Sunday, November 20, 2011

TATA FORCED TO ADDRESS WALNUT CREEK CAPACITY PROBLEM

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                                                          SUPT. TATA
By Cash Michaels
Editor

                 EDITOR'S NOTE - On Tuesday, November 22 prior to that evening's Wake School Board meeting to discuss capping the overcrowding at Walnut Creek Elementary school, the WCPSS released this document recommending options for the Board to consider.
                                   __________________
              Just three months after it officially opened its doors to students, Walnut Creek Elementary School (WCES) in Southeast Raleigh, which is predominately African-American, is already struggling to deal with its high needs/high poverty status, just as many in the community feared.
Originally constructed for a student capacity of 780, the $25 million state-of-the-art facility, on traditional calendar, has now enrolled an estimated 936 students as of Nov. 15th, WCPSS confirmed, putting it at 156 pupils, or 20 percent over capacity.
                              WALNUT CREEK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
The situation has many veteran educators, like Marvin Pittman, retired administrator with the NC Dept. of Public Instruction, worried that the overcrowding is creating conditions at WCES that interfere with the delicate process of learning.
“My biggest concern, as an educator, is the number of children at the school,” Pittman told The Carolinian last week. “The school did not open up with the anticipation of 936 students.”
“The staff was hired with the anticipation that they would have small class sizes, and that the school would be small - about 780 students. That’s manageable,” said Pittman, whose church, Compassionate Tabernacle of Missionary Baptist Church in Southeast Raleigh has been vigorously supporting WCES even before it officially opened. “When you put into an elementary school 936 students, you’re asking for trouble.”
Under growing outrage from Pittman and other Southeast Raleigh community leaders, Wake Supt. Anthony Tata finally acknowledged that he and his staff allowed population at WCES to get out of hand.

“We believe that we are on the right track,” Tata told reporters during his weekly press conference Friday. “[But} we believe that we need to take action now to stay on the right track, and stabilize the enrollment at that school because…the challenges of having too many children could…could potentially go beyond where we want to be.”
But why has it taken so long for Tata to “…believe that we need to take action now”? The fact that WCES has a capacity problem has been evident since it opened in August.
Most schools try to open at approximately 95 percent capacity for the expressed purpose of allowing for transfers and more admissions.
The Republican-led Wake School Board, however, reassigned exactly 780 students to WCES, its total capacity, from several other schools - primarily Barwell and East Garner elementary year-round schools - last February before construction was even finished. From the 781st student on, WCES was immediately over capacity, with apparently no controls in place to consistently manage the situation.
         On the first day of school August 25th, system officials say, WCES opened with 763 students, 17 short of capacity. But that quickly changed.
According to the WCPSS 2011-2012 Facilities Utilization Report, released just last week, on Sept. 22nd, 20 days after the 2011-2012 school year officially began, WCES logged in 891 students, 111 pupils above capacity.
         In just 20 days, WCES had garnered 128 more students, a startling number.
On Oct. 4th - seven days before the school board elections and less than two months in - citizens were already coming to the Wake School Board meeting, complaining during public comments about WCES’ student population exploding to 902, 122 past capacity.
However, WCPSS continued to allow any child, whose parent or guardian brought an affidavit proving neighborhood residency per board policy, to be enrolled in WCES.
Indeed, sources say, children were still being enrolled as recently as last week.
Most of the WCES population swell is happening in kindergarten, first and second grades, Supt. Tata says, adding, “[They] got bigger than what we anticipated and what we intended.”
“I think we’re OK if we can get K, 1 and 2 back to where they need to be,” Tata said.
The situation is forcing school officials to find space on WCES ‘ campus for two modular units that won’t be ready until next summer, and has called into question their promise of smaller class sizes.
The capacity problem has now had an unintended rippling effect on other conditions at the school.
“The answer is not more mobile units, or hiring more teachers and putting them in the building,” Marvin Pittman, who also served as a Wake principal for many years, said.

            At least 18 of WCES’ 66 teachers, according to Supt. Tata on Friday, are first-and-second year instructors, with the rest having anywhere from 3 to over 5 years of classroom experience. Experience levels are key when it comes to effectively teachng high needs children.
           _____________________________________________
         
