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By Cash Michaels
Uncertain how many high poverty schools his proposed school choice student assignment plan could create, and sensitive to suggestions that it could create any at all, Wake Supt. Anthony Tata last week blasted those who say the previous socioeconomic diversity policy “…prevented high poverty schools.”
Problem is, no one in Wake ever said high poverty schools would be “prevented.”
Only that they would not become “unhealthy.”
And they didn’t.
Tata, on the job just over five months now, became prickly with reporters last week after meeting with the NCNAACP at Wake school system headquarters in Raleigh when asked, regarding his still evolving school choice plan, “Can you say with any certainty whether or not there will be absolutely no segregated schools or all-black schools or all-high poverty schools?”
“Well right now we have sixty schools that are high poverty schools that are above 40 percent,” Tata began his response, referring to the set goal of a 40 percent or below free-and-reduced-lunch (F&R) student population per school, established by the school board years ago to prevent high poverty status.
“So this notion that the old plan prevented high poverty schools is a myth,” a defensive Tata continued. “Right now we have schools over forty percent, all the way up to eighty percent.”
He failed to mention, however, that the one school that is 81 percent F&R and 52 percent under-performing, Walnut Creek Elementary School in Southeast Raleigh, is a $25 million high poverty school that his current bosses, the Republican-led Wake School Board, recently created via their neighborhood schools policy after ditching the “old” diversity plan Tata criticized. It formally opens next month.
Why Tata assumes that anyone ever said the previous student diversity plan “prevented” the creation of high poverty schools is puzzling, because there’s no record of that ever been said.
Last February, the first of a series of Carolinian articles examining the opening of Walnut Creek Elementary School titled, “Southeast Raleigh’s Newest School: The High Poverty Gamble” revealed exactly how the student diversity policy, since it’s inception in 2000, addressed the issue of high poverty schools.
The very first two paragraphs of that story read, “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 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, he told The Carolinian last October.”
The story goes on to tell how McNeal, who from 2000 to 2005 led Wake Public Schools to its greatest academic success with his socioeconomic diversity student assignment plan, made keeping the system’s high poverty schools as “healthy” as possible.
He knew from experience that if he didn’t, those schools would become expensive, bottomless pits of under-achievement, and failure.
“We made very certain that we chose the right leadership for that school - a strong, effective principal,” McNeal told The Carolinian last October, regarding how he handled each of the then five high poverty schools in Wake. “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,” McNeal added.
Because of the explosion in student population between 2000 and 2005, it was inevitable that more high poverty schools with high concentrations of poor black and Hispanic students would come on line, McNeal said. Despite Wake’s busing for diversity policy, the school system couldn’t build schools fast enough to meet the pressing need.
Since the school system couldn’t “prevent,” as Supt. Tata puts it, more high poverty schools, it did what it could, under McNeal’s leadership, to make sure that they were not failing “unhealthy” schools, and for a time, the system was very successful. Teacher and principal turnover at Wake’s high poverty schools was relatively low in contrast to other public school systems that routinely experience high turnover in unhealthy schools.
More importantly, Wake’s F&R students were learning.
A comparison of high poverty schools (many that were as high 60 percent F&R) in Wake, versus rival Charlotte-Mecklenburg at the time, was virtually no contest. In 2005, while black and Hispanic students in Wake were performing very well on the state’s end-of-grade tests, Wake Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. was condemning the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public School System (CMS) of “academic genocide” for allowing so many of its low-achieving students to languish in failure.
He threatened to close 19 CMS schools if they didn’t straighten up.
Even today, while CMS still has several low-performing schools, Wake has never had even one performing below standard, thanks to McNeal, and later his successor, Supt. Del Burns.
Supt. Tata says his proposed school choice student assignment plan - which he hopes to have completed and presented to the Wake School Board sometime this fall - is still a work in progress, so he couldn’t tell the NCNAACP during their meeting last Thursday if more high poverty schools will be created as a result.
So instead, when pressed during his remarks to reporters after that meeting about more being created, Tata defensively tried to assure that every student in Wake County will attend a good school that will enhance academic achievement, regardless of its status.
