April 26, 2012

Retaining the pull of a magnet

It is no exaggeration to say Wake County’s magnet school programs helped shape the success of the nation’s 16th largest school system. The right tool at the right time, magnet programs consistently helped fill and integrate Raleigh’s classrooms for 25 years while other Southern cities struggled to preserve an attractive urban core.

Superintendent Tony Tata has become fond lately of referring to “the storied history of our magnet program.” And like most stories, this one has chapters. A new one is being written today.

The forces driving the narrative are different today than they were in the past. It is no longer adequate to just seat students of different backgrounds in the same classroom. Today’s standards demand that achievement gaps be closed. And poverty, once confined mainly to parts of downtown Raleigh, has spread east.

Relentless growth has also created a critical mass of parents who demand choices. In the past decade, they have reshaped the market as they choose between public, private and charter school offerings.

These issues, as well as others, were poured into an academic stew of sorts when Tata asked about 100 parents, educators and business leaders last week to offer advice on the next chapter in Wake’s magnet school history.

What is the role of a magnet school? Do we need more of them? How should we decide where to put them? What factors should determine if a magnet school theme is removed?

This isn’t the first time superintendents have asked these questions and it won’t be the last. As the “new guy” in Wake, Tata has found himself accused of wanting to destroy the magnet system by asking such questions. He assured those at his education summit that this was not the case.

But he will need to move both quickly and carefully.

Wake now has schools where more than two-thirds of the students are poor and less than two-thirds are at grade level. These are schools without magnet programs. It also has high-achieving magnet schools downtown where it is difficult to tell if it is the school or the increasing numbers of middle-class families moving into the neighborhood that keeps achievement moving forward. Guessing at the root cause is a risky venture.

But after four consecutive years of budget cuts, expanding the size of the magnet school pie isn’t likely to happen. It will need to be sliced differently.

“We’re not going to be able to just layer new stuff on,” Tata told the group. “I’m a big supporter of the magnet programs, but it has to be in the right place doing the right thing.”

Defining what that means is a question the school board is expected to tackle in earnest this summer. Until then, this chapter of the story is best considered a draft.

Trying to get school capacity “just right”

It doesn’t seem like it would be all that difficult to figure out a school’s capacity. Take the number of classrooms in a building, multiply that number by average class size and total it all up. That should be easy – except that isn’t how it works.

Capacity is determined by a number of factors, not the least of which are the programs taught at the school. Different types of special education classes, for example, require different student-teacher ratios. Enrollment in classes such as Advanced Placement can be hard to predict.

Moreover, students don’t move into neighborhoods in nice little lots of 23 kids per grade level – or whatever the state average is supposed to be for a given age. And principals sometimes use space, for better and worse, in ways the architects never dreamed of.

This matters because an accurate read on school capacity is a critical part of getting families into the schools they want to attend as part of the new school choice student assignment plan. Dependable numbers will also be important when convincing voters to approve a new school construction program next year.

So some recent figures being used by school leaders recently are worth noting. Based on this year’s enrollments, about a third of Wake’s schools are at 110 percent capacity or more. About a quarter of the schools are at less than 90 percent capacity.

That means about 58 percent of the district’s schools enroll too many or too few students.
Much of the capacity can be found in eastern Wake, largely because that is where additional seats were built just before the recession. Western Wake and schools inside the Beltline have the least amount of space.

The shortages in western Wake are caused mostly by growth and a decision in the past few years to convert schools from year-round to traditional calendars or from multi-track calendars to single-track calendars. And while growth inside the Beltline often goes unnoticed, the area is growing while the number of available seats has barely budged.

While this is hardly the sexiest of items on a school board agenda, it is clear that parents will soon find capacity at the middle of countless kitchen-table discussions involving their kids’ schools. Looking at the math, you can just about count on it.


Study highlights link between zoning and test scores

A recent study the Brookings Institution titled “Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools” received a fair amount of attention this week in Wake County. If Brookings had dropped the formality, the report could have been titled “Test scores: It matters where you live.”

The 31-page study analyzed the correlation between zoning laws, economic segregation and school test scores. It showed, among other things, that students in low-income neighborhoods are far more likely to attend low-income schools that post lower test scores. The gaps were exacerbated when the results are broken down by race.

Moreover, the findings echoed other studies showing low-income students benefit from attending high-scoring schools.

What makes the study unique is the way it links zoning data to school test score data, but what got people’s attention in Wake were the results for the Raleigh-Cary area. In short, the results show the gap between low-income students and middle-class students was much less than the Brookings’ model predicted given the economic segregation.

Of the 100 metropolitan areas studies, the schools in the Raleigh-Cary area did better than every other city when it came to comparing the actual test score gap with the predicted gap.

One possible reason cited was that “that Wake County has a history of aggressive district-wide socioeconomic integration policies,” according to the study.

Wake has one of the largest magnet school programs in the country designed to reduce the racial and economic isolation of students. It also used socio-economic diversity as one of the criteria when deciding where to assign students until 2010. A new school choice student assignment plan beginning in 2012-13 allows the district to consider the academic mix of schools when assigning students. Choice plans were cited in the study as a possible way to overcome the academic effects of economic segregation.

While most people focused on the area’s success in producing a much smaller gap than predicted, the report suggests the honor is a mixed blessing.

A more detailed breakdown of the area’s economics shows the Raleigh-Cary area is among the most economically segregated of the cities studied, ranking 94th. Housing costs near high-scoring elementary schools are 1.6 times higher than housing costs near low-scoring schools, ranking the metro area the 90th highest on that measure.

When those factors were coupled with a ranking of 43rd in the category of restrictive zoning, it created an expectation that test scores of low-income students would lag that of middle-class peers by about 25 percent. The actual gap is about 15 percent, which is still significant.

Overall, zoning in every city created unequal housing costs and economic segregation with corresponding differences in school test scores – a result that led the authors to conclude that “reforms to housing and land use could have potentially large benefits to the nation’s future by making educational opportunity more equal.”


…Long-time Wake school board attorney Ann Majestic was honored this week with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National School Boards Association Council of School Attorneys. Majestic, a partner in the law firm of Tharrington Smith, has represented numerous North Carolina school boards during the past three decades including Alamance County, Durham Public Schools, Moore County, Person County, and Wake County. She also serves as outside counsel to the North Carolina School Boards Association.

…The 12 finalists for the Wake County Public School System’s 2012-13 Teacher of the Year award were named last week during a ceremony posted on YouTube. They are Kristél Behrend, Lake Myra Elementary; Ellie Bentler, Reedy Creek Elementary; Molly Bostic, Heritage High; Lauren Brooks, Enloe Magnet High; Meher Daruwalla, Fuller Magnet Elementary; Wanda Harte, Ballentine Elementary; Betsy Lane, Hodge Road Elementary; Kristin McCormick, Cary High; Brandon Mize, Salem Elementary; Helen Pettiford, Sanderson High; Charlotte Roberts, Jeffreys Grove Elementary; and J. Stuart Vickery, Jr., Martin Magnet Middle. One of the finalists will be named Wake’s Teacher of the Year on May 17. Teacher of the Year recipients are ex-officio members of the Partnership’s Board of Directors.

…A decision to move forward with a new career-technical education high school at the former Coca-Cola Bottling Facility in Raleigh was made by school board members this week. The decision was needed before the staff works out numerous details involving costs, courses, schedules and students served. The school, to be run in partnership with Wake Technical Community College, is tentatively scheduled to open in 2013-2014.




Wake Education Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit created in 1983 to support public schools, in part by educating the community on current school issues and serving as a strong advocate for student achievement and world-class academic standards. Most of its financial support comes from individuals and local businesses. Please send comments or questions to Tim Simmons, VP of Communications, at tsimmons@wakeedpartnership.org or visit our website at www.wakeedpartnership.org.