New Wake County Public School System Superintendent Anthony Tata sought to paint himself as a friend to parents and students disgruntled over the district’s reassignment changes in a public forum Thursday night.
The dialogue at Martin Street Baptist Church in East Raleigh afforded Tata the opportunity to directly respond to about 160 members of a community still assessing what kind of leader he will be.
[pullquote]”I challenge anyone to show me where I said that neighborhood schools are the answer.”[/pullquote]
The event came during a time when Tata is determining how to proceed on revising the district’s student assignment plan, which the school board dropped last spring. The school board majority came into office on a plan to return all students to schools in their neighborhoods. The district has used reassignment to maintain socioeconomic diversity since 2000.
Reassignment detractors were vindicated earlier this week when a memo surfaced from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This memo made it clear that reassigning students based on eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches, a proxy for socioeconomic status, violates student privacy.
The latest proposal for student assignment is the Wake School Choice Plan, or Alves Plan, which features a mix of “base schools” and magnet schools and would pursue diversity in student achievement. Tata has formed a task force to examine this and other options, with a deadline in late March.
Staking Out his Territory
Echoing the language and emphasis of the Alves Plan, Tata redirected the host of questions about diversity back to achievement.
He held that refrain when answering a query about the controversial Walnut Creek Elementary School, which will open next year with 80 percent of its students qualifying for subsidized lunches.
“We project a mid-50 percent student achievement rating [at Walnut Creek],” he said. “I’m more concerned about student achievement numbers.”
Tata did not confine his focus on achievement to students.
“Knowing where effective teachers are is key,” he said. “Knowing where the low achievers are is key.”
“For me, it’s all about human capital,” he elaborated later. “The No. 1 statistic to me is to have highly effective teachers link up with low-performing students. Research shows that if we put the top 25 percent of teachers with the bottom 25 percent of students, we’ll see student achievement grow exponentially by the second and third years.”
Throughout the evening, Tata did not shy away from affirming his commitment to diversity.
“I have lived a life of diversity,” he said. “The U.S. military was one of the first institutions to be integrated.”
Tata served 28 years in the U.S. Army before becoming chief operating officer of Washington, D.C. public schools.
Despite his brief tenure as Wake County’s district chief, Tata is already defending his record here. A speaker claimed Tata was contradicting himself by advocating diversity in East Raleigh after telling parents in North Raleigh he supports neighborhood schools; Tata denied the accusation.
“I challenge anyone to show me where I said that neighborhood schools are the answer,” he said.
Nor were Tata’s appearances on Fox News and other networks off limits.
“It was 100 percent about book promotion,” he said. “They didn’t pay me anything. I had no alignment. Ninety-nine percent of what I did was objective analysis of foreign policy. Some things have been taken out of context, some in context.”
Tata also spent time connecting his military past to his present as an educational leader. His time as a unit commander and brigadier general, he said, kept him familiar with a younger generation.
“I have dealt with mostly public high school graduates, 18, 19, 20 years old. I have a good feel for the discipline issues among 16- and 17-year-olds,” he said.
Audience members seemed cautiously optimistic about Tata.
“His answers were very detailed,” said Rukiya Dillahunt, one of the event’s organizers.
“I appreciate how Mr. Tata took the time to come here as he said he would,” said Carly Campbell, an adult staff member of NC H.E.A.T., a student organization and co-sponsor of the forum.
But she cast doubt on his approach to the struggles the district faces.
“He’s been in war trenches, not in classroom trenches,” she said. “What really worries me is I don’t want him treating students like soldiers.”
Perhaps Tata himself summed up the situation best during the Q-and-A session.
“I can stand here and talk all night, but in the end each of you will judge me based on my actions going forward,” he said.