But when asked by The Carolinian whether the high poverty schools created by his new plan will get the requisite resources to keep them from becoming “unhealthy” as in the Bill McNeal days, Tata became prickly again.
“We are focused on providing resources to all of our schools and, right now we get $31 million in Title 1 funding that go to those schools with the highest free-and-reduced-lunch populations. So I guess it depends on what your definition of “unhealthy” is,” Tata said curtly to The Carolinian. “If a school is 78 percent F&R population, and you’re saying that’s not unhealthy, we probably ought to have a conversation.”
Actually, it’s Wake Public Schools, not The Carolinian, that deemed that having a high poverty student population alone does not make a school “unhealthy.”
If Supt. Tata checked his own school system’s website, he would find the final report of Wake’s Healthy Schools Task Force of over seven years ago.
“The Board of Education created the Healthy Schools Task Force (HSTF) to examine and discuss a variety of issues that impact the ongoing health and stability of public education in Wake County,” the Task Force webpage says, adding that the 28-member panel was created in October 2002.
Among those committee members then, future Wake School Board members Lori Millberg, Roxie Cash, and Keith Sutton, who currently represents Southeast Raleigh’s District 4.
During the HSTF’s 2003 tenure, according to the committee’s February 2004 Final Report, end-of-grade testing for Wake grades 3-8 “surpassed 90 percent” and the racial achievement gap was reduced. Wake led the state and nation in high Scholastic Aptitude Test scores with 80% of it students actually taking the test, compared to lesser percentages per the state and nation.
A higher percentage of Wake graduates attended UNC schools, the report continued, and a higher percentage of Wake graduates at UNC institutions “…earn higher GPAs in their freshman year…, take more advanced courses, and require a lower percentage of remedial courses.”
So what helped to produce these noteworthy results?
The HSTF determined that the characteristics of a Wake County healthy school, per system efforts and board policy, included - high academic achievement by all students; strong parental support and commitment; strong community support and commitment; highly trained and effective staff; attractive and appropriate learning facilities; a safe, orderly and inviting learning climate; strong and effective leadership, and a diverse student body.
And in that report, “diversity” was defined, “…to include two factors: (a) the mix of students at a school representing varied socioeconomic levels, and (b) the mix of students at a school representing varied academic achievement levels.”
Supt. Anthony Tata apparently never read the full HSTF 59-page report, or its much shorter Executive Summary.
When reminded at last Thursday’s press conference that, per the Wake School System’s definition under Bill McNeal, that “unhealthy schools” meant schools not just with high F&R populations, but poor leadership, a lack of resources, no special programs and uninspiring teaching staffs, Tata backed up his rhetoric a bit. Especially when he was reminded that he promised to provide high poverty Walnut Creek Elementary with whatever it needed in optimum resources, staffing and leadership to deal with its special list of challenges.
“We are resourcing the schools as best we can with federal, state and local money,” Supt. Tata replied. “And we think the student assignment plan is focused on providing the right academic environment for all of our students.”
Ironically, in an earlier press conference in front of Wake School System headquarters in Raleigh just before Tata spoke to reporters, it was apparent that NCNAACP Pres. Rev. William Barber had read the seven-year-old HSTF report, and understood what “healthy schools” meant in Wake County.
“We must remind ourselves what was the philosophy of the [old student diversity] plan that received national attention, “ Rev. Barber told reporters. “That was the goal of creating healthy schools, and one part of the definition of healthy schools - it wasn’t the only part - that we would have a goal, even if we didn’t meet it all the time, of no more than 40 percent poor children in any one school, and no more than 25 percent underperforming.”
Barber added that it was the intention of the NCNAACP, beyond helping to attract more black and Hispanic teachers to the Wake school system, to make sure that Supt. Tata holds to that standard.
Now that Tata’s challenge is to apply that standard, not only to the new high poverty school his own school board has created, and not only to the other 59 high poverty schools already in force, but also the ones, if any, that his new school choice student assignment plan creates.
Keeping them all “healthy” as the Wake Public School budget continues to shrink in per pupil spending, will be the former Brigadier general’s new, and perhaps most perplexing mission.