Celebrating the Successes

As she has done for the past few years, Superintendent June Atkinson celebrated the school districts and the high schools with the highest graduation rates for the last academic year. Dr. Atkinson, as well as Governor Bev Perdue attended the ceremony and both stressed the importance of having districts graduate their students.

Dr. Atkinson also mentioned that more work must be done to ensure all students graduate from high school.

It is interesting to note that several of the high schools with 100% graduation rates are schools with a specialized programs like art, science or early college. It is even more interesting to discover that for every county on the list their high schools are amongst the most socioeconomic integrated in the state.

The information about the schools and districts that were celebrated can be found here.

Failure to Plan

No one wants to see the Wake School Board fail in its effort to reassign students. To wish for the school board’s failure is to wish for a poor education for Wake students, particularly its low income and minority students. That would be tragic.

Those who oppose the school board’s decision to abandon the district’s nationally renowned diversity policy are not hoping to see the board fail. They are motivated by a desire to make sure our students succeed. Education experts say that diversity is necessary for school excellence. Unfortunately, if the board majority fails – meaning Wake County ends up with more schools and more students struggling– it will be because they dismissed the current plan without a plan to replace it.

The board has posted maps of possible student attendance zones to the district’s website for public comment. If the idea is to make the public feel as if there is buy-in to the plan by allowing comments, it will fail. The time for discussion was before the current plan was scrapped. Allowing for comment at this stage seems hollow given the past actions of the board (requiring tickets for meetings, not holding meetings in a larger space when attendance over capacity was foreseeable, blunting public comment, etc.) There is no reason to believe that whatever anyone can say in the 250 words or less that is requested will be heeded. If they ignored their own survey that resulted in 94.5% of parents saying that they are satisfied with their current assignment, it is unlikely that the board will acknowledge the comments to the maps.

It looks very much like what no one will get what they want. The board majority has made unsustainable promises. It cannot create the neighborhood schools it promised because the zones will be unworkable. There will be schools that will be overcapacity if every parent sends their child or children to schools in their neighborhoods. Some children will have to be bused passed their neighborhood school to another school. It will also fail to fulfill Board Chair Ron Margiotta’s promise about not intending to create high poverty schools.

The school assignment plan that was being used needed improvement. Instead of improvement, Wake students received nothing. The uncertainty that existed about student assignments before has now has increased becoming some fantasy of neighborhood schools that the board wants to create but does not seem to know how to get there. So what Wake is left with is four maps, a statement of good intentions and absolutely no plan. There is a saying if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. No one wants the Wake School Board to fail, but a lot of time has passed since they discarded the diversity assignment policy and they have not presented a plan. Tragically, the longer the board waits to plan or refuses to go back to the old plan, the more likely is that failure will be inevitable.

Wake schools: not that simple

This will come as no surprise, but one of Raleigh’s most visible right-wingers is oversimplifying the Wake School diversity debate. In his daily column published on Monday, John Hood incorrectly characterized the debate as a “busing” issue. This is simply inaccurate. The Wake schools controversy is not about busing. It is about school excellence.

Several experts have already established that diversity is a necessary part of school excellence. Unfortunately, Hood troubles himself with using only one criterion, Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s rise in test scores for economically disadvantaged students, to supposedly demonstrate why Wake’s school board made the correct decision in dismantling its diversity policy with nothing to replace it.

CMS’s success should not be understated. It is fantastic that some economically disadvantaged students have been doing better on tests. The students deserve all of the credit for striving to be excellent. These students probably know that their success cannot be attributed solely to “neighborhood schools,” if at all. In fact, they probably understand that there are several issues that led to their increased scores. To put it simply, unlike Hood, they would not oversimplify.

Perhaps they would be able to point to the fact that CMS puts a lot of extra money into early childhood education. Hood did not address that point. Maybe they understand the hypocrisy of decrying what Hood describes as “language and tactics of the civil rights movement” while using the segregationist term “forced busing.” It is possible that they recognize that just because John Hood says there is not a legal argument against the change in policy does not mean that there are not several legal arguments. Maybe they would say that research should be done to see why the scores have increased.

While I am sure that the students in CMS have a friendly competition with Wake County, they probably do not strike the almost celebratory tone Hood seems to favor when discussing the CMS scores as compared to Wake. They probably do not wish any educational harm to students who look like, live like and suffer through poverty like they do. It may be likely that CMS students would look for solutions before looking to claim a victor in the diversity/school excellence debate.

To be sure, Wake County’s system has work to do to become truly excellent. There was work to be done before the distraction of the false “forced busing” issue was concocted. There was also an awful lot to be proud of such as the fact that Newsweek ranked all of Wake County’s high schools among the top 6% of public high schools in the country.

Ultimately, one would hope that the students in both districts would say that we should rely upon solid, comprehensive research to find out how all North Carolina schools can improve instead of falling back on the lame ideological attacks on “liberals” or manufacturing a contrived competition between school systems.

Learning the Hard Way

A recent article in Time magazine discussed some of the problems with education and summer vacation. The article says that academics are concerned that children lose much of what they have learned during the school year because of the long break between the last day of one school year and the first day of the next school year. The problem is worse for children who are economically disadvantaged. Here in Wake County, however, it appears that the school board is taking some steps to keep students engaged. No, I’m not talking about calendar revisions or summer school programs – I’m talking about the direct lessons the Board is imparting to kids.

Their first lesson came before the school year had ended. It was this important civics tutorial: It is important to vote. No matter what side of the diversity/school excellence debate you stand on, it must be conceded that one side won because people voted for them. Poor voter turn out makes a difference.

Lesson # 2 provided students with an all-too-real field trip through history to the period when segregation reigned. They have seen members of the community arrested in acts of civil disobedience because they refused to have their voices silenced. They have also heard people called “outside agitators” as if the fight for civil rights is only a local issue.

In lesson # 3 students are learning that, even in a participatory government, if people do not exercise their rights, their representatives can and will try to do their business in secret and discourage dissent. They have seen the school board create onerous restrictions so that opposing views would not be heard or even allowed to enter the building.

Lesson #4 is an inspiring one. Students are learning that in 2010, people will still march for their rights. Let’s hope it will inspire them to read about other civil rights marches that took place in the South before they or their parents were even born. Perhaps then, they will wonder why there is still a need to march against re-segregation of schools 56 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

With any luck, the Board’s summer lessons, will spur kids to ask their parents to take them to Shaw University to see where the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was created. They can see that students in Raleigh have been fighting against segregation in this state and throughout the South for 50 years.

Unfortunately, students have to learn these lessons because it appears that some powerful grown-ups have not learned from history at all.

There will be no high poverty schools because we won’t bother to measure poverty

It’s hard to weigh anything without a scale. It’s difficult to tell how long anything is without a ruler. It’s certainly impossible to avoid creating high poverty schools without a way to determine wealth or the lack of it. Although, it appears that John Tedesco, Wake County School Board Member, will try to do just that.

After Dr. Michael Alves presented to the Wake Board of Education Student Assignment Committee about the concept of “controlled choice”, Mr. Tedesco made his own presentation in what was described in the agenda as “Review various geographic assignment area possibilities.” The committee saw many maps created by Wake County Public School System staff illustrating the geography of the county.

During his presentation, Tedesco said that he does not want to use the number of students who receive free or reduced lunch as a measure of poverty in the county. When he was met with the words of Board Chair Ron Margiotta that there was no intention on creating low poverty schools, Mr. Tedesco agreed. However, when asked how this would be done without using students who receive free or reduced lunch as a measurement of poverty, Mr. Tedesco used either a vague answer, danced as fast as he could to not answer or completely tried to shut down discussion by saying that the issue was not on the agenda.

If Tedesco wanted to answer truthfully, he could have said that the number of students on free or reduced lunch is not an accurate way to gauge poverty because it is underreported (although, this year, Wake County just saw the highest ever percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch).

While Mr. Tedesco could not answer the question about the measure of poverty, if he watched the presentation by Dr. Alves he would have heard the words “fair and just” several times. If he read anything about controlled choice, he would have learned that diversity based on socio-economic status is a major part of the system. Controlled choice is, in large measure, precisely about promoting diversity as a way to achieve school excellence.

While more needs to be studied about the program to see if it is right for Wake County, John Tedesco needs to know that a real plan has to exist. The only way to develop a real plan that does not create high poverty schools is to have a true method for measuring poverty.