Raleigh school aims for student 'Renaissance'

Academic boost wanted

Staff writersSeptember 20, 2011 

— A string quartet playing Beethoven, Rossini and Ravel caught the ears of hundreds of Barwell Road Elementary School students Monday, part of an effort to transform the previously low-performing Wake County school into a sought-after destination for students and parents.

The quartet, from the N.C. Symphony, offered quick but thorough courses in tempo, texture, dynamics and other essentials to students ranging from kindergarten to fourth grade.

After the second of two shows, third-grader Yakob Lemma thought he'd like to learn the violin.

"It'd be great if they'd come every year," Yakob said.

The performance, paid for by grants to the symphony, is just one of a multitude of opportunities new principal Sandy Barefoot wants to use to improve the reputation and academic showing of Barwell.

The Southeast Raleigh school is one of four "Renaissance" schools, which benefit from a portion of the $10.4 million in federal "Race to the Top" money Wake County received last year.

Under the Renaissance model, Wake targeted additional support this school year for Barwell, Brentwood, Creech Road and Wilburn elementary schools because of low test scores.

The schools get extra funding for hiring bonuses, merit pay for teachers and new technology.

Wake school leaders believe the enhancements will help close achievement gaps between affluent and low-income students.

Two of every three children at Barwell come from families that meet federal poverty guidelines, sometimes indicating a troubled home situation. The school failed to make adequate progress on No Child Left Behind tests for more than two straight years. That meant parents in the school's attendance zone could opt out of sending their children there.

"We want to focus on everything we can to bring enrichment to their lives," Barefoot said. "It certainly opens up the world to them."

New staff, new tone

Another component to the Renaissance program is hiring.

Most of the principals and teachers at the four Renaissance schools were replaced. The thinking: New leadership and new staff will set a new tone for the schools.

Barwell students have gotten big doses of information and enthusiasm about music from former Miss North Carolina Amanda Watson Bailey, whom Barefoot recruited to Barwell as part of the staff makeover. How does Bailey deal with problem students?

"I find a way to engage them," she said. "And I keep my promises."

The Renaissance program also provides high-tech white boards and Apple devices for students' use, as well as more teachers per student and flexible scheduling.

And, of course, there are enrichment sessions such as the one Monday with the quartet

On Monday, in a "cafetorium" so crowded with students that some had to sit on the floor, the younger Barwell students had a harder time staying still for the unamplified classical music than the older ones.

But most tuned into the explanations about instruments, composers and techniques. There also was an example of a local girl who made good.

"I started playing violin when I was 4 years old, and I grew up right here in Wake County," said second violinist Maria Evola, to applause from the children.

Jakara Everett, 8, enjoyed the cello played by quartet member Peng Li because it was big, like a guitar.

"You never know who might be sitting out there who might wind up in the symphony," Barefoot said.

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

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