Aug 23, 2012
Beyond the pull of a magnet
The recipe for attracting federal money to start a new magnet school in Wake County has been simple and effective for almost 30 years. Identify a struggling school with a high percentage of low-income children. Offer programs that attract middle-class students. Promise to fill the school and create more diversity. Win the grant.
The formula isn’t magic, but it’s a tried-and-true way to attract federal startup money. Thirty-two of the district’s 169 schools now have magnet programs. So it only makes sense that the district would return to the script hoping to land another $10 million or more to start three new programs next year.
But the Wake County school district of today is much different than even 10 years ago.
In 2003, about a fourth of the students came from low-income families. Today it is more than a third. Poverty has become more concentrated in certain communities, especially in the east and southeast.
Moreover, at least 75 percent of the district’s low-income kids could read and write at grade level in 2003, thanks in no small part to lower statewide standards. The passing rate for today’s low-income students is less than 55 percent and the standards are about to become harder still.
In short, a new magnet program 10 years ago stood a pretty good chance of refocusing a school that had simply slipped and needed help attracting the kind of involved parents that help schools succeed.
That’s no longer a given. Implicit in two separate discussions this month about new magnet programs was the recognition by school board members that some challenges are beyond the pull of what a magnet can solve.
The federal guidelines make it clear Wake can’t expect to win grants that would help one school at the expense of another. That is why Hodge, Creech, and Barwell elementary schools – schools that would have seemed obvious choices in years past – are not on the list in 2012.
In those schools, almost 80 percent of the students are from low-income families. Magnet programs might attract some middle-class students, but district officials say many of those students are already enrolled in a magnet elsewhere.
So the staff is recommending a list that includes Green Elementary, Carroll Middle School and Fox Road Elementary. The latter was a last-minute choice because its selection creates some of the same challenges found at Hodge, Creech and Barwell.
The district has expanded its list of other non-magnet programs in the past two years, partly in recognition that magnets aren’t the answer to every problem. But the larger answers, according to community leaders in eastern Wake County who addressed the board this week, will require a coordinated plan that addresses today’s realities.
Magnet programs are an integral part of Wake’s success. They will almost surely play a critical role in its future. But as a tool, magnet programs have remained largely the same for roughly three decades. The school district, now the 16th largest in the country, has changed immensely.
If you don’t build it, they’ll still come
In the middle of a school board discussion this week about the need for more classroom seats in Wake, school board Vice Chair Keith Sutton asked a question that most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about.
What if voters approved bond sales in May that gave the district everything it wanted to keep up with enrollment? More to the point, is it even possible for the district to build 25 new schools and complete dozens of renovation and repair projects by 2016?
Planners say that’s what it will take to address current needs and keep up with a predicted increase of about 16,000 new students during the next few years.
The answer from Don Haydon, chief facilities and operations officer:” We’re good, but not that good.”
The exchange didn’t get much attention, but it means parents, realtors, business leaders and communities in general could be asking a lot of questions in the near future as the district decides where thousands of new students are going to sit in the coming years.
The challenge, Haydon explained, is not just the ability to build seats fast enough to cover the predicted increase to 167,000 students. It’s also that so much construction in such a short amount of time would drive up costs because the district would be in competition with itself for companies that could do the work.
So where will the students sit? Expect more debates about opening or converting schools to year-round calendars, more ninth-grade centers, another round of “temporary” classroom trailers and endless searches for more capacity.
This is what will happen if voters approve a tax increase to pay for new construction bonds. If voters deny the request, taxes still might increase because the kids have to sit somewhere.
During three decades of debate about the art and science of enrollment projections, there has always been one constant. New students just keep on coming.
More than one answer will apply
Depending on who was responding this week to a presentation about test scores for 2012-2013, the report was either a simple snapshot designed to paint a rosy picture or the best results Wake County has seen in a decade.
As might be expected for something as exhaustive as annual accountability measures, it’s more accurate to say the final answer lies somewhere in between.
The presentation by Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for student performance, reviewed academic achievement and growth with an emphasis on the performance of low-income students.
By just about every measure, last year saw solid gains for Wake County’s students. Proficiency rates increased in every subject at every grade level with the exception of seventh-grade math. The number of middle school students taking Algebra I classes increased from about 5,000 to more than 7,200. Individual schools from Jeffreys Grove Elementary to Enloe High School saw outstanding gains.
But broad-brush statements and single-year gains inevitably come with a list of caveats and qualifiers in the world of testing, especially in a district of 151,000 students.
The measures used in high school, for example, have changed noticeably in the past decade. Changes in elementary and middle school exams are so significant that today’s results can’t even be directly compared to the scores from five years ago.
There is one constant, however. Moving test scores forward is difficult work. It doesn’t just happen, let alone happen easily. It happens because principals, teachers and students understand what they need to accomplish and they set about doing it.
So when the results from this coming year are interpreted, they won’t be simple and aren’t likely to be the best ever. And that is partly because education isn’t about test scores. It’s about thinking, growing and understanding. Will it be a good year? More than one answer will apply.
… Finalists for the 2012-13 Principal and Assistant Principal of the Year awards were announced by the school district this week. Principal of the Year finalists are Kevin Biles of Pleasant Union Elementary; Kenneth Branch of Brentwood Magnet Elementary; Paula Trantham of Millbrook Magnet Elementary; Brian Pittman of Holly Ridge Middle; and Ericka Lucas of East Wake School of Art, Education and Global Studies. The finalists for Assistant Principal of the Year are Teresa Caswell of Lead Mine Elementary; Ruth Ann Freeman of Bugg Magnet Elementary; Travis Shillings of Brassfield Elementary; Wynette Martin of East Cary Middle; and Matthew Rice of Enloe Magnet High. Winners will be announced October 11.
…The 2013-2014 school calendars were approved this week by board members, although one change that won’t be obvious is the length of the day. A new state law requires all schools to either make the school day longer or add five days of classes for a total of 185 days. Most schools throughout the state opted for the longer school day.
… North Carolina students posted an average composite score of 21.9 on the ACT college-entrance exam in 2012. It was the fifth consecutive year that the state’s average ACT score has been higher than the national average. The ACT score is worth noting this year because all high school students will be required to take it in 2013. Only 20 percent of the state’s graduating class took the 2012 ACT exam. Traditionally, the SAT has been the college-entrance exam that most students take in North Carolina.
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