By Cash Michaels
After a growing uproar from the Southeast Raleigh community, the Wake County School Board Tuesday unanimously capped enrollment at Walnut Creek Elementary School (WCES) at 862 students, effective this week.
But WCPSS officials still haven’t adequately explained why they allowed what Growth and Management Supervisor Laura Evans admitted was “a huge amount of growth” for the fledgling high needs/high poverty school, created by the Republican-led board’s neighborhood schools policy, to occur.
Originally constructed earlier this year for a student capacity of 780, the $25 million state-of-the-art facility, on traditional calendar, has now officially enrolled an estimated 929 students as of Nov. 16th, WCPSS says, putting it at 149 pupils over capacity.
All 929 students will remain at WCES for the balance of the school year - none will be moved, no more will be enrolled. Officials say the new 862 capacity cap will be reached through attrition, and limiting kindergarten enrollment in 2012.
Any new applicants to WCES will now be diverted to Creech Road Elementary School in Garner, which is on a similar calendar as Walnut Creek, school officials said.
Before the unanimous vote, Wake School Board Vice Chairman John Tedesco tried to lay the blame for the overcrowding on District 4 representative Keith Sutton without calling his name, saying that if Sutton, in whose district WCES resides, hadn’t convinced the board to change the school’s calendar from year-round to traditional, the capacity issue never would have occurred.
Year-round schools are able to handle larger total capacities because groups of students are tracked in on staggered schedules throughout the entire year, as opposed to just August to June for traditional calendar schools.
In WCES’ case, the issue wasn’t calendar, however, but ineffective management of student enrollment.
Tedesco urged the board to reconsider making WCES year-round eventually, and also called for more schools to be built in Southeast Raleigh in the future.
While the issue of capping WCES’ high enrollment may have been settled, the damage it has left behind remains to be adequately addressed.
Veteran educators, like Marvin Pittman, retired administrator with the NC Dept. of Public Instruction, worried that even with new cap, 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  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  students, you’re asking for trouble.”
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Pittman told members flatly, “Overcrowding is going to be a problem.”
Under growing outrage from Pittman and other Southeast Raleigh community leaders, Wake Supt. Anthony Tata finally acknowledged last week 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 last 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 initial official 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.
When classes officially began at WCES on August 25, 763 students - 17 short of capacity - were enrolled.
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.
From August 25 to Sept. 22 alone, WCES was allowed to enroll 128 pupils.
In fact, according to WCPSS records, WCES was forced to accept students every week since the school opened. 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 was happening in kindergarten, first and second grades, Supt. Tata said, 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 four 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.
Tata told reporters last Friday that WCES had 66 teachers, but sources say the school actually has 64 teachers, 29 of which have experience 0 - 4 years; 17 with 5-10 years in the classroom; and 18 with over 10 years of teaching.
At Tuesday’s board work session, WCES Principal Corey Moore said of the actual regular homeroom teachers, 12 were first year.
Experience levels are key when it comes to effectively teaching high needs children.
A second assistant principal, more teachers and more teacher assistants are also being 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 first or second-year educators on the WCES teaching staff, 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.
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.”
Area Supt. July Mizell told board members during their work session Tuesday that the high demand “was not predictable,” even though staff had been watching it all along, trying to find space in “nontraditional places” at the school.
Translation - the growth got way from them.
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.
Retired educator Marvin Pittman is also hearing from WCES parents, and they’re concerned that with almost 150 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.”
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Pittman vowed that the Southeast Raleigh community “will work with you” to make Walnut Creek a successful elementary school. He said there are many retired educators who are willing to give of their time and energy to assist however they can.
“We are a demanding community in Southeast Raleigh,” Pittman said.
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.”
Tuesday also marked the last Wake School Board meeting for Chairman Ron Margiotta - who lost his election after eight years - and board members Dr. Carolyn Morrison and Dr. Anne McLaurin, who are leaving.
In his final statement, Margiotta, a Republican, said even though there had been tensions on the board during his tenure, he always found his colleagues to be respectful and professional.
He added that he was proud of his eight years on the board.
Democrats take over the majority on the school board on Dec. 6th.