Friday, September 23, 2011


By Cash Michaels

            Calling it a “wonderful school,” District 4 Wake School Board member Keith Sutton says Walnut Creek Elementary, a $25 million high poverty school in Southeast Raleigh, has great promise, but still faces tremendous challenges that could inhibit progress.
            “Right now it’s [population] is up to around 850 students. The capacity of the school was for 800, so it’s already over capacity,” Sutton told the audience during the District 4 candidate’s forum last Thursday at the Walnut Creek Wetlands Center.
            “There are less than fifty white students, so it is overwhelmingly African-American and Hispanic,” he continued.
            The original goal was to keep class sizes at 20 students per, but that’s proved to be fleeting, Sutton concedes.
            EDITOR'S NOTE - On Sept. 22, Greg Thomas, Director of Communications for Wake County Public Schools sent the following note regarding Walnut Creek - The school was designed for 800 and has a current enrollment of 893. The school is proving to be quite popular, but we have been able to accommodate all the students who have arrived. If in the future, additional measures are needed to accommodate continued enrollment growth, that will certainly be examined and dealt with.
         Accurate achievement levels at the school won't be know until late Spring after the students take their End of Grade (EOG) test and/or final assessments are complete. Many of the students at Walnut Creek are new to WCPSS and there is limited data on the  kindergartners, so solid numbers aren't available yet.
        The percentage of students receiving Free of Reduce Priced Lunch is 77%. That figure is subject to fluctuation as families apply for benefits, or leave the school/system.

            “Because of the influx of new students, the school has become a very attractive school, and the word has gotten out into the community about the school, and the teachers, and the things that are there,” Sutton said. As a result, parents and guardians are finding ways to get their children into the school.
            By law, if an affidavit is presented verifying a child’s legal address in the district, then the school has to enroll them, Sutton said, causing administrators to deal with trying to maintain a reasonable teacher-to-student ratio, and explosive growth at the same time.
            “We’re already at the point where we’re having some initial conversations about putting mobile units on the campus of Walnut Creek, which is not something we anticipated to do,” the District 4 school board member said.
            “I don’t know they could even go. So we have some challenges at Walnut Creek.”
            Thus far, since the school opened in August, the projected over 80 percent free-and-reduced lunch and over 50 percent low achieving is holding, Sutton says. To address the challenging student population academically, the school day has been lengthened by 45 minutes - from 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Classrooms are outfitted with the latest technologies, from smartboards to flat screen TV’s to Wii systems.
            The teachers are handpicked from all over the country because they have the requisite experience in reaching students in high poverty schools, Sutton continued.
            Sutton, who has served on the board since being appointed in 2009 to finish out the unexpired term of Rosa Gill, also says that Walnut Creek Elementary is also the only school with both a universal breakfast, and universal lunch, meaning that every student eats both meals daily at no cost.
            Because of the academic demographics of Walnut Creek Elementary, its annual budget is approximately $1 million more than other comparable elementary schools, Sutton confirmed, because of all of the special resources.
            This is exactly what many critics of the GOP-led Wake School Board predicted earlier this year when Republicans voted to change Walnut Creek Elementary, while it was still under construction, into a neighborhood school.
            The logical question now is given Wake Supt. Tata’s emerging “blue” student assignment plan, which is expected to be finalized and presented to the board for review on Oct. 4th, how many more high poverty schools beyond the 60 the system already has will be produced, and can the county afford them in the face of dwindling resources?
            “Walnut Creek is going to be successful…but can we continue to make more Walnut Creeks in Wake County, especially given the funding challenges that we’ve had here at the local level?” Sutton rhetorically asked, strongly implying that the answer is no.
Sutton says the school system has had budget cuts for the past 3 to 4 years, while the student population continues to grow by 2,000-3,000 students each year. As a result, funding from the Wake County Commission Board, which has been flat for several years, amounts to a cut to per-pupil spending every year. 
            To add insult to injury, the Republican Board majority refused to ask either the GOP-led county commissioners, or the GOP-led General Assembly for more money.
            “We needed to advocate for more funding,” Sutton said, adding that more resources are needed in Wake’s schools. “ I think that was an issue.”
            Sutton wants to see “increased learning and better achievement” among students in District 4.
            When asked what plans he had to help attract qualified teachers to low-performing schools in District 4, Sutton said the board should give the superintendent and staff more resources to go out beyond Wake County in search of more qualified teachers. Sutton supports partnering with historically black colleges and universities - many of which started as teachers colleges - to recruit more black teachers into the classroom.
            Sutton also said “we need to respect and listen to our teachers more” so that Wake public schools are more attractive to prospective educators.
            Even though “neighborhood schools” is now the official policy for the Wake School Board student assignment, Sutton would still like to see student diversity as a goal along side proximity and stability.
            Regarding the needed construction of new schools to meet the projected 200,000 student population by the year 2020, Sutton agreed that a sizable bond referendum needs to be placed before the voters shortly so that construction could begin in time to meet the closing deadline.
            Republican leaders on the board realize the need, but say now is not the time to float a bond while taxpayers are dealing with a bad economy.
            Conservative candidates for the school board, like Donna Williams in District 6 and Heather Losurdo in District 3, maintain that they would want to find wasted money in the school system budget first before agreeing with floating a bond referendum.
            Sutton countered that given recent audit, there are no wasted funds, and the school system is operating as lean as possible.

            Sutton’s opponent in the District 4 race, Venita Peyton, failed to show up for the forum, complaining on her blog that she wasn’t consulted as to the format, and accusing the sponsors of being “Democratically controlled.”
            Of the five scheduled candidates forum sponsored by Wake Up Wake County and the Wake County League of Women Voters, Peyton is the only candidate to refuse to attend. No other candidate - Democrat or Republican - has complained.
            On Tuesday night, Sutton joined the board’s Republican majority in voting for establishing two single-sex leadership academies by next year.
            Modeled after similar, virtually all-black schools in Guilford County which have proven successful, the academies will be part of an expanding choice package of schools Supt. Tata says the system will offer under his blue student diversity plan.

No comments:

Post a Comment