Southwest Wake News

Lincoln Heights Elementary fosters community, more than test scores

Principal Todd Baulch, center, sits in on an assignment with fourth-grade teacher Megan Jackson and two students, Jasmin Rodriguez, left, and Ryan Walton.
Principal Todd Baulch, center, sits in on an assignment with fourth-grade teacher Megan Jackson and two students, Jasmin Rodriguez, left, and Ryan Walton. wdoran@newsobserver.com

This is the second of two stories on Lincoln Heights Elementary.

When Jodi Reed moved from Cary to Holly Springs this year, she sent her two young daughters to Lincoln Heights Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina. It was the closest school on a traditional calendar that didn’t have an enrollment cap.

But when she told her new neighbors, Reed said, she was shocked by the overwhelmingly negative response.

“The horror,” Reed says now, with a laugh. “The people were just ‘Oooh, not Lincoln Heights.’ I even have a teacher who lives up the road who texted me and was like, ‘I’ve heard bad things, you need to go back to the school board’ (to request a transfer).”

Reed didn’t listen, and now she’s one of the school’s biggest cheerleaders.

Lincoln Heights, in a working class neighborhood west of downtown Fuquay-Varina, was a thriving magnet school before the recession. But losing that designation led to years of white flight and an increasing poverty rate.

The school is at a turning point, however, in its 50th year. From a massive renovation that starts next month to a new road project and a potential calendar change, administrators are excited about the potential for growth in the future.

But for now, Lincoln Heights is one of the poorest, most segregated and lowest-performing schools in the county. It’s the only school in the western half of Wake County to earn a grade of “D” from the state.

Focus on collaboration

The Reed family is white, as are most of their neighbors. Reed, a Wake Technical Community College history instructor, was skeptical of the school at first, after the feedback she received, but she and her kids love the school.

Compared to her children’s former school in Cary, which Reed said seemed occupied with testing, she said Lincoln Heights is more focused on fostering self-esteem and a love for learning. Those are two traits she believes are more important for elementary school kids than rote memorization.

Administrators at Lincoln Heights say they aren’t happy with the school’s scores, but Principal Todd Baulch defends his staff. He said they focus strongly on teaching concepts like collaboration – a skill that may not appear on a standardized test but that’s important to learn.

Teachers recognize what’s positive at their school, even though the test scores are low. Last year, most students were not proficient on state tests for reading, math and science.

“Even when outsiders think we can’t, we know that we can,” Jacqueline Hunter said.

Hunter, 51, speaks with an insider’s authority. She teaches fourth grade in the same room where she sat years ago as a third-grade student. She still lives close enough to walk to school, just like when she was little.

She grew up with many of her students’ grandparents. That gives her a bond with the students, she said, not to mention the implicit threat that she’ll tell grandma if they aren’t reaching their potential.

“I believe we have to change some of our students’ thinking,” Hunter said. “They don’t believe in themselves, and they get frustrated. So we need to connect with them, make them believe.”

Both she and Baulch said working at a school like Lincoln Heights requires a special kind of teacher.

“Not everybody wants to work with a high-poverty population,” Baulch said. “Teachers have to fit, and I ask them some real direct questions about it.”

Reed said the staff at Lincoln Heights is better than at other schools her students have attended, in Cary and in their previous home in Tennessee, even though those schools had higher scores and better reputations.

“The teachers (at Lincoln Heights) are a higher quality, because they recognize the kids there need more,” she said. “You’re not going to be a teacher there if you’re not willing to give more.”

Renovations, roadwork bring hope

Baulch and others believe plans for $22.5 million of renovations as well as a potential calendar change could help the school raise its test scores. The renovations will begin in January and last through 2018.

They’re also excited for the growth that will come after the expansion of Judd Parkway behind the school.

The new road could open up the land for development, meaning new housing developments to fill up the newly renovated school.

They hope filling the school to its capacity means more parents, and more parent volunteers. The school has identified a lack of volunteers as an area to improve.

In the meantime, the Town of Fuquay-Varina has smaller-scale projects planned in the area, such as improving nearby parks and building a sidewalk system that will connect Lincoln Heights to nearby homes and beautify the area.

STEM learning

The school’s ambitions aren’t only pointed at the future. In the past two years under Baulch, Lincoln Heights has attempted to improve its academics by becoming a STEM school.

STEM stands for science, technology, math and engineering, skills that Americans lag behind in compared to the rest of the industrialized world.

With STEM, there are academic crossovers, such as more word problems in math classes, and English classes with readings focused on science. Baulch said traditional class labels might even soon seem obsolete.

“My vision for the future is we may not have reading class, math class,” he said.

On a recent day, the school’s STEM coordinator Christianne Stooks corraled a class of kindergartners into the cafeteria to examine and write down the building materials they saw. Bricks? Metal? Wood? Cement? The exercise was about spelling as much as engineering.

Textbooks were absent, just as they are from other hands-on activities. Stooks said the kindergartners have been learning about the chimney swifts that live on campus, as well as making a compost pile in the school’s garden.

“They love it,” she said. “They’re all going to be in Greenpeace.”

Calendar controversy

Love of learning, though, hasn’t translated to results at Lincoln Heights.

That’s why the Wake County Public School System is exploring a calendar change at Lincoln Heights and 11 other low-performing elementary schools. Under the proposal, Lincoln Heights’ traditional schedule could be changed to an intensive form of the year-round calendar.

The proposed continuous learning calendar would have same periodic three-week vacations common to other year-round schools. During the breaks, children would have the option to remain in school to do remedial work or enrichment activities.

While teachers overwhelmingly support the idea, it’s facing resistance from parents. Half of the Lincoln Heights parents who responded to a recent survey said they are either unlikely or very unlikely to keep their kids at Lincoln Heights if it changed.

There has been no final decision yet for Lincoln Heights or the other schools.

Reed said she dislikes the idea of a calendar change, mostly because she has a high school student and wants to keep all of her children on the same schedule. But she added that she would keep them at Lincoln Heights, even if the calendar changed. She likes the school that much.

“Most kids will do anything not to do school work, and play video games or whatever else instead,” Reed said. “But mine don’t. They even like going to tutoring. They really enjoy being there.”

Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran

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