RALEIGH — Some of Wake County’s poorest elementary schools will soon lose millions of dollars a year in funding that had allowed them to offer more help to students and bonuses to recruit teachers.
Over the past three years, those schools’ budgets included a total of $8 million extra for smaller class sizes, additional help to students, signing and performance bonuses for teachers, extra staff training and new technology. The federally funded Renaissance Schools program was promoted by the former Republican-majority school board and former Superintendent Tony Tata as a model for helping struggling schools.
But with federal grant money running out, the board, now controlled by Democrats, and Superintendent Jim Merrill are discontinuing the program when the school year ends this month.
The fate of the program was affected in part by its use of performance pay based largely on student test scores – a model promoted by state Republican leaders but opposed by teacher groups.
“The Renaissance package was approved by a prior board,” school board member Keith Sutton said. “I don’t know if this board would have supported the Renaissance package in this current form with the bonuses.”
Changing test standards make it unclear how much academic success the Renaissance program brought. But this much is certain: These schools, located in Southeast Raleigh, northeast Raleigh and Garner, face making do with less help this fall.
“We don’t know the next step,” school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said. “We have to have the conversation.”
Kushner said the district elected not to continue the program because the grant money for it is running out. She said finding the best method for helping struggling schools will be part of the district’s strategic plan, which is being developed this year.
“It’s sad for those who have advocated for economically disadvantaged children that they’re ending a program that rewarded teachers who are achieving academic gains from their students,” said Shila Nordone, a North Raleigh parent who has been a critic of the current board.
Building from ground up
The Renaissance program emerged from Wake’s plan to use its share of the $400 million federal Race to the Top grant awarded to North Carolina in 2010. Wake got $12.4 million, ultimately budgeting $8 million over three years for the Renaissance program.
Initially, Wake chose four elementary schools with the lowest passing rates on state exams – Barwell Road, Brentwood and Wilburn elementary schools in Raleigh, and Creech Road Elementary in Garner. At least two-thirds of the schools’ students received federally subsidized lunches.
Wake later made Walnut Creek Elementary School in Raleigh eligible for bonuses from the federal Race to the Top dollars.
Before the 2011-12 school year, most of the staff at the four schools was replaced in a process that included signing bonuses of $7,000 for principals and $2,900 for teachers if they stayed the full year. According to the school district, $1.5 million in signing bonuses have been paid since 2011.
“I love a challenge,” said Brentwood Principal Eric Fitts, who was hired in 2011 as the school’s assistant principal. “It was an opportunity to start a new program from the ground floor.”
In addition to the signing bonuses, the system offered annual bonuses of between $1,000 and $7,000 based on performance on state exams and classroom evaluations.
Wake issued $835,786 in bonuses at the Renaissance schools, with $596,195 paid from the Race to the Top grant and the rest from a different federal grant.
Another feature of the program was that the Renaissance schools got extra teachers – one per grade level. Most schools used their six positions to reduce class size, allowing many classes to drop to fewer than 20 students.
At a time when the state lifted class size limits in fourth through 12th grades, fifth-grade class sizes dropped from 29 students at Wilburn to 21 and from 27 students at Barwell Road to 20.
At Brentwood, Fitts said, the school decided to use the extra positions to provide additional help for struggling students. The school has a high percentage of Hispanic students with limited English skills.
Carrie Brooks, a literacy intervention teacher at Brentwood funded by the program, has worked with kindergarten through second-grade students. She pulled out small groups to work in her classroom and also goes into other classrooms to work with students who need reading help.
“This program has had an extreme impact,” she said. “A lot of our students don’t have the support at home. It’s not that the parents don’t care, but there’s only so much they can do when they don’t speak English.”
Brooks will keep her job because of turnover in other positions.
Tata: program was ‘critical’
School leaders touted the gains made at the schools during the 2011-12 school year, the first using the Race to the Top funds.
