There was a lot of data and emotion coming from supporters of Wake County's school diversity policy at Saturday's Great Schools in Wake Coalition forum.
As noted in today's article, researchers presented national and state data on the challenges of high-poverty schools and the benefits of socioeconomically diverse schools. The message presented was that community schools would be the wrong step for Wake to take.
"It's very important that Wake County stay the course on their programs," said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, which he called a 'progressive think tank.' "The plans to dismantle the socioeconomic diversity policy would have disastrous effects.”
Kahlenberg cited national studies showing that high-poverty schools are more likely to struggle academically, have higher teacher turnover and less involved parents.
Kahlenberg also took on those who've cited the KIPP model as a way that Wake can deal with high-poverty schools. He argued that since parents choose to attend KIPP and that a high percentage of students leave over the course of the year that it's not sustainable in the traditional public schools.
“It’s an outlier that we really can’t base our public schools on," Kahlenberg said.
Kahlenberg said no research has found that middle class students are harmed by socioeconomic integration.
It was a theme echoed by Amy Hawn Nelson, a doctoral candidate at UNC-Charlotte. She pointed to a Clemson University study of North Carolina data from 2000 to 2006 that she said showed that the highest achievement was in schools that were racially and socioecoonmically balanced
"The most important characteristic of any student isn’t the school but the composition of the school, which is why that policy put in place in Wake County is so important," Nelson said.
The emotional aspect of the forum was especially noticeable from retired Wake Superintendent Bill McNeal and retired Wake magnet director Caroline Massengill. Both talked about having their heart broken at the prospect of the diversity policy being eliminated.
"My heart is broken for people who won’t have the opportunity to go to schools in diverse climates and learn from other people," Massengill said. "My heart is broken for people who won’t get to become like the women my two daughters are because they went to public schools in Wake County."
There wasn't much data brought up about Wake County specifically. For instance, the charts used by Massengill were from 2003 and 2004 when the passing rate was over 90 percent.
Massengill and other panelists did acknowledge that Wake's overall academic performance has dropped recently during a Q&A with questions submitted from the audience.
Panelists cited reasons such as lack of funding, loss of focus on academics and the failure of the old board to do more to keep down the number of schools exceeding the 40 percent F&R goal. (What wasn't mentioned was that the old board would have probably had to do a lot more reassignment to keep to the 40 percent goal.)
"We were dealing with considerable growth," Massengill said. "Wake County is famous for not having enough money. We lost focus. We were not really focused on academic achievement. Our focus was on growth."
The lack of recent Wake data was something pointed out by school board member John Tedesco, who attended the forum.
“The achievement gap has dramatically widened in the past five years,” Tedesco said. “My hope is that we can get together to come up with a system that works for all kids.”