Lincoln Heights Elementary’s first day of school this year felt more like a red carpet event than a somber end to summer. Community members and teachers lined the walkways on the morning of Aug. 29, hugging and high-fiving students and their parents as they entered the building.
The school’s parent-teacher association organized the warm welcome as part of its push to boost parent involvement at Lincoln Heights, which has struggled from declining enrollment and test scores since losing its magnet status in 2010. More than three-quarters of its students qualified last year for free and reduced-price school lunches, a metric commonly used to measure poverty within student populations. That’s about a threefold increase since 2010.
“The focus is still on those issues,” said Erin Laskowich, the Lincoln Heights PTA treasurer who spearheaded the first-day-of-school event. “But I feel like we’re doing something to address them this year.”
Parents, and specifically fathers, were encouraged to walk their children into school on Monday and see them off. Community members, including a group of men from nearby St. Augusta Missionary Baptist Church, joined teachers and parents at the front entrance to show support for the arriving students, especially those unaccompanied by parents.
“A lot of these kids, their parents have to be at work this time of morning,” said Marvin Connelly, Wake County Public Schools’ chief of staff, who was wearing two hats Monday morning. He also is the pastor at St. Augusta, whose spire is visible from Lincoln Heights’ Bridge Street entrance.
“It’s always important for kids to see adults encouraging them, supporting them,” he said. “We just want them to have a warm feeling when they get back to school. That’s what this is about.”
The school is one of 12 Wake County selected for WCPSS’s Elementary Support Model program, which identifies schools requiring additional support and oversight from the school system.
Last year, the 51-year-old school was the only public school in Wake County to receive a “D” grade under the state’s new letter-based evaluation system.
But Principal Todd Baulch said that distinction has obscured the progress he and his staff are making, as well as qualities that never depended on the school’s magnet status or more affluent families.
“Parents do their homework looking for a school, but the only information you get online is a letter grade that is based on a ridiculous formula,” Baulch said. “What we know is people who take the time to walk in the building and take the time to meet our teachers, they say, ‘This is awesome, too!’ ”
Assets and obstacles
Teachers like Cathie Linkous, whose greetings and words of encouragement were delivered Monday with particular enthusiasm, help cultivate such impressions.
Linkous has been at Lincoln Heights for eight years. She was preceded there as a teacher by her mother, who taught at the school for 22 years and sometimes still fills in for her daughter. Between animated greetings, Linkous was able to answer questions in spurts Monday morning. She said said she recognized some of the parents dropping kids off as her mother’s former students.
“What we’ve also discovered is that a lot of these kids’ parents have had prior bad experiences, and we don’t want kids to get the wrong idea about school because their parents had a bad experience,” Linkous said. “We want to show them we’re here to make their kids safe and happy.”
She then caught a glimpse of a familiar student.
“Crystal! Hey girrrrl!” Linkous yelled, running over to offer a hug. “Fifth grade! Are you ready?”
One of Lincoln Heights’ assets is its connection to the community it serves, which historically has been Fuquay-Varina’s black community. When the school system suggested tearing the old school down and moving it, Connelly said, the community insisted it stay put, west of downtown and near some of the town’s few remaining tobacco fields.
Dwight Bullock, a member of St. Augusta, attended Lincoln Heights from 1969 to 1972, when the school still served only three grades. Bullock still lives in the neighborhood and came to the school Monday morning, saying he feels a duty to help the school all these years later.
I have a lot of relatives and neighbors and other kids that I mentor who came through this school. We need to do everything we can to make this a school of excellence.
Dwight Bullock, a member of St. Augusta Missionary Baptist Church
“I have a lot of relatives and neighbors and other kids that I mentor who came through this school,” Bullock said. “We need to do everything we can to make this a school of excellence.”
But Lincoln Heights’ test scores leave it far from being officially recognized as such, and the response in the past few years from better-off families, who more often have a choice in where to live and send their kids to school, has reflected that.
Total enrollment decreased by 100 students overall from 557 students in 2010 to 457 last year. The families that left were overwhelmingly white and earned above the free and reduced-price lunch threshold. As the percentage of students receiving subsidized meals tripled, white enrollment at Lincoln Heights declined by 156 students in those years, from half the school in 2010 to now just over a quarter.
“About the same time Herbert Akins Road (Elementary School) opened up, the student assignment plan had some choice and an option year, so a lot of people fled over to Herbert Akins,” Baulch said.
Herbert Akins, whose student body was 70 percent white last year, opened in 2009 north of downtown as Lincoln Heights was transitioning away from its magnet status.
“That changed our demographic, and a lot of things changed with that,” Baulch said. “We have a very high working class population, and I hear from parents all the time who say, ‘I’d love to come to more things, but I work two jobs.’ It’s hard to ask for more from them.”
Signs of progress
In the background Monday, construction crews could be heard working on a new wing for the 51-year-old school, which students will begin using early next year. The school’s renovation will be complete by 2018.
The school’s letter grade from the state also improved from a D to a C in the 2015-16 school year, according to data released last week, though Lincoln Heights’ overall achievement score still ranks among the lowest in the county at 48.
Baulch said the renovations and the technology investment promised by the school system are a tangible step toward making Lincoln Heights both a better place to learn and more attractive to parents who can afford to take things like appearance and reputation into account.
“We are battling to earn back respect and to get our numbers respectable,” Baulch said. “We know we have a lot of uphill climb.”
In the short term, though, the Lincoln Heights community is also hoping events like Monday’s will increase buy-in and parent enthusiasm among families already present.
“What we have seen recently is positive vibes and good things being said by parents,” said Laskowich, who has daughters at Lincoln Heights in kindergarten and second grade. “In the past few years we heard people saying Lincoln Heights isn’t so great, but that reputation appears to be turning the corner.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan