WRAL Investigates

More Wake schools battling high poverty rates

Posted September 1, 2015
Updated September 2, 2015

— One out of three students in the Wake County Public School System takes part in the free and reduced-price lunch program. Those students used to be the basis for school assignment, but not anymore, and that has led to schools with high poverty rates.

Five years ago, the school board ditched an assignment program based on socioeconomic diversity and moved to a neighborhood school model. Since that move, white students now make up less than half of the enrollment, and the free and reduced-price program has grown by nearly 10,000 students.

But school leaders say they are confident that no child will be left behind.

Brentwood Elementary School in Raleigh consistently posts one of the highest free and reduced-price lunch percentages in the county. Last year, Principal Eric Fitts' school reported 75 percent of its students in the program, which is down slightly from before Wake County stopped busing for socioeconomic reasons.

"A lot of our students do come from poverty," Fitts said. "We're all about giving every kid who walks through the door the best education possible."

Brentwood Elementary is now one of 12 schools with 70 percent or more of its students on free and reduced-price lunch. The other 11 schools are:

  • Walnut Creek Elementary – 83.6 percent
  • Creech Road Elementary – 82 percent
  • East Garner Elementary – 79.6 percent
  • Fox Road Elementary – 78.9 percent
  • Wakelon Elementary – 78.9 percent
  • Hodge Road Elementary – 78.6 percent
  • Lincoln Heights Elementary – 74.6 percent
  • Green Elementary – 74.1 percent
  • Smith Elementary – 73.6 percent
  • Barwell Road Elementary – 72.6 percent
  • Knightdale Elementary – 72.4 percent

In 2009, Brentwood Elementary was the only Wake school above that 70 percent threshold.

Steve Parrott leads the nonprofit Wake Education Partnership, which supports diversity. He believes a holistic approach, ranging from housing placement to magnet schools, can best achieve that goal, not busing of old.

"I don't see us going back to that for a variety of reasons. First of all, parents don't accept that," he said.

Wake County schools' Deputy Superintendent for Academic Advancement Cathy Moore has watched the system evolve since she started as a teacher in 1988. She says the goal of making each school a first best choice doesn't change.

"While it's correct that the number of schools with higher levels of free and reduced lunch has increased, so have the county demographics increased, so I think you have to look at those in context together," she said. "Our board and our policy understand the value of diversity in the schools. It's reflected in the policy, but I think the reality is also that we have to meet the needs of any child that's in that school."

Instead of busing from affluent areas, Brentwood Elementary, a STEM magnet school, generally draws from the attendance zone close to the school. Once students get there, the principal says it doesn't matter where they came from.

"We look at every kid that comes into the door and we wrap our arms around them and we see what they need and we give it to them as far as instruction, as far as love, making sure that they are safe in every capacity," Fitts said.

To address performance, Wake County assigned a superintendent to high-risk schools.

With testing changes, it's impossible to compare results now to results before the move to neighborhood schools. However, the state is releasing new test results Wednesday that will give a three-year snapshot of how the high-poverty schools are performing. WRAL News will report the numbers when they are released.

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  • Jerry Powell Sep 1, 2015
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    Maybe the focus needs to be on separating the link between the number of students in that program and additional federal funding for individual schools and districts in general based on the percentage of students in that program.