Over the past decade, East Wake High School has gone from being at the national forefront of education-reform efforts championed by Bill Gates to a cautionary reminder that not all new educational ideas work as planned.
Political, business and education leaders had touted the concept that transforming high schools such as East Wake into separate small schools would show that traditional high schools were obsolete. Now Wake County school leaders say the model didn’t achieve all they had hoped when the program began in 2005, and they are consolidating the Wendell campus back into one school.
“East Wake has had 10 years,” said Wake school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton, whose district represents most of eastern Wake. “They’ve recognized, based on all the measures, that at best it’s flat-lined and it’s time to look for something different.”
The tone was more upbeat in 2003 when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation first announced that it would provide what would eventually become more than $20 million to help create innovative small high schools in North Carolina. It was part of an effort by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates that would result in his foundation’s providing $650 million nationally to support small high schools.
Gates, who declared at a 2005 meeting of the nation’s governors that “America’s high schools are obsolete,” championed small high schools as a way to raise student achievement and the graduation rate. The idea was that smaller schools would result in a more personalized education for teens and closer student-teacher relationships.
At a 2005 news conference at East Wake High, Gov. Mike Easley praised the schools as “just another step in North Carolina’s efforts to help all students graduate as strong citizens ready for college and work in the 21st century,”
In North Carolina, Gates Foundation money and state dollars were used to create several different kinds of small high schools. Some were created from scratch, such as the City of Medicine Academy in Durham. Other new schools were early-college programs, in which students could graduate in five years with a diploma and two years of college credit.
Another approach was to reconfigure an existing high school into multiple small schools with separate principals and staffs. Beginning in 2005, East Wake High was split into what would eventually be four small schools with the themes of health science; arts, education and global studies; engineering systems; and integrated technology.
While many Wake high schools have more than 2,000 students, each East Wake small school has fewer than 400 teens.
East Wake High was among the first schools in the state to receive Gates funding. School leaders chose East Wake because of its low test scores and its image problem in the district. The school’s enrollment tends to be more rural and lower-income than typical Wake high schools.
“The leadership that Wake County provided in the East Wake initiative was the first step in the development of new approaches to education in North Carolina,” said Tony Habit, president of N.C. New Schools, which was initially funded by the Gates Foundation to help start the new high schools.
Move from small schools
But in 2009, the Gates Foundation announced it was moving away from the model because “many of the small schools we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” The foundation has switched to backing other efforts such as the Common Core standards in language arts and math.
Since 2009, a number of districts around the country have discontinued their small-school efforts, particularly the redesigns that split schools up.
In Wake County, district leaders kept East Wake High’s small schools running after the Gates funding ended in 2010. Cathy Moore, the deputy superintendent for school performance, said school leaders wanted to give the program time to be fairly evaluated.
But a report released in January by district staff listed a number of concerns that led to the recommendation to reconsolidate East Wake High.
One of the report findings was an analysis indicating that test scores were worse than they would have been if East Wake hadn’t been split up.
“While there were some bright spots in some places where it looked like some good work is occurring, there were also significant gaps,” Moore said.
The district report found that interviews with parents, students and staff at the four small schools indicated other issues, including:
▪ The perception that the School of Health Science had skimmed the strongest students.
▪ Limited PTA participation among all four schools.
▪ Leadership turnover that might have led to the schools’ drifting away from their original missions.
▪ Difficulty for students scheduling courses, particularly if they wanted classes at the other schools.
Problems with model
School officials found there were some positives, including students’ and teachers’ statements that they enjoyed being in a smaller learning environment compared to a traditional high school.
But overall, Moore said, it turned out to be more difficult than expected to try to operate four schools on the same campus.
Benton, the school board member, works with schools around the state as an education consultant. The problems the report identified are similar to the issues he observed when he worked with other high schools that had split themselves into multiple small schools.
“If you’re not careful, you could have one school seen as for college prep and the others seen as for those who are not as academically inclined,” he said.
Habit, president of N.C. New Schools, said a problem with some of the schools begun in the mid-2000s was that there wasn’t enough focus on how to support teachers.
The East Wake High community might also be willing to end the program. In 2009, parents, students and teachers lobbied the school board to keep the program running. Last week, no one spoke at a public hearing on consolidating the high school.
Despite what happened at East Wake, Habit and Wake school officials are quick to say that some small-school models have stood up well over time, such as the schools that started from scratch. Moore said that not having to work within an existing school allows planners to avoid issues such as deciding what things to hold on to or to change on a campus.
“The work around the vision of what the individual school is is much more intentional from the ground up,” Moore said. “It’s harder to do in an existing facility.”
Wake school leaders are faced with many of the same issues they had at East Wake High 10 years ago with the school’s test scores and image problems. School officials are working on a new model for the school they hope to begin in the 2016-17 school year.
“We’re not saying that we don’t want a small-school model at all with what’s happening at East Wake,” Moore said. “We want to take a look at what’s been in place, what’s been successful and where there are needs and gaps, and involve the community and the staff and the leadership in what we’d like for it to look like moving forward.”
Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui