Wake County’s new $24.5 million high school – the first in the district focused on teaching job skills – opened in August with plenty of high-tech equipment but few students.
The Vernon Malone College and Career Academy has 131 students – 28 percent of the school’s planned capacity for this school year. School board members admit that they made mistakes about how to organize the school and are trying to come up with ways to increase enrollment for next year.
The school board is reconsidering which grade levels should be offered at the “career and technical education high school,” the kind of facility once called a vocational school. An even more fundamental question facing the board is whether the school’s focus has shifted too much to preparing students for college as opposed to teaching career skills.
“Where we failed – and I’m afraid we’re going to do it again – is that we say there’s a market but we haven’t done market analysis,” school board member Jim Martin said at a committee meeting earlier this month. “Where is our market? What do students want?”
Wake Tech provided the instructors for the technical courses in a partnership with the Wake County school system and Wake County government, which renovated a former Coca-Cola bottling plant at 2200 S. Wilmington St. in Raleigh to house the school.
The school has a capacity of 705 high school students although school administrators want to reduce the total to 640. At night, and eventually on weekends, Wake Tech’s adult students use the building.
The school opened in August with room for 470 sophomores and juniors. But the school has 115 sophomores and juniors. With so few students, the school also accepted 16 seniors instead of waiting until next year to have a 12th-grade class.
Those who applied say they love their new school.
Limited grades, low turnout
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to get a head start on my future career,” said Bryan Jackson, 17, a junior from Wake Forest studying electrical engineering. “And it’s free. This gives you so many opportunities to get hands-on learning.”
Much of the blame for the low enrollment was placed, at a Sept. 11 board committee meeting, on the school’s only offering grades 10 through 12. Board members and administrators said that it’s hard to persuade freshmen to switch schools.
“I was not shocked at the numbers that you actually have enrolled,” school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said. “I think that was predictable in hindsight that you were not going to get the numbers that you want.
“If you’re going to go after kids in a serious way and parents who want their kids in the exciting program, you need to do it as they’re leaving eighth grade, because if they’re in that ninth grade and they’re having any success, they’re not going to move.”
Benton was not in office in 2012 when the board voted to open the school without freshmen. It was a compromise between board members who wanted to have grades nine through 12 and others who wanted only grades 11 and 12 because they said it was too much to expect students coming out of middle school to decide whether to go to the new school.
“I agree that 10-12 was the worst of all options,” said Martin, the board member. “It was completely predictable that this is what we would have because that transition is impossible.”
Martin still advocates only offering grades 11 and 12 even though administrators are proposing offering ninth grade next year.
Adding a grade considered
If the school only had juniors and seniors, students would spend half their day at their regular high school and half the day at Vernon Malone. Administrators have said there could be significant transportation costs getting students to and from the academy if the school were to operate only on the half-day schedule.
School board member Susan Evans said she’s willing to reverse her 2012 objection to enrolling freshmen because the school will still accept rising sophomores and juniors.
“My thoughts on that is – given my earlier reservations – how will we know until we give it a try?” she said. “So I will just say I’m willing to compromise.”
Administrators will officially present the proposal for adding ninth grade to the school at an October board work session.
Another likely topic at that work session is the concern raised by Martin about the selection criteria.
To avoid paying tuition for the college courses, the school system is having the state reimburse Wake Tech through North Carolina’s Career and College Promise program. School officials said they won’t know until next year the reimbursement amount.
3.0 GPA required
But to be eligible for the state funding, high school students must have a 3.0 grade point average – the equivalent of a B – by their junior year or get a waiver signed by the principal to take the technical courses.
Ashlie Thompson, the school’s principal, told the board that her students are taking mostly honors courses to make sure they’re college ready and will meet UNC system requirements.
Martin questioned whether the 3.0 GPA requirement was discouraging some students from applying.
“We want to give opportunities to students who otherwise aren’t succeeding,” he said. “I bet you that all the students that are applying to Vernon Malone are people who would have succeeded anyway.”
But Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for school performance, said it’s not just the top-achieving students going to the school.
“This is a diverse school with a diverse range of abilities, diverse interests, diverse in every possible way you could imagine,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to serve.”
Moore and board members also said that enrolling freshmen will give the school more time to help students get their averages up to 3.0 before they take the career courses.
The board won’t have too much time to make a decision. Administrators want decisions before the Nov. 1 magnet school fair, when hundreds of parents and students will look for information on school options for next year.