Tata noted that all four Renaissance schools made significant gains that year, averaging a 5.8 percentage point gain in passing rates on state exams compared to a 1.9 percentage point gain for other elementary schools. Barwell Road’s gains were particularly large; its passing rate rose from 64.4 percent to 74.1 percent.
Even as Tata touted the results in 2012, some board members who were critical of performance pay accused the superintendent of over-promoting the gains at the Renaissance schools.
But the Wake Education Partnership, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the gains at the non-Renaissance schools “were not as impressive” as those in the program.
“The data shows that excellent principals, teachers and staff implementing the Renaissance model and focused Title I funding were pivotal in improving the academic achievement of thousands of students and could continue to do so,” Tata, secretary of the state Department of Transportation since January 2013, said in a statement last week.
“There were some early on who questioned whether this model was sustainable. As I said then, I would rather work to sustain a program that improved the academic performance of thousands of students than perpetuate what we knew wasn’t working before.”
But passing rates fell in the Renaissance schools in the 2012-13 school year with the use of new state exams based on the Common Core standards. Passing rates fell statewide, too.
The Renaissance schools remain among the lowest-performing elementary schools in Wake, with passing rates of 33.2 percent or lower. But the Renaissance schools made or exceeded growth targets on last year’s exams, something several similar schools did not achieve.
New board opposed bonuses
Tata’s support for performance pay put him at odds with the board after the 2011 elections restored a Democratic majority. After Tata was fired in September 2012, some board members cited Tata’s support for it as an area of conflict.
Members of that same school board laid out their opposition to performance pay at a March news conference, where they said it goes against the idea of promoting collaboration among teachers.
Kushner, the board chairwoman, told reporters that performance pay is “counterproductive” for long-term, complex tasks like teaching.
“For short-term tasks and simple tasks, rewards work,” she said at the news conference. “For teaching and other thought professions, we’re concerned that this is not the way to go.”
Sutton, the school board member, said he can see a place for using bonuses in Wake. But he said it’s too divisive an issue with many of his colleagues.
“Given the varying opinions on performance bonuses and signing bonuses, I’m not sure that we could continue to do it both financially and philosophically,” he said.
Teacher raises came first
With the Race to the Top dollars going away at the end of this school year, school leaders had to decide what to do with the program. It would cost about $2 million a year to provide the extra teachers and bonuses.
But with a “lean budget,” Kushner said, the priority this year was on raising teacher pay. The school board has asked the Wake County Board of Commissioners to provide an across-the-board raise of 3.5 percent for all school employees, which will cost $29.1 million.
“We need a plan in place to address the needs of low-performing schools and that begins with professionally paid teachers and teacher assistants,” Kushner said.
The commissioners are set to vote Monday on a smaller, $3.75 million plan that would give an average teacher raise of $247.
Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for school performance, said school administrators decided to go a different direction. When the Renaissance schools were selected, they were picked solely on their test scores. She said that when school officials now look at identifying which schools need more help, they also consider other factors such as the school’s demographics, teacher experience and school working conditions.
“We’re approaching things through a different lens now,” she said.
Former school board member John Tedesco noted that there’s precedent for using local funds to make up for discontinued federal programs: Wake has continued to pay for magnet schools after federal grants ended. Wake provides about $12 million annually to support magnet schools.
“If they can put millions and millions into magnet schools, there’s no reason why they can’t provide some for our most vulnerable schools,” said Tedesco, who was an outspoken supporter of the Renaissance program. Early on, Republicans had said if the program was effective, they would look for ways to keep it.
School leaders say they haven’t abandoned the Renaissance schools and are evaluating what can be done to help them as part of a review of the district’s high-needs schools. Moore said that those schools might receive support from a new $1.7 million program that’s being created to give extra resources to high-poverty schools, but that performance pay is not being considered.
“This will give us an opportunity to look at the strategies employed in the model, and see what works and what doesn’t work and what we may be able to use given what we know,” Sutton said.
But for now, the Renaissance schools are preparing for life without the extra funding. That means real impacts on students, Fitts said.
“We won’t have as much intervention support as we did previously,” he said. “We’ll just have to adjust.”