Raleigh, N.C. — Wake County schools celebrated academic achievements over the past year and looked forward to future challenges in an event Thursday night at Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School billed as the "State of the Schools" address.
The nation's 16th-largest school system with 151,000 students has stars like Bright Gyiamfi, a Ghanian native who arrived in the U.S. knowing little English in 2006 but graduated from Knightdale High School this year with a full scholarship to Notre Dame University.
"There are so many students doing wonderful things supported by fantastic teachers and principals and staff," Superintendent Tony Tata said.
Wake schools posted gains in proficiency at every grade level and in all but one subject tested last year, and economically disadvantaged students, in particular, saw improvement.
"Our economically disadvantaged students are outpacing our economically advantaged students" in improvement rates, Tata said. "Why is this important? They have more ground to make up typically."
Still, he said, closing the achievement gap between income and ethnic groups remains a priority.
Board of Education Vice-Chairman Keith Sutton said that while at-risk groups made gains, their scores are still too low. "We are not happy to see students at a 50 percent proficiency rate," he said.
"We may have inched up on that, but I'm not going to pretend that we're where we want to be," Tata said. Middle schools, which posted the smallest gains on test scores last year, will be a target for improvement efforts, he said.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Wake County schools is the increased academic rigor of the Common Core standards. North Carolina is one of 49 states and territories adopting the national proficiency standards next year.
"It is a sea change in how we're doing business," Tata said.
Preparing students for Algebra I has been Wake schools' biggest focus while preparing for the Common Core standards, the superintendent said. According to research, students who are prepared to take Algebra I in eighth grade and earn a C grade or better tend to go on to graduate from college, he said.
Other goals for the school system include having all children reading at grade level by second grade and graduating more than 90 percent of students.
Additionally, a growing number of students need more space, Tata told the crowd. He appealed for them to support a bond to build more schools.