Wheeler: Eastern Wake ignored in school politics

Cross the Neuse River anywhere east of Raleigh in Wake County, and you've entered the land of the ignored when it comes to school-board politics.

While leaders and residents of all stripes in the rest of the county argued for two years over "neighborhood schools" and what that might mean for poverty rates in downtown Raleigh schools - culminating in the school board chairman's loss in the election Tuesday - the nearly neighborhood schools in Eastern Wake just quietly got poorer.

"Hodge Road Elementary was 70 percent poor under the old board, and 70 percent under the new one," says Shannon Hardy, a Knightdale mother of two and teacher at Exploris Charter School. "School assignment is not the solution."

If you've heard any Eastern Wake murmurs at all, it's likely because of Hardy and the rest of the Knightdale 100. This parent-advocate group, birthed in 2009 by Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen, isn't caught up in the partisanship that pervaded Tuesday's vote. Members can barely tell you, in fact, which school board representative covers what part of the town now that Knightdale has been split among three districts.

No amount of school choice, which the assignment model now on the table touts, is going to change the reality that well more than 50 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches in all but two of the schools in the historically rural area. In such a large swath of the county, only a diversity of housing can alter that number.

So rather than focus on politics and percentages, the Knightdale 100 have their sights on programs and perceptions.

"We realized my child's success relies on the success of all the children," Hardy says. "If you have money, you just buy a house in a rich neighborhood, but if you're just hard-working middle-class or single parents, your child's success in the classroom depends on all the other kids in the classroom."

What the group seeks are higher expectations for poorer students from parents and teachers. High-quality teaching, the members say, is what leads to student achievement.

Opting out of schools

They also want - and have snared - new programs they hope will attract families and keep the town's higher-achieving students from opting out. Two years ago, 400 Knightdale-area high schoolers were in private, charter or magnet schools.

"So many times we're focused on low-performing kids, and getting them up to level is important, but you can't do that to the exclusion of high-performing students," Killen says, adding that new Wake schools Superintendent Tony Tata completely gets that.

"Tata has done more and given more attention to this issue since he's been here than anybody the entire time I've been working on this, for at least seven or eight years," Killen says. "He sees it, and he wants to make it better."

The program equity that the group seeks would include more AP classes at Knightdale High - and some acknowledgment that Hodge Road Elementary needs help.

"Why is Spanish being taught to students in Cary, but the non-Spanish-speaking students at Hodge Road Elementary, which is more than 50 percent Hispanic, don't get any Spanish lessons?" Hardy asks. "Why isn't this a bilingual school?"

Plans killed by economy

Before a bypass opened in 2005, a continuously clogged U.S. 64 hindered higher-end development in Eastern Wake. The bypass brought bigger subdivisions to the drawing board - several, unfortunately, stayed there when the economy went bust.

The planned Wendell Falls, with its 4,000 houses on 1,400 acres, even had its own exit off the bypass. Those houses would have finally helped naturally diversify a town where 75 percent of the housing is considered affordable. The project is in bankruptcy.

In Knightdale, the Langston Ridge development sits off Hodge Road with its roads paved and its street lights on, illuminating acres of weeds and trash, but not one house.

More than 200 homes costing in the $200,000s to $400,000s were planned.

"Until we have more high-end housing, you just can't assign around that," says Killen, who decided that the only answer in the meantime was to find parents willing to improve the schools, which routinely have some of the county's lowest test scores, a priority.

Robin Woodlief, who grew up in Wendell and has two children in Eastern Wake schools, is one of several passionate parents who attended early organizational meetings and answered the call.

"The demographics are what they are," she says. "I think in the past there's been a mentality if you were poor, you weren't smart and you couldn't do the work.

"It takes awhile to get over that and convince the kids as well as the parents that just because you don't have any money doesn't mean you don't have a brain up there."

One way the Knightdale 100 are trying to reach the area's parents is with forums; for instance, one this year touted the importance of taking algebra in eighth grade and another explained how best to measure teacher performance.

"I think that our parents in Knightdale want to do the hard work as parents, they just don't know how," Hardy says. "Further, our teachers are well-intentioned, but they under-challenge our children. It is hard for a teacher to know how hard to push when the parents have not gone to college or don't naturally push the child themselves."

An area at a crossroads

It's clear that Eastern Wake County is at a crossroads. Although there are always exceptions, Tim Simmons of the Wake Education Partnership says research shows that 60 percent poor is the point at which a school starts losing families with the means to leave.

East Wake Academy, a charter school in Zebulon, already has 1,100 students and 600 waiting to get in.

Without more higher-end housing in Eastern Wake, the regular schools will keep edging closer to tipping. And the self-perpetuating cycle is that the poorer the schools become, the less likely that developers will build near them.

"The geography of Eastern Wake and the economy have not been kind," Simmons says.

"You can roll over or you can do whatever is possible to get those schools into a position of being a viable option. If you can attract one group, then you can attract another."

If the Knightdale 100 can hold the line - and even improve school quality - until the economy improves, development will take care of itself, he says, citing the Northern Virginia schools that are good only because people moved there to be close to D.C., and demanded better schools.

"It's really common for parent groups to get involved because kids can't get into AP classes or whatever, and once they accomplish that, they're done," Simmons says. "This group, it's pretty clear they are in it for the long haul."

Yes, they are. And that's partly because they love the area's diversity and the small-town feel that still permeates the ball fields and restaurants.

"Around here, we always have the most diverse soccer team, the most diverse summer swim teams. That's Americana, the spirit of America, pluralism," Hardy says. "You don't ask what you can do for your kid. You ask what you can do for your school system, what you can do to support your neighbor's kid in their bad times."

During the school assignment debate, many people said they were willing to spend more on better teachers and programs at schools that started struggling. Your Eastern Wake neighbors have been struggling for a while now.

Maybe we should help the Knightdale 100 stabilize a teetering quarter of the county until the housing market stirs again. If we let these schools languish, development is far less likely to arrive.

So far, the Knightdale 100 have been paying for their progress mostly from their own pockets, although Woodlief is working to get the group nonprofit status.

She doesn't want to think about how much money - not to mention hours - she has given to the cause.

"If we can turn it around and get good things to happen, it's worth it," she says. "My parents always told me you can preach to your children all day long, but unless they see you do it, it doesn't mean anything.

"I'm teaching my children that if they get involved in the community, they can make a difference."

Next week: The group's accomplishments - including STEM schools in Eastern Wake - and praise.