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Capitalizing on a Running Start

In the 1990's, Wake County (North Carolina) School System began widespread reforms, many of which resemble aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act. District officials are building on that early start. Included: Efforts to help subgroups make AYP.

The Wake County (North Carolina) School System began a large-scale effort to improve the academic performance of all students more than ten years ago.

The general approach of the district was to focus on the continuous improvement of the entire educational system. The district staff also took steps to educate the community -- including parents, educators, business leaders, churches, and cultural groups -- about the importance of having a high-quality educational system to attract businesses and residents to the area.

A key feature of the reforms was a district-wide accountability system, established in 1990, which used multiple indicators to measure student progress. In 1998, the district set a goal of having 95 percent of its students, including those in the high-poverty schools, become proficient in reading, writing, and mathematics by 2003. To accomplish this, the district looked closely at the factors that created optimal learning conditions for children and sought to align all staff, funding, and other resources toward reaching the goal.

Looking back, staff members are amazed that they had such an ambitious goal long before the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was written. The changes did not happen without controversy, but the direction was set and key leaders continued the focus. Alignment became the key practice as schools worked to change their practices. They eliminated programs and strategies that were not showing gains and replaced them with effective interventions. A huge change in school culture and attitudes began to occur, with elementary schools taking the lead, and is still taking place now to meet the demands of NCLB.

With poverty levels as high as 65 percent in some schools, Wake County schools met the state's adequate yearly progress (AYP) requirements for overall student performance and had no schools in school improvement. But the district is concerned because two subgroups --students with disabilities and English language learners -- did not meet AYP at all schools in the 2003 testing cycle. The district is also concerned about performance at the secondary level, which is a target for improvement in 2003-04, with a goal of 95 percent proficiency for high school students by 2008.


A total of 19 Title I schools did not meet AYP targets in 2003, typically because of the performance of either English language learners or students with disabilities, or both.

In spite of decisions to serve special education students in their home or "base" school whenever possible, some students are grouped in self-contained classes that better meet their needs, and district officials fear that because of their low average achievement, these students will be increasingly unwelcome in schools that used to welcome them with open arms.

As for English language learners, district officials are concerned that this subgroup will never make AYP because of the nature of the group. Students leave the subgroup as soon as they become proficient, so their improvement does not show up in the group. A similar concern exists for the subgroup of disabled students, which includes students with a wide range of needs, from those with mental retardation or other cognitive disabilities, to gifted students with physical disabilities, to students with emotional problems. Wake County has a large percentage of students in this subgroup (18 percent) at grade levels tested for AYP, and district officials are reviewing programs, strategies, inclusion practices, and the academic progress of disabled students to see where changes need to be made.


Most teachers in Wake County Title I schools and other schools meet the NCLB highly qualified requirements. The district began to improve its level of teacher support several years ago in an effort to create the system as a good place for people to work. Salaries are competitive, and this has enabled the staff to focus on hiring teachers that have the qualifications that are needed.

A record-setting 189 teachers from the Wake County Public School System earned certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards in 2003. This brought Wake County's total to 665 teachers, one of the largest numbers of teachers in the nation who have earned National Board certification.

However, the method used in North Carolina to determine whether teachers are highly qualified according to the NCLB definition shows that only 77 percent of the classes in Wake County are taught by fully certified teachers. Karen Banks, the district's assistant superintendent, explains it like this: "In an elementary school with 40 classrooms and one art teacher without full certification touching 20 of those classrooms, it counts that 20 of the 40 classrooms are not being taught by a highly qualified teacher. It's the same issue with two-person teams at middle schools."


The Wake County school system has used a research-based model to consistently examine student achievement results from its educational programs and activities. Staff members report no hesitation in eliminating programs, even if they are popular and well liked, if they do not produce the results that are needed. The district frequently implements new programs on a pilot basis or conducts a rigorous evaluation of programs. For example, when a commercially produced summer school program proved no better at improving achievement than the preceding program, it was dropped.

SOURCE: Center on Education Policy

To read the full report, see A Look Inside 33 School Districts: Year 2 of the No Child Left Behind Act.

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