Wake school board weighs bonus plan

Staff WriterFebruary 15, 2011 

— Wake school board leaders John Tedesco and Ron Margiotta have said for more than a year that schools with high concentrations of low-achieving students can succeed with extra support.

Today, board members will vote on a resolution that outlines what that support will mean and how much it will cost.

A proposal developed by Tedesco, former interim superintendent Donna Hargens and others devotes $950,000 per year in federal funds to four low-achieving schools.

Those schools - Barwell Road, Brentwood, Creech Road and Wilburn elementary schools - will also get high-tech enhancements for their classrooms under the plan, while teachers will be eligible for signing and performance bonuses.

The new Walnut Creek Elementary School, likely to open at Sunnybrook and Rock Quarry Road in Raleigh next fall with large numbers of low-achieving students, would get $7,000 for a bonus meant to attract a new principal.

The schools will serve as a test of the board majority's case that low-achieving students fare better in nearby schools than when bused to create more socio-economically balanced schools under the system's former diversity-based assignment plan.

"Now's the time to put your money where your mouth is," Tedesco said Monday about today's vote on the plan.

The designated low-achieving schools are what Wake County calls "Renaissance schools," a phrase Tedesco said was crafted to avoid the tired usage "education reform" when devising means to help them.

The money would come from the federal government's Race to the Top program, which is meant to encourage states to come up with new approaches to education.

North Carolina's application for the $4.35 billion Race to the Top funding included details of the Renaissance schools proposal.

Tedesco outlined cornerstones for the Renaissance schools - strong principals and teachers, evaluation of educators' performance and lowered class sizes.

Former school board chairman Kevin Hill said he hopes the new approaches will work but cites research that shows that retaining educators, not recruiting them, is key to improving achievement in hard-to-staff schools.

"My concern is how to sustain the funding," Hill said. "My thought would be that we shouldn't create high-poverty schools in the first place."

Tedesco noted that Wake's previous diversity plan did not prevent the creation of schools with large numbers of low-achieving students, including the four Renaissance schools.

"We didn't have the tools to support them, except reassignment," he said.

Representatives of a Southeast Raleigh community group and the Wake teachers association representative offered pros and cons about the funding and other plans for the schools.

Tama Bouncer, president of the Wake chapter of the N. C. Association of Educators, questioned a provision of the plan in which all teachers at the Renaissance schools, even those striving to improve performance without the new incentives, will have to reapply for their jobs if they wish to remain.

"Now they are being penalized, being told, you are going to have to apply for your job," Bouncer said. "It does allow the teachers to make the decision that this is the school where I want to be."

Some teachers from the Renaissance schools will be assigned elsewhere, and some teachers from other Wake schools will be recruited to the newly funded program.

Because the program's Race to the Top funding essentially makes it a done deal, the NCAE will not oppose its inclusion of merit pay for teachers, Bouncer said, even though competition for bonuses may not always work to students' advantage.

"We have the professional learning teams, and that has worked, with the teachers collaborating, sharing their ideas, looking at individual students and getting ideas about how to work with this student or that student," Bouncer said. "If that becomes more competitive and the tests determine if you get more money or you get more money, it's not going to have the same effect that it has now."

Retired state educator and educational consultant Marvin Pittman has been focusing for months on Walnut Creek, the elementary scheduled to open this fall.

A community meeting last week at Compassionate Baptist Church brought together several school board members, Pittman and about 100 people from the neighborhood.

"We knew when that new school came up out of the ground, we knew that when the doors flung open, it was going to filled with minority children, free- and reduced-price lunch children and children who were below proficiency level," Pittman said. "We started talking months ago about what the school is going to need in the way of resources."

Nearly 15 conflict-filled months after a new school board took office, it's likely their time to prove their plans will serve Wake's children better than those of the previous board.

Their opponents don't want to rain on the parade, certainly not if that means opposing better technology, smaller classes and higher pay for teachers.

But Pittman, a veteran educator, said he and others will keep a sharp eye out for any lessening of support for children for whom a nearby school is likely one with a history of low achievement.

"You cannot create these kinds of schools and not realize that it's going to take a whole different set of strategies," he said. "Every aspect of this county's future is wrapped up in how these schools do in Wake County.

"When you start having lots of failing schools, you cannot attract businesses. All futures are locked together. They are inextricable."

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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