This is the first of two stories on Lincoln Heights Elementary.
Just outside Lincoln Heights Elementary School, a sign declares it a magnet school, which hasn’t been true since many of its students were born.
Yet after years of neglect – the outdated sign is just one symbol of it – the school is slated for more than $22.5 million in construction that will overhaul the campus west of downtown Fuquay-Varina.
The school is in its 50th year now. It’s struggling, and the aging campus doesn’t help.
Among the dozens of public schools in western Wake County, Lincoln Heights is the only school the state considers below average, receiving a “D” grade last year. And despite being in one of North Carolina’s fastest-growing towns, enrollment has shrunk.
But there’s a renewed focus on the school, both in its appearance and in the ways students are taught.
The school is one of 12 low-performing schools in Wake County that could have a calendar change, which would give students continuous learning throughout the year. With an ongoing STEM focus, administrators are excited for the future.
They also have high hopes for that the modernized building will reinvigorate the school community. The work will begin in January and will be completed in phases until summer 2018.
“By the time this building is finished, it will be state of the art,” Principal Todd Baulch said.
For Lincoln Heights, it will be a positive change. The school has lost more than 200 students in recent years, many of them from affluent families, after the magnet program was eliminated. The school is now one of the poorest and most segregated in Wake County.
With the additional emphasis on helping the school move forward academically, there’s also hope parents no longer will leave Lincoln Heights for other schools. Officials believe it will be at or above its 640-student capacity once renovations are finished. More students means more parents, and the potential for their involvement at the school.
Leaders say the students and teachers, like the school itself, will be ready to tackle education in a 21st century environment. That means digital smart boards and televisions in the classrooms, iPads for students and other tools of modern education.
“It really does change how the classroom looks, how the teacher teaches,” Baulch said.
The school had active families and more than 700 students just a decade ago. Then, the school system cut Lincoln Heights’ magnet program to save money during the recession.
White flight followed, and the school – which was an all-black school until integration half a century ago – has become smaller and more segregated. There are now fewer than 500 students enrolled.
From 2010 to 2014, school system reports show 154 white students left Lincoln Heights – an average of two full classes a year.
The school’s racial makeup shifted: 50 to 25 percent white; 27 to 40 percent black; and 14 to 29 percent Hispanic.
Not only did it become less representative of the community – Fuquay-Varina is more than 70 percent white – the student body has become poorer by the year.
In 2010, less a third of Lincoln Heights students received free or reduced-price lunches. By 2014, two-thirds did. Last year, 75 percent did.
Every other local elementary school’s poverty rate – a key predictor in academic success – is about half that.
But leaders say they expect the school’s demographics and poverty levels will stabilize and test scores may rise with the focus on renovations and curriculum.
James Overman, the school system’s area superintendent for elementary support, said having a renovated campus could help recruit and retain teachers. He said it also may encourage families to stay at Lincoln Heights instead of looking to newer public, private or charter schools in the area.
“Sometimes it’s hard to compete with the shiny new schools,” Overman said.
Scores, struggles and solutions
Lincoln Heights received a D grade last year, the first year the state gave out school grades.
About 40 percent of students passed the state reading test, compared to Wake County’s 65 percent passing rate. Fewer than half of Lincoln Heights students were proficient in math and science, despite its status as a STEM school.
The school also held back 17.7 percent of third-graders for being too far behind in reading to advance to the fourth grade. That’s compared with 9.9 percent countywide.
Baulch said the scores don’t tell everything. He knows his students learn more than what’s on standardized tests. But he wants those scores to improve.
“We know everything that’s coming, and we’re not going to be satisfied until we get there,” said Baulch, who became principal two years ago.
Overman said Baulch is doing a good job given the circumstances. Teachers at Lincoln Heights work hard, Overman said, but scores won’t rise until more parents get involved.
“If we can have the parents follow up with them at home, get them here on time, then the teachers can do their best,” he said.
The possibility of growing the student body by 33 percent after the renovation means more parent volunteers to help run after-school programs or assist teachers.
The school has about 25 volunteers a week on average, according to the 2014-16 school improvement plan that identified low volunteer numbers as a shortcoming.
“It’s a working class area, lots of parents working two jobs or the night shift,” Baulch said. “I hear a lot of people say, ‘I’d love to help, I just can’t.’ ”
Coming Sunday: Test scores don’t tell the whole story.
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran