Point of View

Tony Tata: The gains Wake schools have made

October 4, 2012 

Since arriving in Wake County some 20 months ago, I’ve taken seriously the responsibility of making a positive difference in the lives of all 150,000 students and 18,000 employees of our school system. After the events of recent days, I have reflected on how far we’ve come together and on the progress we’ve made – as a school system and as a community.

While we made great strides, there is much work left to do.

In a relatively short period of time, we significantly raised expectations and proved that all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status or where they attend school, can have strong academic performance. With the hope that the impact we made will continue for the benefit of our students and with the belief that our community can best proceed with an accounting of progress, I want to share some parting observations.

When I accepted the position as superintendent, I did so with a purity of mission to serve children, staff and the community, honed by years of witnessing the gross injustices delivered upon children worldwide by the enemies of our nation and freedom. To be sure, the challenges were many. The district faced a $50 million budget cut. AdvancEd was in the process of downgrading our accreditation. Our graduation rates were falling annually. On average, our economically disadvantaged students for years had been lagging behind their peers statewide. And we had no assignment plan for the 2011-12 school year.

I returned to central North Carolina, having spent several years living in Fayetteville and serving in the 82nd Airborne Division, and entered a community that was simultaneously skeptical yet hopeful and welcoming. In my initial months, I visited 90 of our 165 schools (and by year’s end all 165) and attended hundreds of community gatherings, meeting and listening to thousands. I heard, loud and clear, the need to stabilize a system in turmoil. We began by establishing a unified governance team that inspired confidence in all stakeholders of our school system.

I led board sessions focused on developing a set of core beliefs, a vision and a mission that would unify all board members behind a common plan: to support our students and teachers. This work became the basis for our strategic plan, which was recently approved by the Board of Education.

Put simply, we unified behind one core belief: All children can be high-achieving students regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Our concrete efforts and strategic plan ultimately led our accreditation authority, AdvancEd – which had lowered our status to Accreditation-Warned, a serious downgrade that might have eventually affected the value of Wake County Public School System high school diplomas – to upgrade our accreditation based on its objective review of our governance under my leadership. The auditors wrote:

“A common theme during interviews was the significance of the superintendent’s influence on the direction of the system in providing governance and leadership focused on student learning and system effectiveness. Described as a ‘calmer’ Board, stakeholders attributed this change unequivocally to the Superintendent’s leadership.”

The report concluded that we were well on the way to stabilizing a system in turmoil: “Overall, stakeholders share a greater sense of confidence in the school system, however, the Board must continue to be transparent, engage stakeholders and focus on student achievement to build trust within its community.”

I came to work every day intent on better supporting students and teachers to improve education opportunities and achievement for all children. And we did.

In the third and fourth years of this recession, while other districts were cutting teacher positions, we provided a bonus and raise for all employees. We added languages to every middle school and protected every teacher and teacher assistant position. We established 15 new science, technology, engineering, math and global language programs. We introduced innovation that made a difference, such as the five pay-for-performance schools that significantly increased proficiency in some of our most challenged schools.

We did not stop there. We created the high-demand Leadership Academies that partnered with N.C. State’s Gen. Hugh Shelton Leadership Center and the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. We used predictive data to place students in more rigorous math courses. We changed the Title I funding formula and focus so that more federal dollars went to their intended targets, schools with higher concentrations of low-income students, to pay for things like math and literacy coaches.

Results came quickly. Composite scores at every grade span increased, and proficiency gains for economically disadvantaged students outpaced the increase of their higher income peers by a nearly 2:1 margin on average. At each grade span, economically disadvantaged students on average achieved new heights, while other subgroups also advanced at a rapid pace.

Our county should be proud that we cut the number of schools scoring below 70 percent proficiency in half, from 26 to 13, and that more than 93 percent of our schools showed expected or high growth.

I could not justify many years of debates over issues while every day our most vulnerable children languished. So we moved quickly. Although Wake County’s economically disadvantaged children have traditionally lagged behind the North Carolina state averages, I am heartened that this year we reversed that trend with larger proficiency gains than the statewide averages in reading and math. This improvement has provided new hope to thousands of students. All of these gains were accomplished by the hard work of our teachers, principals, parents, staff and students.

Additionally, I am proud that our new department of transformation and innovation enabled us to systemically listen more effectively and adopt new ideas about how to improve our system.

To be clear, my personnel file contains only positive information and, as the termination agreement stated, my departure was truly without cause. I wanted to continue to lead our school system through the challenges ahead.

Jodi and I greatly appreciate the thousands of emails, letters and phone calls we’ve received from across the community and across all political party lines. We want to thank each of you, especially those on our front lines every day, for your support.

To all WCPSS employees, I am humbled and honored to have served as your leader. We made a great team. I am proud of what you have accomplished. This community has demonstrated its willingness to rally around the critical need to improve our public schools, and I urge you to continue that focus and put your energy behind our next superintendent.

Demand the best for our children. Now, more than ever, our students need your support and dedication.

Tony Tata is the former superintendent of the Wake County Public School System.

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