RALEIGH — Enloe High opened in 1962 as one of the area's earliest integrated secondary schools. Nearly a half century later, the venerable school with a reputation for academic rigor is still at the center of an emotional conversation about racial diversity.
Since Enloe became a magnet school in 1982, it has enjoyed national prominence as an ambitious high school with a diverse population. It became a sought-after destination for the brainiest students, and a success story in Wake County, where schools were balanced according to socioeconomic status.
Its magnet students come from all over the county to load up on Advanced Placement classes and take advantage of unique electives and an International Baccalaureate program. At the same time, much of Enloe's base population consists of minority students from low-income areas east of downtown.
That, for years, has prompted people to ask: Is Enloe's story a tale of two schools?
The debate resurfaced this month when a senior at the school wrote a letter to The News & Observer's editorial page, saying Enloe was "two schools under one roof," and "separated and unequal within." The student later faced a hostile reaction in class, where a teacher reportedly threatened to rescind a college recommendation letter. Wake County school officials investigated; they say the teacher remains in the classroom.
At the 2,700-student campus, Enloe students agree that AP classes are mostly composed of white and Asian students, while the standard courses are often predominantly black and Latino. But they disagree about whether that's a big problem for the school, which this year is 39 percent black, 34 percent white, 12 percent Asian and 9 percent Hispanic.
Ensura Flowers, a junior whose base school is Enloe, has brought up the issue in class and said people are uncomfortable talking about it.
"I did notice the fact that everything is separated," said Flowers, who is African-American. "I really believe history repeats itself."
Flowers is in "regular" classes, as she calls them.
"We just get the regular education, not the special, advanced education," she said. "It's not fair. I want to learn new things."
Students get into AP classes primarily through recommendations from teachers, but Principal Beth Cochran says they are open to anyone, and students can get in simply by asking. The racial makeup of the school's classes is not available, Wake County school officials said.
Khrystle Bullock, a senior magnet student who lives near Knightdale, said students can choose to be on a path to advanced classes.
"Everything is here," said Bullock, who is African-American and will attend Hampton University in the fall. "You have supportive teachers, you have resources, you have exposure. ... It's all about choices."
Bullock has taken a slew of AP classes and acknowledges that she's had, at most, four black students in any of those classes.
"I don't blame the school," she said. "I blame students."
Passion for a school
The diversity argument has become more heated in the past year.
Enloe's magnet program has been at the heart of the school board's fight over dumping the district's policy of busing for economic diversity in favor of neighborhood schools. Enloe parents and students crowded into board meetings to protest what they fear could be the end of the magnet program. That would destroy the school, they say.
Arthur Vernooij, a senior magnet student who lives near Cary, said the Enloe experience can't be matched; students have access to college-level classes for free. "I came here for the challenge," said Vernooij, who is white. "I'm a competitor and I came for the challenge. I wouldn't have it any other way."
Jared Reeve, a senior magnet student from Apex, said he could have been bored in a traditional high school. "Here I've actually been challenged and I've learned to work and study," said Reeve, who is Asian.
Reeve, who hopes to study engineering at N.C. State University, has taken calculus 3 and differential equations. "It's much harder than any other class. Where else would you get it?"
John Tedesco, a member of the school board majority in favor of neighborhood schools, has argued that Wake's record of diversity can be deceiving. He has pointed out that in some schools the high performance of some students can mask the troubling underachievement of others.
At Enloe, he said, low-income children are performing below those at other schools.
"So those low-income children as a subgroup at that school haven't been getting all they needed," he said. "I would hope that we can pay attention to our most vulnerable kids and not just our most gifted kids."
Among all of Wake County's traditional high schools, Enloe has the lowest passing rates on end-of-course tests for black students and for economically disadvantaged students.
In 2009-10, the passing rate for black students at Enloe was 55.8 percent, compared with 60.1 percent for Hispanic students, 92.1 percent for Asian students and greater than 95 percent for white students. African-Americans' passing rates are better at other schools - 62.9 percent at Southeast Raleigh, 69.4 percent at Broughton, 70.8 percent at Garner High and 76.3 percent at Sanderson.
'I don't talk very much'
Cochran, the principal, said the large achievement gap can be partly explained by the wide range of students who attend the school.
"We serve some of the brightest kids in the county and we serve some of the lowest kids in the county," she said, "and then we have everything else in between."
Cochran pointed out that the passing rate for black students had jumped 10 percentage points from 2009 to 2010, and the school achieved the designation of "high growth" in test scores. (Generally student test scores improved during the time period because retest results were counted for the first time.)
Enloe has made several changes to better address the needs of low-performing students, she said. For the first time this year, the school held a minority student success summit to brainstorm new approaches. And Enloe started a daily 25-minute tutorial known as "Eagle Enrichment," where teachers and high-achieving students tutor those failing in one subject or another.
The school has started pre-honors courses to try to better prepare students for honors and AP classes.
Colethia Evans, parent of a ninth-grade magnet student at Enloe, said the divide is most apparent in the AP classes, "which, by the way, is not an Enloe problem or a magnet problem. It's a Wake County-wide problem."
Evans, who is African-American, has heard black and Hispanic parents' concerns about a lack of challenge for their children, particularly for black males. And sometimes when a child of color is on the borderline, she said, not all teachers will try to get that child to the next level.
Kina Stewart, a 10th-grader whose base school is Enloe, takes four honors classes, where she has noticed, on average, two or three black students in any one class.
"I do think it's like two schools within a school," said Stewart, who is African-American.
She has thought about dropping the honors classes because she doesn't feel totally comfortable.
"I don't talk very much," she said. "I just do my work because I don't feel like I have anything in common."
Diverse in other ways
Bullock, the magnet student headed for Hampton, said Enloe is rich and diverse in many ways other than race. "No one here is alone. No one here is a loner, because there's someone else like them."
Bullock is president of the Math Science Education Network, a mostly African-American group of about 30 students who explore math and science careers and colleges. The school has more than 100 clubs in which students can find a niche.
Still, it can be difficult for a high-achieving minority student to thrive at Enloe, said Olalah Njenga, whose children attended the school.
Njenga's daughter, who graduated from Enloe in 2009, was overjoyed about the school's diversity when she first got into the magnet program, but the school was a big disappointment, she said.
"It was exactly the opposite of what we thought we were going to expose her to," said Njenga, who is African-American and a transplant from the Chicago suburbs.
"If you are black and smart," she said, "you got kind of lost at Enloe."
Last year, Njenga pulled her son out of Enloe. He is now happily enrolled at the family's base school, Wake Forest-Rolesville High.
Colethia Evans, whose daughter is a ninth-grader, is frustrated with the diversity debate and the polarization in Wake County, where a student's letter to the editor can blow up into a community controversy.
"I do know some people are looking at this as a rallying cry to tear down a very good school," she said, "and that concerns me."
Database editor David Raynor contributed.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-4559