Most of the county’s highest-performing schools are located in western Wake County, according to a new A-F grading system released Thursday by state education authorities.
Cary, Apex and Morrisville are home to 11 of the 16 traditional public schools in Wake County that received an A grade from the state. Seven of the A schools are in Cary, while Apex and Morrisville each have two A schools.
Grades for elementary and middle schools are based largely on standardized test results: 80 percent of the grade reflects tests taken last year; 20 percent is based on a measurement of student growth, or how much students learn year-over-year.
High school grades are based on standardized test results, graduation rates, and the percentage of students who pass Math III.
The performance grades are required under a new law that backers say will make it easy for parents to judge schools.
In total, 86 of 166 Wake County schools got an A or B grade, 61 got a C, and 19 schools received a D.
In Cary, 23 of the town’s 29 schools earned a B or higher. Each of Apex’s eight schools earned a B or higher.
Four of Fuquay-Varina’s seven schools received a B grade, while eight of the 10 Holly Springs-area schools received a B grade.
Schools this year got a boost from a bit of legislative grade inflation. Under the law, grades were calculated on a 15-point scale: 85-100 is an A; 70-84 is a B; 55-69 is a C; 40-54 is a D; and less than 40 is an F. After this year, grades will be calculated on a 10-point scale.
Across the state, six percent of schools received a failing grade. Under a 10-point scale, more than 42 percent would have received an F.
Nine local schools – five in Cary, two in Fuquay-Varina and two in Holly Springs – would have received a D grade under a 10-point scale. Lincoln Heights and Reedy Creek Middle in Cary would have received an F.
Lincoln Heights Elementary in Fuquay-Varina, which received a D grade, was the only school to in Apex, Cary, Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs or Morrisville to receive a D or lower.
Only about 25 percent of the kindergarten students at Lincoln Heights are read to daily at home, according to Wake County schools. And a survey of teachers found that 37 percent of Lincoln Heights faculty felt support from parents – compared to a countywide rate of 80 percent.
“That right there says a lot,” said Robert Resnick, president of the school’s PTA. “Parents are not helping their kids with their homework or supporting teachers.”
Like many of the state’s low-ranking schools, Lincoln Heights has a student body made up of mostly low-income families. Nearly two-thirds of Lincoln Heights students are economically disadvantaged, and 17 percent have limited English proficiency.
“We know who we are,” said Todd Baulch, the Lincoln Heights principal. “We know our proficiency is low. It’s an area we’re working to improve. ... We’re always trying to improve and get better. And that’s something we’ve done really well. We’ve had good growth, and we hang our hat on that growth.”
That philosophy echoes in the halls of Fuquay-Varina High School, where Principal Johnathan Enns also said the school is more concerned about meeting or exceeding growth than about a letter grade.
His school got a B, “which, I don’t know, is that a good thing?” Enns said. He compared using these grades for judging schools to buying a car by judging its paint job and not the engine.
“I think it under-represents what schools do,” he said.
Cary is home to the only four traditional public schools in Wake County that would have qualified for an A grade under a 10-point scale: Green Hope High, Davis Drive Middle, Highcroft Elementary, and Davis Drive Elementary, which received th county’s highest score.
Teachers at Davis Drive Elementary make a point of collaborating with each other on a frequent basis, said Chip Mack, the school’s principal.
“I think that’s a biggie,” Mack said. “We have a very positive climate.
“Otherwise, I’m not sure there’s anything we do that’s truly unique,” he said. “I don’t think (the state letter grade) completely represents the needs at our schools.”
At Lufkin Road Middle, the highest-scoring middle school in Apex, teachers make after-school tutoring a priority, and volunteers make sure that after-school clubs and activities are well-staffed, said Catherine Katz, the school’s PTA president.
Katz said her family chose Lufkin because “it seemed like a school that really cared about teaching the kids.”
Bracing for concerns
Communities and schools have been planning for weeks to respond to disappointing grades sure to generate parent questions.
Grading North Carolina schools has been controversial since Senate leaders proposed it in 2012. Supporters argued performance grades would provide transparency, while critics said they would stigmatize schools with high enrollments of poor students.
“The performance of our children is not unknown,” said Bill Fletcher, a Republican who represents Cary on the Wake County school board.
Fletcher, a real estate agent, said the system could mislead families who move into the Wake County area.
“A single letter grade just can’t describe the complexities, challenges, environments and successes in these schools,” he said. “It’s a well-intentioned effort that’s gonna put black eyes on a lot of teachers and children that are working hard and making progress.”
Wake County schools released progress reports that contain additional information about each school, including the growth of students from year to year, teacher turnover, administrators’ experience and how those numbers compare to county and state averages.
Thursday, parents of children at low-scoring schools seized the opportunity to provide the community with context about the grades.
For instance, Reedy Creek Elementary received a low C, despite being recognized as a North Carolina Title I Reward School for the last two school years. Reedy Creek was one of only two Wake County schools last year to receive the recognition, which is awarded based on a school’s academic growth.
“When you consider those awards, it doesn’t make sense to me,” said Kimberlee Edwards, the school’s PTA president. “(The grade) is misleading.”
One of Edwards’ two children at Reedy Creek Elementary has special needs, and the school staff has never let her down, she said. She invited any interested parents to see how well the school staff works with the students – 49 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged and 22 percent of whom speak limited English.
“The teaching staff is amazing and are so enthusiastic,” she said.
Grades with context
Holly Grove Middle received the lowest score, a mid-range C, of all the Holly Springs-area schools.
However, 95 percent of parents who participated in a survey last year said they were happy with the education their children were receiving at the school, said Dawn Ward, president of Holly Grove Middle’s PTSA.
“That speaks very highly of the staff,” she said. “I don’t think of us as being middle of the road.”
Ward said parents should look at the online progress reports released Wednesday, which shows that Holly Grove has a higher percentage of National Board Certified teachers than the county average.
“I would hate to see (the grade) negatively impact the school because it doesn’t reflect what’s going on,” she said.
Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill encouraged parents who have concerns about their school’s grade to read the progress reports and contact their principal.
“Don’t stop at a headline that says here’s the grade for the school,” Merrill told reporters Wednesday. “There’s so much more than that going on and our principals are prepared to talk about.”
T. Keung Hui and Lynn Bonner contributed to this report