Wake Schools Superintendent Tony Tata is out talking up his commitment to diverse schools. And last night at Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh — where for almost two hours he was asked every possible variation of the question whether his new school assignment plan will foster diversity or kill it — Tata made his strongest statements yet that he will be a friend of diversity, not its foe.
I captured a bit of the Q & A on my cellphone camera (see below). It’s Tata talking about “living diversity,” and specifically about being called back from Bosnia to Fort Bragg, where he’d trained as a paratrooper, in 1995. He was given command of a racially riven unit, he said, after a soldier in it — part of a white-supremacist cell — murdered two black people in Fayetteville as “initiation.”
Tata goes on to say that he was picked for the command because of his commitment to diversity, both racial and gender, in the military. (The military, he frequently observes, is THE most successful institution in America when it comes to putting people of different backgrounds together.)
Cleaning up the racial mess at Bragg was a formative experience for him, Tata said. So was living through his first two years at West Point, when the older cadets in the class of ’79 — the last all-male class and the “last bastion of maleness” at the Academy, or so they thought — did everything they could to make life miserable for the women in the class below them. It pretty obviously pissed him off.
The event last night was sponsored by the pro-diversity youth group, NC HEAT (Heroes Emerging Among Teens), along with a parents group affiliated with the YWCA of Raleigh. It was a free-wheeling session for the audience of 125 or more. The questioners, including many students, didn’t hold back. Tata seemed to enjoy the fact that they didn’t.
Tata denied, in response to one questioner’s statement, that he ever said a “neighborhood schools” plan was his priority. To another question, he answered that, “Of course, we don’t want high-poverty schools,” which would be the almost inevitable result of a neighborhood-schools plan. “But I would put it a different way,” he continued. “We don’t want any schools with high concentrations of low-achieving students.”
Raising achievement levels for all students is his priority, Tata said several times. He acknowledged that it won’t help low-achieving students to be corralled in a school where most of the other students are low-achieving too.
Someone asked if he was concerned that the new Walnut Creek Elementary School in Southeast Raleigh will open next year with a high-poverty student body — the estimate is that 81 percent of its students will qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.
“I am concerned,” Tata said. He’s also concerned that Walnut Creek’s student body is expected to be in excess of 50 percent low-achievers (kids not scoring at or above grade levels). Tata said he’s working to see that the school is staffed with the best possible teachers and an outstanding principal (the school board is offering a salary bonus to get one to take the job).
When he worked in the DC school system, Tata said, most of his time was spent in the high-poverty schools of East Anacostia, where F&R-eligible levels were all 90 percent or more. It was hard to get good staff to work there. “I know full well the challenges of high-poverty schools,” Tata said. “They tend to chew up human capital.”
Bottom line of the evening: Tata says he’s working to make student achievement the main pillar of his new assignment plan. He’s not embracing the Alves framework (the Wake Ed. Partnership-Chamber of Commerce plan), exactly, and in fact says his plan will be the product of a staff task force, not the Chamber’s product. But to the extent that they’re guided by the Alves plan at all, it offered very specific standards for measuring its other “pillars” — proximity, stability and choice. But its fourth pillar, student achievement, was left pretty loosey-goosey, with only an admonition that a school with fewer than 70 percent of students at or above grade level would need immediate attention.
In this regard, Amelia Lumpkin, a Davidson College student (Enloe HS, class of ’09), asked a very good question. Since the early years (grades 1-3) are so critical to a child’s future success, she said, it’s important that student achievement levels be high in every elementary school — no concentrations of low-achieving kids are acceptable there any more than they are in middle schools or high schools.
But how do you measure, Lumpkin asked, the achievement levels of kids when they’re still in kindergarten awaiting assignment to an elementary school? (What she didn’t say, but might’ve, is that it’s much easier to measure poverty levels in a community and assign kids in groups to avoid high-poverty concentrations.)
Tata said there are some methods for testing kindergarten students, but they aren’t great. “We do OK at it now,” he said. “We have to do better.”
And how, someone else asked, do you get great teachers like the ones I have at Leesville High School in North Raleigh to go teach in schools with low-income kids who need them the most?
“Therein lies the hard work of the student assignment team,” Tata said. He predicted his group will have “something that looks like something” of a plan in five to six weeks.
Here’s that video —