Achievement Gap, Part 4: Wake County Then and Now

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Bill McNeal will tell you his formula for narrowing the achievement gap boils down to one thing: an entire community working toward one goal. The goal was to help students succeed, regardless of race or class, and Wake’s former superintendent McNeal, sometimes through sheer force of personality, helped the community accept it.

“We never dealt with the achievement gap in that sense,” McNeal said. “What we said is we want a system of achievement for every child … I believe I can do that better with a diverse environment.”

There’s the rub, today.

While Wake County school officials still want all children to succeed, the decision-making process for how to get there has proven almost as dysfunctional as Washington politics.

Should the system put extra resources into high-poverty schools? Provide the same resources for all schools regardless of their socioeconomic makeup? Or balance poverty levels, as it did then?

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Will Huntsberry

Bill McNeal began as a teacher in the Wake County school system in 1974. He was superintendent from 2000 to 2006. McNeal grew up in Durham.

McNeal, who was voted 2004 National Superintendent of the Year, said more than diversity, or any program, the key to success is community buy-in.

“We couldn’t have had a diversity policy unless the community agreed to it,” he said. “There’s no way. People look to the schools and say, ‘why don’t you just bring back diversity?’ No. You’ve got to have a willing community to do that.”

McNeal’s plan was to have 95 percent of all third through eighth graders proficient in reading and math at the end of a five-year push. While the school system didn’t quite hit the mark, the huge disparity in passing rates between races and classes narrowed.

The first step, he said, was getting everybody from central office down to the teachers and school staff to believe they could help groups that traditionally don’t perform well.

After gaining the support of the internal community, McNeal turned outward to sell the goal.

“We went after the faith community. We went after the business community,” he said.

Business and faith communities were major parts of the engine for success. Business councils promoted the goal to the community, and faith organizations helped set up tutoring and technology centers for children.

But garnering the support of business and religion wasn’t just the goal then. It’s integral to Superintendent Tony Tata’s strategy now.

Tata meets with the business community regularly, and Board Vice Chair Keith Sutton recently praised some local churches involved in tutoring.

Wake’s success with the achievement gap isn’t just distant history, either.

In Tata’s first full year on the job, Wake narrowed the achievement gap in a number of areas. High schools saw a big leap in basic proficiency for vulnerable groups, but the gap was less noticeable for elementary and middle schools.

For several previous years the gap had been stagnant. And as an earlier part of this series showed, Wake’s economically disadvantaged students are still not performing as well compared to similar students across the state as they were during McNeal’s tenure.

“The real story here for this year is that we’ve focused effort and resources on closing the gap,” Tata said. “You want to keep moving your topline up, but you want to accelerate your lower-performing line.”

At the same time he admits, “We’re nowhere near where we need to be.”

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Wake’s economically disadvantaged (E.D.) students are being outperformed by those statewide more than in MnNeal’s era. However, non E.D. students in Wake have consistently remained roughly 3 percentage points above those across the state. You can see that and other charts in Part 1 of our series.
Dividing Line
The philosophical dividing line today separates those who want to put extra resources in high-poverty schools and those who think the district should balance poverty to avoid them.

Putting extra resources in schools worked this year with Title I funds and the Renaissance Schools program as well as at Walnut Creek Elementary.

But the Renaissance program is funded by a federal grant, which enabled the school system to put $1 million extra into each of the schools. The money pays teachers and administrators who might not normally work in a high-poverty school.

The four lowest-performing elementary schools in the district were chosen for the program and their gains compared to other elementary schools were considerable. Then again, they had a lot of room to grow.

“The Renaissance School idea—I don’t deny that you can put money in it and it will pay good dividends … you pay good teachers more to stay there; you pay school leaders more to be there. If you provide additional money for resources, can it work? Sure it can,” McNeal said.

“However, the history of doing that is not a good history. It says most districts will pour that money in for a year or two and then as times get harder that money will go away and then where are you?”

Research suggests that if the schools continue to have a high percentage of poor students, good teachers will flee.

But in his State of the Schools speech last week, Tata made the counterpoint: “Some people say, ‘Well, Tata, that’s unsustainable.’ Well, I would rather try to figure out how to sustain this going forward, than to sustain what was happening before.”

John Tedesco

John Tedesco is perhaps the most enigmatic of those in the debate. While quick to acknowledge the perils of high-poverty schools, Tedesco doesn’t think the school system should mandate diversity.

