Two Southeast Raleigh elementary schools plan to show what traditional public schools can do if they’re given the same freedom to operate as charter schools.
The Wake County school system is finishing plans for Barwell Road and Walnut Creek elementary schools to have a longer school year, longer school day and smaller class sizes, among other changes this fall. All of these options are possible because the State Board of Education gave approval this month for five struggling schools, including Barwell and Walnut Creek, to have the same exemptions from state rules and regulations as charter schools.
The new “restart model” also represents the latest effort by Wake school leaders to help both schools, which have among the highest percentages of students from low-income families in the district.
“We’ve been anticipating this moment for a long time,” Walnut Creek principal Vonda Martin told school board members last week. “I feel like I have another chance. I’m just excited about the possibilities.”
A State Board of Education policy lets school districts ask for permission to give charterlike flexibility to schools that have been low-performing for two of the past three years.
Community activist and education consultant Marvin Pittman is hoping the new program will work, but he has watched Wake try again and again with different initiatives at both schools. Pittman and his church, Compassionate Tabernacle of Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Southeast Raleigh, have worked with Walnut Creek since it opened in 2011.
“What will not work is for us to make a big to-do over this restart model and half do it,” Pittman said. “You’ve got to put all of your all into it. If you’re going to do it, stick with it. You can’t just do it for one year.”
The restart model revolves around applying the same flexibility that charter schools have to set their school calendars and spend state money. Charters receive exemptions because they are taxpayer-funded public schools that are meant to be laboratories for innovation.
Wake got the flexibility because a recent state board policy, based on a 2010 state law, lets districts ask for permission to give charterlike flexibility to schools that have been low-performing for two of the past three years.
Wake school leaders are working through all the new opportunities available at Barwell and Walnut Creek.
“We are able to take funding that goes to the schools and use it differently than how it normally comes to us,” Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore told school board members.
The new flexibility is allowing Wake to add 10 days to the school year and to reallocate existing state money to help cover the cost. Barwell and Walnut Creek students will have 190 days of classes instead of the 180 days at other Wake schools.
As part of the change, Walnut Creek is preparing to move to a year-round calendar for the 2016-17 school year. Students will have nine weeks of classes followed by three-week breaks. Barwell is already on a year-round calendar.
Wake will use five days during a break in October and another five days during a break in January to hold classes for all students at both schools. But those two weeks of classes are being billed as fun-filled “learning symposiums” that won’t be like regular school days.
We have it right when the learning is right and rigorous, and (students) are so excited to be here.
Tammy Jahad, principal of Barwell Road Elementary School
Tammy Jahad, principal of Barwell Road Elementary School, said the learning symposiums will build on the the camps the school now offers during breaks for a limited number of students who need extra help. She said students were excited to engage in more hands-on activities and cover topics such as life cycles, animal adaptations and weather.
“We have it right when the learning is right and rigorous, and they are so excited to be here,” Jahad said.
Another new program is to encourage students to stay until 5:30 p.m. on Wednesdays for extracurricular activities. Jahad said those could include attractions such as book clubs and activities involving sports, robotics and music.
Wake would reallocate state money to cover the cost of teachers to work with students after school and to provide students with bus service home.
The new flexibility will also allow Wake to spend money from teacher assistant positions to hire teachers to reduce class sizes at both schools. The General Assembly removed that flexibility from noncharter schools.
Barwell and Walnut Creek will also for the first time be allowed to keep unspent state money from vacant positions and to use it for other purposes, such as hiring staff and tutors.
Jahad said the new flexibility allows both Wake schools to do more “outside of the box thinking.” She said the other sources of funding, particularly federal dollars, come with strict regulations on how they can be used.
“It’s really nice to know that we can really look at doing some creative and unique things that other places have the opportunity to use if they’re not so tied to those restrictions,” Jahad said.
Pittman, the community activist, said Wake needs to get it right this time for the children at both schools.
“At some point, the window is going to close,” Pittman said. “While we’re talking and politicking, the children are getting older, and we’ll realize we’ve waited too long.”