RALEIGH — Wake County's flagship magnet high school has a problem with no solution in sight: how to boost achievement among its minority and low-income students, while also bolstering programs for gifted and talented students.
Enloe High School's leaders recently proposed changing to a "block schedule" that would offer longer daily classes to help low-performing students. But the proposal was rejected by a majority of teachers after it alienated high-achieving magnet school students and their parents, some of whom threatened to leave the school if the schedule changed.
They said the block schedule wouldn't work for academically gifted students, who often take multiple high-end arts classes and Advanced Placement courses to earn high GPAs and build an attractive college résumé.
"We have a task force that will continue to review the interventions we have in place to support our struggling students and at the same time continue to look for new and innovative ways to meet the needs of all of our students," Enloe Principal Beth Cochran said.
Reaching a balance in meeting the needs of low-achieving students and their gifted classmates is a problem for countless schools across the nation, not just Enloe. But the issue emerges sharply at Enloe because the gap between high-achieving students and low-achieving students is so wide. The school has regularly been ranked among the nation's top high schools. But Enloe's struggling students post the lowest percentage of passing scores among their Wake counterparts.
Located east of downtown Raleigh in a predominantly black area, Enloe was one of Wake County's first magnet schools in the early 1980s. Magnets provide enhanced offerings at mostly downtown facilities with declining populations as a way to fill seats with suburban students. According to state test scores, Enloe has worked extremely well for its magnet students, but much less so for many of the "base" students who live nearby.
Questions about Enloe's racial achievement gap have come with increased scrutiny of Wake's magnet school program during the past two years. The Republican majority that took control of the school board following the 2009 elections talked about spreading more of the unique programs offered at magnet schools to nonmagnets as part of a move toward neighborhood schools.
A vocal contingent of magnet school supporters, especially from Enloe, opposed the board majority's actions and worked to elect two current and one former magnet school parent to the school board this fall. Those new board members form part of a new Democratic majority that will face questions about Enloe and the other magnet schools.
"We certainly need to be concerned if the minority and the economically deprived students at Enloe are not performing well," said Susan Evans, a newly elected school board member from Apex and the mother of two Enloe graduates. "We have to realize there's a huge concentration of those students there."
At Enloe, 2010-2011 scores show 54.5 percent of black students and 51.2 percent of low-income students passed state exams. The high schools where students from these groups scored highest were Western Wake's Green Hope, with 83.1 percent of black students passing, and Panther Creek, with 84.6 of low-income students passing. Those groups made up much smaller segments at Green Hope and Panther Creek than at Enloe . More than 95 percent of white and Asian students at Enloe had passing scores.
Block schedule debate
Jim Martin, an N.C. State University professor who recently won a seat on the school board, said a number of factors - such as functional illiteracy among some students - mean it's unwise to put too much weight on a single statistic such as the low passing rate among black and low-income students at Enloe.
"We need to make sure a kid can read before a kid takes biology," said Martin, who has a daughter at Enloe.
Performance issues among black and low-income students led Enloe's leadership to recommend adopting a version of the block schedule for the 2012-13 school year. Enloe administrators said the longer class periods would let students finish a class in only half a year. That would help failing students retake a needed course the next semester instead of waiting a whole year.
But the proposal didn't get a warm reaction from some magnet parents and students at Enloe. They complained that under the block proposal, those students who would take Advanced Placement courses in the fall semester would not be able to take the exam administered by the College Board until May.
Others claimed Enloe would lose its uniqueness. Only Enloe was exempted in 2003 when the other Wake high schools were required to adopt a block schedule.
"I would have gone to Sanderson (High School) if I wanted the block schedule," said Jasmynn Cobb, 15, a magnet student and sophomore.
Shepera Williams, 17, a base student, said she understands why students wouldn't like a block schedule. But the senior said she sees the benefits after experiencing a block schedule for two years at Broughton High School.
"You can spend more time on a subject," Williams said. "The teachers can work with you more."
Last month's vote, in which 65 percent of the Enloe faculty opposed the schedule shift, shut down the idea - at least for now.
Magnet parents at Enloe agree something needs to be done to help the low-performing students. But they, like the faculty and leadership, aren't sure about the next step.
"It's immoral for us not to address the educational needs of all of our students," said Lisa Misrok, a magnet parent. "It's clear that not all of our students were being educated as well as they could be."
'Crux of the challenge'
Christine Kushner, another new board member whose son attended Enloe, agrees the school must address the achievement gap, citing efforts that already under way. The tutoring program CONCERT, for Communities Organizing to Nurture and Celebrate East Raleigh Talent, is one step Enloe parents took toward getting under-achieving students up to speed.
"We use teachers at Enloe who know the students," Kushner said of the grant-funded program. "They know the course of study, they know the students, they know the parents. The point is that we are reaching kids who need academic support, and we're using teachers to provide it."
School board Vice Chairman John Tedesco said Enloe must address the problem or the performance gap will continue to stand out as an eyesore.
"How can we challenge our most gifted students while also raising our most vulnerable students?" Tedesco said. "That's the crux of the challenge at Enloe. But that's not only a problem at Enloe. This is something we need to address at all our schools."
Jennifer Mansfield, a longtime critic of Wake's magnet program, questioned the fairness of leaving the decision up to Enloe when the block schedule is required at other Wake high schools. She said members of the Enloe community act as if they should be allowed not to have a block schedule.
"People don't want to see kids left behind," said Mansfield, who unsuccessfully ran for school board this year. "But the moment you think of taking away something they feel they deserve, it all goes out the window."