             EDITOR'S NOTE - On Monday, a source at WCPSS said the actual number of teachers at Walnut Creek Elementary School is 64, and broke it down as 29 having 0-4 years experience; 17 having 5-10 years; and 18 having 10 or more years. Specialists are included in these numbers.
           ______________________________________________
A second assistant principal, more teachers and more teacher assistants are also having to be hired to get class sizes down to recommended levels, Tata said.
            But Pittman says those changes don’t really matter as long as the school remains over-capacity. A larger student population means larger class sizes, and that means teachers not being able to successfully employ the strategies necessary to reach each and every child in that class, because there are too many.
            “You’re going to need time…when you have a bunch of students, the teacher is not going to have the time,” Pittman says.
            Add to that the fact that the student population is high needs/high poverty functioning on a Level 1 or Level 2 low proficiency, and the challenge is compounded, Pittman says, especially for the almost one-third of the WCES teaching staff that is either first or second-year educators, the ones most prone to burn out in high poverty schools.
            “If you go to that school, you’re going to find the teachers worn out, because they are trying so hard,” Pittman says, adding that they need the support of the community and WCPSS Central Office.
            The teachers at WCES also need for more money.
            Because WCES isn’t a Renaissance school, its teachers aren’t being paid extra for the required 45-minute longer school days they have to put in.
            Supt. Tata says his staff is “working on that,” hoping to have WCES qualify as the system’s fifth high needs/high poverty, low performing Renaissance school receiving federal dollars to compensate teachers.
            With 72 percent of its student population free-and-reduced lunch (F&R) - placing WCES among WCPSS’ top ten F&R high poverty schools - and an estimated over 50 percent classified as low achievers, parents, community leaders, and even school board members are concerned that the situation at Walnut Creek, almost midway through its first school year, is getting worse before much is being done to make it better.
                                                    HILL
“Apparently we had [the] “unintended outcomes” that I keep warning about,” District 3 Wake School Board member Kevin Hill, told The Carolinian, after he met with Tata last Monday.
Hill has been warning since the Republican-led Wake School Board majority adopted its community-based neighborhood schools policy last year that if the board created high needs/high poverty schools as a result, it had to commit the required staffing and resources necessary to make them manageable.
Allowing student capacity to balloon so quickly, Hill says, defeats that purpose, and calls the new school choice assignment plan into question.
District 4 school board representative Keith Sutton, in whose district WCES resides, says he’s “extremely disturbed” by what he’s hearing, wonders why certain things he was promised by the WCPSS Central Office, like an enrollment cutoff much sooner, hasn’t happened.
“I was told that they would not [enroll any more weeks ago],” Sutton told The Carolinian. ”Somebody should have been on that.”
Indeed, WCPSS Growth and Management is supposed to monitor capacity versus enrollment, and keep the board updated when a problem is emerging.
That didn’t happen in WCES’s case. Some are wondering how could Growth and Management miss the WCES situation for so long.
Others ask if, at the urging of some Republican board members, the staff oversight was deliberate.
                                  SUTTON WITH TATA
Sutton has had the WCES’ capacity capping issue placed on the school board’s agenda for Tuesday. Supt. Tata said he will present the board with “a menu of schools” from which to choose from to send future students living in nodes around WCES.
There are indications that some of the Republican board members may recommend WCES convert to year-round to better handle capacity.
That’s what they and Chairman Margiotta originally wanted in order to keep as many Southeast Raleigh children as possible in Southeast Raleigh.
Tata insisted, though no one had asked or suggested otherwise, that WCES was not “the most overcrowded school” in the system, but was “the most heavily resourced school.”
Even with Tata - under growing pressure from WCES parents, board members Sutton and Hill, Southeast Raleigh community leaders and The Carolinian Newspaper - addressing the issue during his Friday press conference, the question remains unanswered: Why did the superintendent and his Growth and Management staff allow WCES’ student population to balloon 20 percent above capacity, and wait until now to deal with it, having to involve the school board in what should have been a management function of monitoring the situation?
                              PRINCIPAL COREY A. MOORE
 The fault, many observers say, is not with WCES’ dedicated principal, Corey A. Moore, or his committed handpicked staff and teachers who tackle the unique challenges a school with a high needs student population can bring. And it’s certainly not with the parents, or their children, who wanted to attend the brand new elementary school in the neighborhood, assured of smaller class sizes, experienced teachers and the latest technology.
The blame, many community leaders say, lies with the Republican-led Wake School Board, which reassigned thousands of children last February per its neighborhood schools policy, sometimes spinning the inevitability of creating high needs/high poverty schools; and the school system’s administration, both of whom have allowed WCES to take on more than it was designed to handle.
                                      TEDESCO
“If we had a school that was, like, 80 percent high poverty, the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful,” District 2 board member John Tedesco, a Republican, told The Washington Post last January, justifying the by-product of the neighborhood schools policy he backed.
Originally, the board’s Republican-majority wanted WCES to be a year-round school, which would have broken up the school’s capacity over a series of staggered tracks. But because Southeast Raleigh parents did not like the year-round schedule, or the added childcare costs associated with it - having at least two other year-round school in and/or near Southeast Raleigh already, District 4 representative Keith Sutton pushed for a traditional calendar instead.
Attempting to spin an emerging crisis into some semblance of success, without explaining an apparent failure in managing WCES’ growth, Supt. Tata told reporters Friday“We wanted to make it a high demand school, and we did,” adding that that was the reason for the over-capacity.
The closest Tata came to explaining why he’s taken so long to deal with problem was when he said, “ Demand is higher than was anticipated.”
Translation - they didn’t manage it.
A chief source of WCES being “beyond capacity,” according to Tata, is the legal mandate that classrooms for kindergarteners and first-graders must be located on the first floor of elementary school buildings, one of the reasons why one of two special classrooms at WCES had to be converted to deal with the overflow.
“We’re working through some other solutions to house those students in the building,” the superintendent assured.
Tata admitted that because of its capacity issues, WCES “quickly leapt into…” the top five over-capacity schools in the system. He insists that because WCPSS is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars, additional personnel, new technology and programs into WCES, it is “on track” to succeed.
He added that his new school choice assignment plan “…will prevent this kind of growth from happening inside a school by managing capacity through firm controls and choice.” Enrolling only 115 kindergarteners next year will “right-size the elementary school,” Tata promised.

“We will not have an overcrowding situation unless we choose to breach the capacity limit set,” Tata assured, seemingly insinuating that he “chose” to have exactly that happen at WCES, because of “high demand.”
Critics counter that Tata wouldn’t be running back to the school board, at board member Keith Sutton’s insistence, with an emergency request to cap the over-capacity school if he wasn’t made to realize how “off track” not properly managing WCES’ population had quickly become.
Ironically, one of the schools that is benefiting from WCES’ capacity problem is East Garner Elementary School, a year-round school from where over 220 Southeast Raleigh students were reassigned last February by the Wake School Board, to WCES.
            East Garner Elementary is in District 2, represented by board Vice Chair John Tedesco, a Republican who won election in 2009 by campaigning to get SE Raleigh kids out of Garner schools through neighborhood schools. Tedesco’s ally was Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams, who has fought, and even threatened to sue previous Wake School Boards, for assigning too many poor SE Raleigh children to Garner schools.
            When it came time last February for the board to reassign children to help fill up WCES, which was opening in August, more Southeast Raleigh children were taken from East Garner Elementary than any other.
            Today, while WCES bursts at the seams with 936 students, East Garner Elementary, which is 69 percent F&R, is home to just 577, according to the WCPSS.
            The official capacity of the school is 849.
            East Garner Elementary could literally absorb WCES’ 156 over capacity, and still have space open for 149 more students.
            That won’t happen. The 936 students at WCES are there to stay for the remainder of the school year, so all the school board will consider on Tuesday is where else to send any other neighborhood applicants, or make WCES year-round.
                                                WRIGHT
“We have done [WCES] students a disservice,” Calla Wright, president of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African-American Children says. “I’m deeply concerned that we’ve put our most vulnerable children at risk.”
Wright says she has heard from parents who enrolled their children in WCES because of the promise of smaller class sizes and experienced teachers. Now they are concerned that the school system is reneging on that promise.
            “Who is accountable?” Wright asked. “That is the question.”
            Retired educator Marvin Pittman is also hearing from WCES parents, and they’re concerned that with 20 percent more students than originally planned for, WCES hasn’t been able to appropriately stabilize into its core mission. Additional teachers this late in the school year means students may have a different instructor in front of them in February than they had in August.
            “These students need stability,” Pittman says. “They have just moved from other schools into Walnut Creek. They’re beginning to know their teachers, so now you have to disrupt them again to send them to another teacher. The parents are [concerned] about all of this transition, so just sending more trailers and more teachers is not the answer.”
            To attorney Mark Dorosin, professor at the UNC School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights, what’s happening at, and to WCES, “was predictable.”
“We saw this happening when the school board started reassigning students over the last few years,” Prof. Dorosin, who helped research and draw up the NCNAACP’s federal racial bias complaint against the Wake School Board with the US Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, told the Power 750 WAUG-AM program, “Make It Happen,” last Thursday.
“[The Wake School Board] created a brand new school that was racially-isolated, high poverty, and low-performing school,” Dorosin continued, noting that the Wake School Board never denied that, but to placate its critics, announced that it would compensate for it with more resources.
“And what we know is that that is an untenable model,” Dorosin said, adding that when it comes to what the new school choice plan offers, “Walnut Creek is the canary in the coal mine. The worst case scenario which we envisioned has come into fruition.”
Retired educator Marvin Pittman says he has sent communication to Supt. Tata, telling him that he wants Tata, Keith Sutton and other school board members to meet with the community to get an understanding as to the way forward for WCES. With 936 students, the school, its staff and student are going to need greater support from all quarters than ever before, and Pittman wants to ensure that they get it.
“I want us to sit down and talk about this in a real sense,” Pittman says. “This can’t continue to happen.”
                                      -30-


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