Garner Cleveland Record

In Wake County, a growing number of high-poverty schools

Teacher Melissa Larkin fields questions from her fifth-grade class at Yates Mill Elementary School on Wednesday in Raleigh. With 59.5 percent of students passing state exams, Yates Mill has the highest proficiency rate of any high-poverty school in Wake.
Teacher Melissa Larkin fields questions from her fifth-grade class at Yates Mill Elementary School on Wednesday in Raleigh. With 59.5 percent of students passing state exams, Yates Mill has the highest proficiency rate of any high-poverty school in Wake.

The gap between Wake County’s poorest and most affluent schools has never been wider.

Nearly 30 percent of Wake County schools have more than half of their students qualifying for subsidized lunches because of their parents’ income, school records show. Eight of 10 students are receiving lunch assistance at some schools; at the same time, the number of schools where the percentage of low-income students is in the single digits has increased.

The repercussions of the demographic shifts are apparent in new state results showing passing rates for individual Wake schools ranging from as low as 22.9 percent to as high as 86.8 percent. Nearly all the Wake schools where at least half of the students are eligible for subsidized lunches had passing rates of less than 50 percent.

In the past, the response from Wake County school leaders would have been to see how they could use student assignment to try to reduce the number of high-poverty schools. But with parents becoming increasingly resistant to having their children moved, assignment is being downplayed as the way to raise achievement.

“We absolutely need to have a conversation about student achievement,” school board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner said. “That’s the most important thing for us to work on, not student assignment.”

Children from low-income homes tend to do more poorly in school.

Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen said the consequences of not addressing the academic challenges of the high-poverty schools are too great to ignore. The school district recently formed a group charged with developing recommendations to help the high-poverty schools in Knightdale, whose passing rates took sharp hits in the new test results.

“Do we like having test scores that are lower than the rest of the county?” Killen said. “No. But it doesn’t surprise anybody. The question is, ‘What do we do moving forward?’”

But school board members say it won’t be cheap to add resources for high-poverty schools as opposed to using student assignment to balance the populations.

“If you can’t use it to get a better balance, then you’ve got to provide better resources to make sure you have as good as you’d get anywhere in the county,” school board member Tom Benton said. “It’s not inexpensive.”

Impact of the economy

In 2000, Wake made it a goal to try to balance the percentages of low-income students at schools. Even with the goal, the number of high-poverty schools increased steadily across that decade.

But the number of schools where half the students are receiving subsidized lunches has risen sharply during the past four years.

In 2009, 25 Wake schools had at least half of their students receiving subsidized lunches. The majority of those schools had 50 percent to 60 percent low-income students. Only one school had more than 70 percent.

Last school year, 46 of 165 schools had at least half their students receiving subsidized lunches. The majority of those 46 schools had more than 60 percent low-income students. Eight schools had more than 70 percent, with three of them at more than 80 percent.

The number of low-income students in Wake increased by 6,703 during that four-year period – two-thirds of Wake’s enrollment growth.

“We all know that we’ve got schools with 5 percent low-income students to schools with 85 percent low-income students,” board member Jim Martin said at this month’s board meeting. “We’re not going to just completely bus to even it out, but there are places that we really need to pay attention to all of these factors.”

The weak economy helped contribute to the rise in schools with concentrations of low-income students. But school board decisions also played a part.

The Republican school board majority that took office in 2009 dropped socioeconomic diversity as a factor from the assignment policy, moved more children to neighborhood schools and accepted more students into magnet schools. That board also briefly implemented a plan allowing families to request where they’d like to attend.

The Democratic majority that took office in 2011 dropped the choice plan and reinstated socioeconomic diversity as a goal of the assignment policy. But the board has been reluctant to reassign many students.

“We’re not going to try to create any quick-fix policies,” school board Chairman Keith Sutton said. “We’re not going to assign our way out of it. We want to make sure that every school is a good school that has good leadership and gives students a chance to succeed.”

The trend could continue with school administrators not recommending any assignment changes for the 2014-15 school year. The board will vote Dec. 3.

“Let’s let everybody catch their breath and work to get it done right in two years,” Benton said.

Benton said that assignment can be used to balance out schools when “feasible.” But he said it has become harder because “forced busing” is no longer supported by key segments of the public. He noted that families have more choices, such as charter schools and private schools, if they don’t like their assigned school.

“I don’t think anybody wants pockets of high-poverty schools,” he said. “But how you do it in a fair and equitable way to balance schools isn’t easy.”

School board member John Tedesco said he considers the change in the conversation from assignment to achievement to be one of the legacies of the former Republican majority he was part of. The board has kept in place new programs begun under the GOP majority aimed at helping low-performing schools or schools that didn’t have enough students.

“Nobody wants a school that’s piled through the rafters in high poverty,” said Tedesco, who didn’t run for re-election this year. “But where it exists, we’re now starting to have the honest conversations about what it takes to make students successful.”

Talk of low scores

The conversations are becoming more animated in Wake as school officials review the state results released this month. Performance dropped across the state under the new exams developed to align with the more rigorous curriculum now being used in schools.

The drop was especially noticeable among low-income students, many of whom had barely been passing under the previous exams. Their passing rate in elementary and middle schools was 27.1 percent in reading and 27.6 percent in math, both below the state average.

Only three of the 46 Wake schools where more than half the students receive subsidized lunches had passing rates of at least 50 percent.

But Shila Nordone, a Wake parent activist, said it’s more relevant to focus on whether schools are showing growth on the new exams. Using a program developed by SAS, the Cary software company, the state test results can be analyzed to see whether students at a school are showing a year’s worth of growth in their performance.

Schools can meet or exceed their growth targets regardless of how many students are passing the exams.

Some affluent Wake schools didn’t meet growth targets, while some high-poverty schools exceeded their growth expectations. Nordone said the SAS data show that demographics have little or no impact on academic growth.

Making it work

Of the Wake schools exceeding growth expectations, Yates Mill Elementary School, southwest of Raleigh, is also getting more students to pass state exams than some more affluent schools. With 59.5 percent of students passing state exams, Yates Mill is outperforming the state and county averages and has the highest proficiency rate of any high-poverty school in Wake.

The percentage of low-income students at Yates Mill went from 37.4 percent in 2009 to 52.6 percent last school year, one of the largest percentage-point increases in Wake in that period. But Yates Mill Principal Anne Marie Adkins said she and her staff believe that all students, regardless of their situation, can learn.

“We don’t talk about demographics or diversity here,” she said. “We spend our time talking about student learning.”

One effort Adkins cited is “team time,” in which all students at a grade level are split into eight to 10 groups based on their performance to study a specific math or reading skill for 30 minutes a day. While one kindergarten group worked one day last week on recognizing numbers between 1 and 10 by using dice, another group had colored shapes flashed on an interactive screen.

Kushner, the school board vice chairwoman, said Wake needs to review the SAS data and see what’s working at some schools that can be emulated elsewhere. School board members say Wake needs to focus on core instruction – the time spent each day on the required subjects, such as math and language arts.

Sutton, the chairman, said finding the right mix to improve student performance won’t be easy.

“We can’t rely solely on assignment to balance student achievement,” he said. “We can’t rely solely on magnet programs to balance student achievement. You can’t rely only on an infusion of additional money. There’s not a single bullet.” Database manager David Raynor contributed.