Ned Barnett

This Raleigh school unfairly got an F. It merits an A for effort.

Bugg Elementary Principal Becky Foote is building a faculty eager to take up the challenges of teaching at a school that serves many children from low-income families.
Bugg Elementary Principal Becky Foote is building a faculty eager to take up the challenges of teaching at a school that serves many children from low-income families. The News & Observer

What you may notice first about Bugg Elementary School in Southeast Raleigh is that the name has two “Gs.” That’s because the school that opened in 1964 is named for a doctor who served the community, Dr. Charles R. Bugg.

What you may notice next is another line of repeating letters — three “Fs.” Those are the grades slapped on the school since the state began grading public schools three years ago with grades A through F. The grades are based 80 percent on standardized test scores and 20 percent on student improvement.

Principal Becky Foote is a veteran educator in her third year at Bugg. She is building a dedicated faculty and a culture of progress at the school where nearly 80 percent of the students have a low family income that qualifies them for a free or reduced-cost lunch. She tries to ignore the letter grade. She doesn’t think it’s a true measure of the school, which serves about 400 students from pre-K through 5th grade.

“I really try not to pay too much mind to it,” says Foote, 56, who came to Bugg after serving as an assistant principal at Raleigh’s elite magnet school, Enloe High School. “I just want to make sure my staff knows we are serving the children every day. We are really, really proud of the growth we’ve had with our children.”

Bugg’s grade is held down by the standardized test results, but the grade doesn’t give enough weight to the progress being made by children who start their education behind the level of children from more well-off families. Bugg students exceeded the average growth rate in Wake County and North Carolina.

Assigning letter grades to schools was introduced 15 years ago in Florida by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. It was intended to give parents a clear, quick assessment of a school’s quality. It hasn’t worked. Instead of quality, letter grades reflect circumstances beyond a school’s control. Those in affluent suburbs usually get high grades. Those serving low-income communities usually get low grades.

There’s no news there. But there is a stigma. Mark Jewell, head of the N.C. Association of Educators, calls the F grade a “scarlet letter” unfairly applied to schools that face the greatest obstacles and need the most support. Instead they’re getting starved for resources by a legislature that won’t provide adequate funding for teacher pay or school supplies. North Carolina ranks 39th nationally in per pupil spending — $2,400 below the national average.

Jewell says Republicans who control the General Assembly put out “a false narrative that public schools are failing when they’re not. Instead, our politicians are failing our public schools. If there’s any letter grade to be handed out, it’s an F for the super-majority in the General Assembly.”

Behind Bugg’s failing grade is a story of dedication. Foote, a woman with a steely resolve, works 12-hour days. She’s carefully building a faculty of 50 teachers who have come to Bugg or have chosen to stay because they’re drawn to the challenges, as JFK said of going to the moon, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Sierra Wooden, who teaches third grade, says, “I know the educators we have here are dedicated. That’s why they’re here. That letter grade doesn’t do us justice at all. We’re here from 7 (a.m.) to 6 (p.m.). We’re working hard.”

DeLesia Williams, 28, a first-grade teacher in her first year at Bugg, came to Wake County from Alabama. She could have taught a a school with a better grades, but Foote invited her to join her mission. Williams says, “When she hired me, she said, ‘Look, we are turning this school around.’ She is an awesome administrator. We all want to be here even if that F is there. That F doesn’t mean anything.”

Elizabeth Grannis, 56, has taught for 25 years. She’s now in her third year at Bugg, where she works with pre-K children, some as young as 18-months. She also teaches parents parenting skills.

“You can’t judge everything that happens in a school by one letter grade,” she says. She has her own grade for Bugg Elementary: “I would give it an A-plus.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@

Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified Dr. Charles R. Bugg as an African-American. Bugg, a Raleigh pediatrician who died in 1963, was white.