthony Tata has been getting warning signals from some of the people who work for him.
            In an anonymous survey of system principals, many expressed concern to Tata about the Wake School Board’s neighborhood schools policy, and about the political shenanigans of the Republican-led board itself, which no less than the New York Times this week said operated like a “Cartoon Network special.”
            In discussions with teachers, Tata was told some of their academically challenged students had serious issues at home that were holding the kids back. Tata expressed concern, saying that teachers must have high expectations for every student, if all are to achieve.
            True, but the fact remains, research shows and veteran Wake teachers say, that in order for Wake’s principals and teachers to educate high poverty students properly and effectively under the current school board regime, it will take a lot more than just “high expectations.”
Tata should already know that from his 19-month stint with the predominately-black Washington, DC Public School System.
It is because of its neighborhood schools policy that the Wake School Board will be opening Walnut Creek Elementary School this August as a $25 million high poverty-low performing school in Southeast Raleigh.
Board conservatives like John Tedesco and Chris Malone - who charge that under the old diversity policy, low achieving students were “sprinkled” across the county to “hide” the fact that they weren’t being helped ( a charge veteran Wake administrators call “a lie”) - maintain that its better to put academically challenged children of color together in the school closest to where they live, in order to give them the requisite instructional help that they need. 
Everyone from the NCNAACP to the Washington Post to US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and even former President Bill Clinton, disagrees, saying this is just part of a right-wing political agenda to dismantle student socioeconomic diversity, and create a two-tier education system where upper-middle-class children are favored, and high poverty children of color get scraps.
The NC Association of Educators, the state teachers’ association, has even accused board Chairman Ron Margiotta of being part of a right-wing plot to cripple Wake’s public school system.
And even the New York Times this week, remarked that Walnut Creek,
“…projected to be 95 percent minority with 81 percent of students receiving free-and-reduced lunches,” was the result of “consequences of having no plan” presently after over a year to adequately address either student achievement, or assignment.
            Knowing that there is no school district in the nation that has successfully managed a system of schools where over 60-80 percent of the student population qualifies for free and reduced lunch, the Wake board and its new superintendent have already agreed to give the Walnut Creek Elementary principal they select a $7,000 signing bonus to hang in there for as long as it takes.
            There is no question that the principal has to be strong, experienced, visionary, and yes, political, in order to successfully guide the school towards measurable achievement.
            But what about the teachers? What kind of teachers will it take to carry out the mission, and what will they have to do?
            And sacrifice?
            Former teachers of Wake Public Schools say the system became the envy of the nation over the past decade because they went the extra mile to make sure that students, especially struggling students, became excited about learning and achievement. Thanks to the right, experienced leadership, it was a total community effort that paid off in national recognition, and life-changing accomplishments.
            Under the current school board, many of the former Wake educators wonder if the school system will ever reach those academic heights again.
            Dr. Alice Garrett, a Duplin County native, is a retired teacher and principal who is deeply concerned about the current direction of the Wake school system she once proudly served.
             Out of her over 38 years in education, she spent seven as a Wake County principal at Carroll Middle School in Raleigh.  She is a firm believer in having high expectations for children, and helping them feel good about themselves and their learning.
            “I’m afraid that [the Wake School Board] will create a lot of high poverty schools, and they will hold the parents responsible for the resources at those schools,” Dr. Garrett told The Carolinian several months ago.
            “If you have a high poverty school, you’re not going to get parents who are able to provide resources as they do in some of the [upper-middle-class] schools they have right now.”
            “We need to be very, very concerned about our children,” Dr. Garrett said.
According to Charlotte Turpin, a former teacher in Wake Public Schools under then Supt. Bill McNeal, the attitude towards teaching and learning was much different. In order to achieve incremental, yet measurable improvement in students, McNeal encouraged out-of-the-box thinking on the part of teachers to motivate and push children who had never been pushed before.
            “My daughter is a living example at Enloe High School,” Turpin told The Carolinian in an interview last year.
            Turpin graduated from St. Augustine’s College in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She has taught grades 4-9 all over the state - including New Hanover, Franklin, rural Pamlico (her birthplace), and mostly in Wake - for 27 years. Turpin later became president of Wake County NC Association of Educators for four year before she retired.
            The veteran educator did two stints in Wake Public Schools, the latter from 1996 to 2002.
Prior to Wake’s major 1998-2003 push to raise academic standards, Turpin said teachers and the community were generally “comfortable” where the school system was, just as long as it stayed ahead of the state achievement rate.
            “There was not a huge drive to move beyond that comfort zone,” she recalls.
            But that eventually changed. The school system was seen as the main driver of economic growth for the county. To attract major businesses, and the families their employees would be bringing to the area, all facets of Wake Public Schools had to improve.
            “Goals 2003,” as the new 1998-2003 initiative would be called, was a five-year community-inclusive project targeting a goal of 95 percent student proficiency, grades 3-8.
            In 1998, according to figures furnished by Wake County Public Schools Evaluation and Research Department, 81.5 percent of all students grades 3-8 were proficient in reading, and 82.1 were in mathematics. Factoring in other components (like writing for grades 4 and 7), the composite proficiency figure was 79.1.
            African-Americans were at 55.2 percent. Hispanics, 63.8.
            If the 95 percent benchmark could be attained, it would not only assure a higher graduation rate for the system, but also establish a stronger educational foundation for secondary grade learning, which the system hoped to tackle with Goals 2008. Black and Hispanic students, which accounted for a significant portion of the system’s low-achieving student population, were specifically targeted.
Then Wake Supt. Jim Surratt, along with his top lieutenant Associate Supt. for Instructional Services Bill McNeal, was able to rally the business, political and civic communities behind the bold measure.
            If they could reach the 95 percent goal, it would definitely put Wake County on the national map. The teachers, however, weren’t so sure, and things started slowly.
            It didn’t help that soon after Goals 2003 kicked off, Surratt decided to leave Wake, and go back to Plano, Texas where he had been previously superintendent.
            So in 2000, the Wake School Board chose McNeal to pick up the torch, and lead the way. 
It was made clear to everyone - from McNeal’s staff and administrators, to every principal and teacher - that the entire team had to step up their efforts to reach students, Turpin says.
            “Teachers were fearful,” Turpin recalls. To reach 95 percent student proficiency in a five-year period was thought to be impossible, and teachers resisted at first.
            “Supt. Bill McNeal did not back down,” Turpin recalls. “That’s the sign of a good leader. We said, “OK, let’s embrace this with him, and let’s all step up.”
            Unlike Wake’s current schools superintendent, one reason why McNeal earned the trust of his teachers was because he came up through the ranks as a classroom teacher, principal, administrator, and ultimately superintendent. His twenty-five years of educational experience, coupled with his charismatic leadership and positive, forward-looking vision became contagious throughout the system as teachers slowly, but surely, began to see results.
            “The mindset of principals and teachers was a new way of thinking,” Turpin says. “We really did believe that all children could learn, and nobody was allowed to let children sit there and not.”
            Turpin, who taught at Penny Road Elementary in Cary, recalls special workshops on how to work with economically disadvantaged children, who were being bused in from Southeast Raleigh, and their parents.
            The workshops taught the teachers that not all children learn the same way because of their diverse backgrounds, and it was the instructors’ responsibility to key in on those differences, and reach as many children possible.
            “At Penny Road, we had children from 20-40 different ethnic groups
,” Turpin says. The majority were white and black, but there were also Asian, East Indian, and Latino. There were even Russian-speaking children.
            “You had to teach children where they were,” Turpin says. “That was a big move in teacher education.”
            For high poverty students there was individualized instruction to overcome whatever social issues they brought to the classroom from home. Thanks to diversity, if the majority of a class of 24 were able to keep up with the lesson plan, that gave the teacher some time to focus on the handful who were having problems.
            Teachers said they had to build bridges from where some challenged were, to where they needed to be. If the subject matter involved the use of mainstream words like “pasta” or “[water] tap,” Turpin said teachers made sure their students knew that those were other ways to refer to “spaghetti” and “faucet,” terms much more common in low-income communities.
            “Home visits became popular,” Turpin says. “You had to know where your children were coming from so you know what they were dealing with.” It was also an effective way to get the parent or parents involved in their child’s education more than before.
