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Wheeler: Parents advocate together

If I were much of a conspiracy theorist, I might contemplate the convergence of a strengthening unified voice for Knightdale schools and the Wake County school board's recent redistricting that splintered the town among three representatives.

That members of the Knightdale 100, a group of parent advocates for stronger Eastern Wake schools, don't agree on whether the split was good or bad just underscores that their agenda is not political. It's purposeful.

"Dividing Knightdale in three, that's 10 years of damage they've done to us," says Knightdale 100 member Shannon Hardy.

But fellow member Robin Woodlief disagrees: "As far as I'm concerned, if I've got three reps, I've got three reps I can go to on the board to talk about Knightdale."

Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen hopes Woodlief is right, but he fought the town's division to the bitter end. "I worry that that's three people who really don't have to listen to us," he says.

Getting people to listen was the point of Killen's convening the Knightdale 100 two years ago. The mayor of 11,000 residents - nearly double the number from 2000 - wanted to combat historically low test scores amid rising poverty in Eastern Wake schools.

He decided he needed parents committed to making county leaders see the needs and to helping other parents increase their expectations.

The resulting group is so diverse - blacks, whites; some wealthier than others; McCain supporters, strenuous Obama lovers; Eastern Wake natives, newcomers - that any consensus about direction is greeted with certainty.

Consensus No. 1 was that the group will never participate in the partisan politics that overtook last week's school board election.

"We realize that if this is something we can all agree upon, across all backgrounds and all economic levels, we have to go for it," says Hardy, a Knightdale mother of two and a teacher at Exploris Middle School in Raleigh. "Our motivation has never been to serve our own children. It really is about living in a neighborhood and a community that is a generous place to live."

What the Knightdale 100 are going for is more high-quality teachers - what they consider key to increasing student achievement in poorer schools - and higher-level programs that retain area students who currently choose magnets, charters or private schools.

To that end, credit the group with pushing this year for Knightdale High School and East Wake Middle to become part of the STEM network, a move that provided schools with advanced technology and teachers with new learning techniques that promote science, technology, engineering and math.

"Our schools, I can say with absolute certainty, are in a better place now than they were just three or four years ago," Killen says. "Parents are beginning to catch on as to what needs to be done, what they need to do to hold our schools accountable. And that's a direct reflection on what the Knightdale 100 has done."

The group - with Hardy, Woodlief, Catherine Dameron, Kathy Moghaddam, Pam Miles and Derrick Burr at its core - presents monthly forums to educate other parents about important topics. Last month, Sam Houston, president and CEO of the N.C. Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Center, explained the benefits of the STEM program.

A rising profile

Of all the places Cary-software empire SAS could have chosen to test-drive a new initiative to help schools understand how to use the company's teacher-efficacy data, SAS picked Knightdale.

"We scored this contract with SAS for a year, training all of our principals and teachers on how to use the EVAAS data," Hardy says. "That's powerful to know that this teacher did better with this group of kids than other teachers with similar groups of kids did in other parts of the state," especially given that high-quality teachers are the group's main goal.

The Knightdale 100's dedication has impressed Tim Simmons, vice president of communications for Wake Education Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to public school advocacy. He has seen many organized parent groups in the county come and go.

"I don't know whether they know how much people refer to the Knightdale 100," Simmons says. "The first step is for people to at least know you're out there, and people know them. The schools won't turn around if there's not groups like them slugging it out."

The next big battle for the Knightdale 100, the members and Simmons agree, is to get the community to expect more of its schools.

"Kids succeed when they have opportunities that better expose them to different concepts and when the expectation is that they're going to succeed," Simmons says. "If you're not seeing the success you want, opportunities and expectations are two logical places to start."

And expectations are free.

"I'm proud of all the children in my community who are going to Knightdale schools, who are playing sports and getting good grades and taking AP classes," Hardy says. "Those kids who take advantage of the opportunities in a place like Knightdale are going to be the ones who make all the difference in our world 20 years from now."

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