He said he supports “driving some diversity into the system, but by voluntary means. We can’t say, ‘because you live here your node has to get on a bus.’”

A Record analysis of last year’s controlled-choice model, which allowed parents some degree of voluntary choice in selecting schools, showed the plan was leading to higher-poverty schools.

For Tedesco, the solution is: put your money where your mouth is and pony up additional resources for the high-poverty schools.

But Jason Langberg, who works with low-income students and families at Legal Aid, wonders what’s happening to the at-risk children who aren’t in Renaissance Schools.

“Wake County is following the law at a place like Walnut Creek, but that may mean they’re implicitly not following the law at all other schools with at-risk kids,” Langberg said.

Chicken or the Egg
It’s difficult to tell what’s at the heart of real reform, whether it’s changing policies or changing a culture.

For McNeal, setting the goal and achieving community buy-in grew up symbiotically.

The business community wanted the schools to perform better. The school system wanted the schools to perform better. So, the school system set the 95 percent goal and then businesses and churches helped McNeal sell it as a reality.

And while the school system still makes a concerted effort to garner support from businesses and churches, the district just isn’t the same as it was back then.

“We’re playing to a parade,” as opposed to a static audience, said Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

For McNeal, playing to the parade of newcomers means playing to an ever-increasing group of people who don’t understand Wake County’s history of integration and balancing for diversity.

Wake is different than many other places in the nation, particularly the Northeast, simply by virtue of having a county school system. In many areas, schools are operated by city districts or independent districts that encompass small areas and are generally more economically and racially segregated than Wake as a whole.

Since the 1970s, Wake has been in the business of not simply sending children to school in their own neighborhood to help avoid the “natural” economic and racial segregation that occurs in neighborhoods and cities.

“If there are folks who want to take on this charge, it should be integrated housing patterns rather than at the schoolhouse door,” Tedesco said.

He claims the district is now too large, the demographic make-up too changed, for a diversity policy to work.

“You can’t bus out the inequities from Zebulon to Apex,” he said.

But Democratic Board Member Christine Kushner notes that the school system never tried to bus from Zebulon to Apex. Neither will a new assignment plan, she said.

“We do have a diverse county and we do need to make sure our schools look like our county,” Kushner said. “Because we’re big, we can be very intentional about how we assign students.”

While Democrats and Republicans both consistently reinforce the importance of student achievement, it’s this philosophic divide that has lead to paralysis.

Without one voice emanating from the school system, business and faith leaders can’t be sure who to follow.

“The business community—they get paralyzed when they have to choose between factions,” McNeal said. “They do nothing, because they’re saying ‘I’m not going to align myself with one or the other, because when I do that, that’s a problem.’”

Schmitt of the chamber admits as much.

“The partisan nature of the current conversation does make it harder for business to get engaged, because business is not interested in political parties as much as stability,” Schmitt said.

“That adds a bit of confusion, but it doesn’t abate interest or efforts to assist the system in continuing to improve,” he added.

Despite current effort or interest, the education community, like national politics, is fractured. But, both McNeal and Schmitt say it would be fallacy to think division didn’t exist in the early 2000s.

McNeal believes Wake still wants all its kids proficient and college ready.

“The question that follows that is then, ‘what are you prepared to do in order to make it happen?’” he said. “That still has to be answered.”

In the meantime, only five in 10 economically disadvantaged elementary and middle school students pass their reading and math tests. For economically advantaged students, the passing rate is nearly 9 in 10.

You can email Will Huntsberry at or follow on twitter @willhuntsberry or #wakeschoolboard

One thought on “Achievement Gap, Part 4: Wake County Then and Now

  1. I went to Cary today to assign my child in school. It was pretty hectic but what parents don’t understand is The employees are working very hard to make sure our children are in the right school. In the past it was easier to register your child in school but now it is harder because the parents were registering the child into school that they wanted their childrens to go to, Instead of where they’re supposed to go. What they don’t understand is the schools are meant to have so many students but if there are more students that it is not supposed to be there, this is harder for the teachers and students. This is why this system is the way it is. It is not wake County employees fault. They are doing all that they can, do to the circumstances of cutbacks, short staff, impatient parents, short notice, and change. I am surprised that people don’t understand expecially what happened on Wake Forest Road. I understand that parents want their children to go to be best schools, but they need to understand that schools only hold so many students to a teacher. and when the parents do not understand this and put their children where they want them to be, the system has to change. but I do agree that all schools should be equal so this would not happen. I do thank the wake County employees for doing an excellent job. this system will work with time.