Group works on recommendations to improve Knightdale schools

khui@newsobserver.comOctober 22, 2013 

  • Challenges facing Knightdale schools

    Outside auditors praised the staff at four Knightdale schools for their hard work but said issues such as lack of resources are hurting student achievement:

    • “Consistency in behavioral expectations and enforcing those expectations (at Knightdale High) is still inadequate, an issue that is exacerbated by the high percentage of inexperienced teachers in the building.”

    • “Student assignment has exacerbated the difficulty in involving and engaging parents as so many students live far away from the school building. Busing gets some children to school late every day, and the students and teachers both complained about the food and the food service running out of food on a regular (almost daily) basis. East Wake Middle School does not appear to receive funding commensurate with other buildings.”

    • “Inequities (at Hodge Road Elementary) include student assignment patterns over the past decade that have reassigned neighborhood children to other schools and assigned increasing numbers of students who must be transported to school, including many children in poverty who come to school speaking a language other than English.”

    • “Inequities and inconsistencies exist at Knightdale Elementary that affect student access to comparable programs, services, and learning opportunities in WCPSS.”

— For nearly a decade, Knightdale community and business leaders met with little success when they asked Wake County school leaders for help in improving the town’s schools.

But amid recent scathing audits of conditions at four Knightdale schools, school leaders say they’re committed this time to making sure the town’s schools get the help they need. The latest effort is the district’s new Knightdale Area Education Work Group, which held its first meeting Tuesday night to begin developing recommendations to improve academic achievement.

“There are going to be areas (that) we agree on and (that) we disagree on,” Eastern Wake Area Superintendent Ed McFarland said at the meeting at Forestville Road Elementary School. “That’s OK; that’s what we’re here for. We need to hear your ideas.”

The group of about 30 school employees and community members will meet through Dec. 19. Recommendations will be presented to school leaders early next year.

Leaders in the small Wake community on Raleigh’s eastern outskirts say they hope this might be the time when their pleas turn into action.

“This is something that hasn’t taken place before,” said Shannon Hardy, a local education advocate, charter school teacher and member of the new group. “We’ve never sat down at the table and partnered with teachers to talk about the data and the statistics.”

Hardy said she’s hopeful because both McFarland, previously the principal of Fuquay-Varina High School, and school board member Tom Benton, a native of eastern Wake, didn’t assume their positions until earlier this year.

“They’re both men who truly believe that all children can learn,” said Hardy, who has shown up at board meetings over the years to complain about the situation in Knightdale.

Schools in Knightdale historically have had higher percentages of students receiving federally subsidized lunches, a measure of family income.

During the early 2000s, Wake school leaders were able to say that Knightdale schools were performing just as well as the rest of the district even while having more poor children. But tougher new state tests introduced in the middle of the last decade caused scores in Knightdale to drop, on average, lower than scores in the rest of the county.

Many Knightdale families don’t send their children to the town’s schools, choosing options such as magnet schools in Raleigh, charter schools, private schools and home schooling.

“There’s got to be some reason that 50 percent of the students in Knightdale aren’t going to Knightdale schools,” Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen said Monday.

But the challenges received greater attention over the summer when outside audits of four Knightdale schools found issues such as high teacher turnover and a lack of resources provided by the school system. The audits were conducted by Iowa-based Curriculum Management Systems Inc. at the request of the school system.

Groups critical of the $810 million school construction bond issue cited the audits. While the bonds passed countywide with 58 percent of the vote, the proposal was rejected throughout eastern Wake. The audits were released less than two months before the Oct. 8 referendum.

“The audits highlighted everything we had been saying for years,” said Killen, who supported the bond issue.

After the audits were released, Benton arranged for a meeting among him, school board Chairman Keith Sutton, new Superintendent Jim Merrill and the mayors in eastern Wake. The officials agreed to target Knightdale schools first, leading to the formation of the new group.

On Tuesday, Benton was among the school board members on hand as school officials presented information on student assignment and student achievement in Knightdale schools.

Between 31 percent and 52 percent of the students assigned to each elementary school in Knightdale go to school elsewhere in the district. The countywide average is 39 percent.

But Laura Evans, senior director of student assignment, conceded to a questioner that officials don’t know how many Knightdale children are going to private schools, charter schools or home schools.

In terms of state test results, Brad McMillen, senior director of data and research, said the performance was mixed in the town’s elementary and middle schools, compared to the county average. But he noted that the schools often were doing as well as or better than the county with groups such as low-income students.

“Some of our eastern Wake schools are doing better with our underachieving populations,” he said.

But McMillen said some of the positive academic trends aren’t being reflected at Knightdale High School. The average score on the ACT exam at Knightdale is among the lowest in the district. And while the school has a typical number of Advanced Placement courses, enrollment in those classes is much lower compared to other Wake high schools. The dropout rate also is above the district and state averages.

Killen, a member of the group, expressed optimism that the new group might lead to changes.

“The board seems to recognize there’s a problem now,” he said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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