Traditional calendar schools across North Carolina start today. It’s an especially anxious day at Walnut Creek Elementary in Wake County. That school is opening its doors for the first time – the first new elementary school to open in ten years with a large majority of students who are both high-poverty and low-achieving.
Corey Moore is the principal we all wish we could have had. He’s got experience, charisma, and – as he practically skips down the hallway just a few days before he opens a brand new school - all the enthusiasm in the world.
Corey Moore: "It’s been amazing seeing some of the classrooms just develop and come to life and all the color and I get excited every time I walk down the hallway."
Walnut Creek Elementary in southeast Raleigh has the latest in classroom electronic black boards and networked computer labs. It has hand-picked teachers, small classes, and a longer school day. It’s also the latest battleground in an ongoing fight that has split Wake County for nearly two years.
For ten years in Wake County, students were assigned so that no school would have more than 40 percent low-income students. To achieve this, suburban kids chose magnet schools downtown while mostly poor kids in southeast Raleigh were sent to schools in the suburbs.
On the night last year when he voted to end that policy, School Board member John Tedesco said it was flawed.
John Tedesco: "I think now, it’s time we start educating those children instead of hiding them and shuffling them. That’s the deal. I don’t think we’ve done a good job of educating them, we have to close the achievement gap, so now it’s time to educate those children, not just shuffle them and hide them."
Supporters of the diversity policy staged protests – more than a dozen were arrested at board meetings. The school system was put on probation by the accrediting agency and is also the subject of a U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights investigation. During a meeting last summer – as several protestors were being led away by police - Board Chair Ron Margiotta read a statement to try to calm fears.
Ron Margiotta: "This board does not intend to create high poverty or low-performing schools in the new zone assignments."
A year later, Walnut Creek Elementary is holding its first open house. The students coming through the front doors are mostly high-poverty and low-performing – exactly the kind of school Margiotta said the Board would not create. Students were assigned to Walnut Creek in the interim after the diversity policy was ended but before a new student assignment plan is in place.
Reverend William Barber is the president of the North Carolina NAACP.
William Barber: "Why would you create a school that is high poverty, racially identifiable, re-segregated, when you know the law is against that? Your goal should be diverse schools with resources. Why not do what had worked in Wake County before?"
Barber, legal experts, and educators across the state and across the country will be closely watching Walnut Creek to see if extra resources can overcome the challenges faced by low-income students. Most importantly, so will parents, like Paula Wordsworth, whose son, William, is starting second grade at Walnut Creek.
Paula Wordsworth: "I think folks are going to watch to see if the kids are at a level that’s competitive with the other kids in Wake County. I’m optimistic. I think that the parents here are eager and willing to participate to ensure that the kids rise to the highest expectation."
Wordsworth says she is especially encouraged by the principal. Corey Moore says he refuses to believe his school is set up to fail.
Moore: "If I believed that then I wouldn’t have accepted the job here. We have children, just like any other school in the world. They are children who come to school. They want to learn. They want to grow. And they depend on us."
The fight over schools in Wake County enters another round in October. On election day, four seats – and control of the school board - are up for grabs.