            The school system even allowed, on certain occasions, teachers to take their students home from school if they were involved in an after-school program. This allowed teachers to see what their neighborhoods were like, and the challenges these kids faced on the street, like drug dealers, as they waited for their school buses.
            For students who were struggling, they were enrolled in both after-school and weekend Accelerated Learning Programs. Kids were taught in small groups, but they were also given pizza as a snack, and sometimes even peanut sandwiches to take home because it was clear that many weren’t getting enough to eat.
            Teachers even found time during the school day to confer with one another about various strategies to reach certain students, and developed their planning accordingly.
            Turpin says this kind of devotion by trained Wake teachers helped to bring academically challenged students up to par with the rest of a high-achieving class. This ultimately made it easier to teach, and the results ultimately showed.
Counter that with a teacher who has to teach a large class in a high poverty setting, Turpin and other educators tell The Carolinian. The majority of students there will be low achievers with various challenges, making it virtually impossible for the instructor to stay on lesson plan without extra help and resources. Those teachers, many of whom have one to two years of experience under their belts at the most, will get burned out, and soon leave that school, if not the profession.
“The teachers will not stay,” Turpin says.
Studies have shown that even merit pay makes no difference in these circumstances. Systems across the nation are paying teachers in high poverty school settings more, but are getting the same failing results.
During the five-year “Goals 2003” initiative, Ms. Turpin says the full-court press by teachers, administrators and students began paying off with incremental growth year after year. Under Supt. McNeal’s leadership, the teachers professionally and emotionally invested in the success of their students that they could see happening.
Even the custodians were mentoring children.
“Every year when the scores would come back, we were just that much more proud, and the morale was up, up, up,” Turpin says.
“The [racial] achievement gap was closing.”
Between 2000-2003, black student proficiency alone grew by 18 percentage points.
            Though conservative Wake School Board members would years later question those triumphs in order to justify dismantling the system’s socioeconomic diversity policy, there was no questioning then the success that Wake teachers were having.
            “I sincerely appreciate the hard work of all of our teachers and principals,” Democrat school board member Kevin Hill, a former teacher and principal with 28 years experience in Wake County Public Schools, told The Carolinian last October. “I take serious offense every time I hear a member of the board talk about a culture of low expectations (in the system) for our children. I think it’s a slap in the face to our teachers and our principals.”
            “My experience has been that every teacher has high expectations for our kids,” Hill continued. “ Nobody rises to low expectations. But do we have the tools, do we have the time, do we have the ability to make that happen? No. Am I satisfied with where we are in terms of achievement for all of our students? I’m not. But I also take offense to when the data is cherrypicked, and there’s no credit given to where our teachers and students have excelled.”
            Indeed, Hill points to data that the Wake School Board’s Republican majority rarely talks about that shows slow, but significant incremental improvement over the past three years with economically disadvantaged students.
            With the current Wake School Board ending structured sessions that allowed learning teams of teachers to get together on “Wacky Wednesdays” to strategize on how to help struggling students they shared, plus the politically-motivated accusations by board member John Tedesco that some teachers were holding black students back from Algebra I classes (Tedesco never bothered to mention that in some cases, black students, because of other obligations or their parents, did not want to take on harder classes until necessary), it is no surprise that teacher morale today is at an all-time low.
            Not having an experienced superintendent; low pay; expected budget cutbacks; possible teacher and teacher assistant layoffs because of those budget cutbacks; little time for lesson planning; a bickering school board that many say doesn’t listen to teachers; negative local and national media attention; and a neighborhood schools policy that will create more high poverty schools beyond Walnut Creek Elementary this fall.
            The challenge for Wake County school teachers today is considerable compared to ten years ago, they say. Their hope is that in the process, the vulnerable of the community’s children don’t get hurt.
              Listen to this week's "Make It Happen," featuring NCNAACP Pres. Dr. William barber and NCCU Law Professor Irv Joyner on their March 2, 2011 meeting with Wake Supt. Anthony Tata. 
             Also, remembering the late Harriet B. Webster, a beloved educator and leader who served on the Wake School Board from 1991 - 1999, who talks about what it was like to be a black teacher in Wake County during in the late 1950's.

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