Cary News

Wake rejects having achievement as a principle for magnet schools

Wake County’s magnet schools have kept schools diverse for 30 years, but school board members say they shouldn’t also be explicitly required to promote student achievement.

Board members agreed during a Wednesday work session to not include increasing student achievement as one of the guiding principles of the magnet school program. Board members say that all schools are supposed to be focused on academics and that including the wording would unfairly hold magnet schools to an even higher standard.

“We don’t want teaching to the test at our magnet schools,” said school board member Jim Martin. “We want creative thinking at our magnet schools.”

The guiding principles decide how magnet schools will be measured, including which existing magnet schools may lose their programs and which schools will get one of the coveted programs.

The school board is in the midst of a magnet review that could result in an August decision on which schools will receive magnet programs for the 2013-14 school year.

Since 1982, Wake has used the magnet school program to promote diversity by placing special programs such as additional electives at inner-city Raleigh schools to voluntarily attract suburban students.

Wake now spends $12 million a year on 32 magnet schools serving more than 28,000 students.

School board vice chairman Keith Sutton, whose Southeast Raleigh district is the home of a number of magnet schools, had urged the board to consider adding student achievement as one of the principles. He was the only board member Wednesday to vote for including it in the principles.

State exam scores

Superintendent Tony Tata pointed to data Wednesday showing that low-income students at magnet schools have a lower passing rate on state exams than at non-magnet schools.

“As we look at the performance of some magnets, we’re spending money on them but may not be getting maximum use of the money,” Tata said.

After the meeting, Martin said the data that Tata alluded to is skewed by the performance of some magnet schools that are outliers.

A bipartisan group of Democratic and Republican school board members pointed to how improving student achievement is already part of the district’s mission statement. Board members said it is redundant to include the language in the magnet school principles.

“I don’t think the teachers or the support staff will work any harder because we put it in there,” said school board chairman Kevin Hill. “We need to hold all schools to the same level of high expectations and accountability.”

Some board members said they were worried that including achievement in the guiding principles could hurt magnet schools.

Martin said it shouldn’t be used as a “simplistic club that prevents creative programs at magnet schools.”

School board member Susan Evans said including the wording “scares me a little bit.” She said she worries it could cause a school to lose its magnet program even when it’s meeting the other objectives of promoting diversity, maximizing use of school facilities and providing expanded education opportunities.

“I’m 100 percent committed to raising achievement,” Evans said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to be in the principles.”