The students and teachers at Brentwood Elementary School aren’t resting on their laurels.
On Wednesday, they celebrated their recognition as the second-best magnet school in the nation with speeches and cheers in the school’s gymnasium, then segued seamlessly into a pep rally to pump themselves up for end-of-year testing that’s just around the corner.
They had taken home the Donald Waldrip Award from Magnet Schools of America, the group’s second highest national honor.
But students and staff were still looking for how to improve – and perhaps in doing so attract more attention from Wake County families who haven’t yet noticed the school’s accolades and academic performance gains.
Earlier this year, the school drew 58 applicants for its engineering-based magnet program, up from 37 who applied the year before, but still far fewer than the hundreds who apply to some of the county’s most popular magnet offerings.
Wake has used magnet schools since 1982 to diversify student populations, fill under-enrolled schools and provide unique opportunities, such as advanced arts programs or foreign language classes. Brentwood, located just northeast of the Beltline in Raleigh, became a magnet in 2009.
The school’s engineering theme brings together science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM, and asks students to work together to solve problems. Brentwood also partners with The Engineering Place at N.C. State University.
Principal Eric Fitts said he would like to see more families apply for the school’s magnet program, but he’s pleased with the progress the school is making. The best thing he can do, he said, is continue to improve and hope families will take the time to get to know Brentwood.
He wants them to see the academic progress the school has made, including gains on standardized tests for math and reading, but also the ways the school has made project-based, hands-on learning an integral part of everything students do.
At every turn, the students think through the steps of “ask, imagine, plan, create and improve,” whether they’re building a boat for engineering week, coding a computer program or writing a report.
Saya Jung, 9, a third-grader at Brentwood, said the problem-solving steps she’s learned help her in all areas of her schoolwork, including art, which she loves.
When Saya and her classmates made a bridge out of Popsicle sticks and glue, she enjoyed figuring out how to make a structure that could bear weight but wasn’t so heavy it collapsed on itself.
“I really like the school because all the teachers are nice, and we get to make things through engineering,” she said.
‘An excellent place’
School board chairwoman Christine Kushner, who represents the Brentwood area, said the school is a strong example of project-based, hands-on learning, techniques the school system wants to encourage.
“The substance is there,” she said. “It is an excellent place.”
One goal of magnets is to bring economic diversity to schools by attracting children from affluent families across the county to reduce high poverty rates at certain schools.
On that measure, things at Brentwood haven’t changed. When the magnet program launched, 70 percent of Brentwood’s students received free or reduced-price lunch, a rough measure of poverty. This year, the rate is 75 percent.
Kushner said the school system’s most recent assignment plan moved some of Brentwood’s base population to other schools, freeing up more room for magnet students who might change that number.
Both Kushner and Fitts said they hope families will see what the awards committees have been taking notice of and apply.
“I think it’s poised to break out, and I’m glad the school system has given it room to grow,” Kushner said.