Audit reveals shortcomings at four Knightdale schools

aspecht@newsobserver.comAugust 19, 2013 

Brooke Hopkins, a former teacher at East Wake Middle, fields a question in 2011 from a student in her social studies class. An audit shows Knightdale schools have a high turnover rate.

PAUL A. SPECHT-2011 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

— Four Knightdale schools struggle to implement the curriculum because teacher monitoring is inconsistent, there are few experienced teachers, and because they lack sufficient resources so much so that one school runs out of food on an “almost daily” basis, according to an independent audit released last week.

Last October, the school system commissioned an audit by Curriculum Management Systems, based in Iowa, of Knightdale High, East Wake Middle, Knightdale Elementary and Hodge Road Elementary after outcries from education advocates in eastern Wake who claim the region is overlooked by central office.

Auditors visited classrooms, collected online surveys from teachers, and interviewed more than 200 teachers and school administrators. Wake staff presented the results to the Student Achievement Committee on Aug. 15.

In their report, auditors described staff at each school as capable and dedicated.

“We couldn’t ask them (teachers and principals) to work harder,” said Todd Wirt, assistant superintendent for academics, as he presented the audit findings.

But auditors said monitoring at the schools is not consistently tied to curriculum alignment or effective instructional strategies. They said the issue is exacerbated by a high number of inexperienced teachers, a high teacher turnover rate, a high percentage of impoverished students, high numbers of students whose primary language isn’t English and low parental involvement.

Additionally, curriculum implementation is impeded by district-level factors such as student assignment and an inequitable distribution of resources. Auditors pointed to East Wake Middle as one of the worst situations in the county.

“Busing gets some children to school late everyday, and the students and teachers both complained about the food and the food service running out of food on a regular (almost daily) basis,” auditors wrote. “East Wake Middle School does not appear to receive funding commensurate with other buildings or even commensurate with its level of need, and the facility is in a dire state of disrepair.”

Wirt did not mention the food shortage at East Wake Middle when presenting the audit. Board members Christine Kushner, Tom Benton, Kevin Hill, Jim Martin, Susan Evans and Bill Fletcher, as well as Superintendent Jim Merrill, attended the meeting.

Auditors recommended Wake County school leaders allocate additional resources to each of the four schools. For teachers at each school, auditors recommended extra training and a more formalized system for monitoring and providing feedback. They also recommended adding two graduation coaches at Knightdale High, renovating the East Wake Middle facility to “comply with policy regarding health and safety, and incentivizing teachers to stay in eastern Wake.

“Such an incentive is needed to recognize the efforts of the hard-working teachers in the building, improve morale, and recognize progress,” auditors wrote.

Ideas for improvement

Benton, who represents eastern Wake on the school board, agreed with auditors’ recommendations. He said the lack of resources is driving effective, experienced teachers “further into the county.”

“We’ve got to find some way to attract and retain talent,” Benton said. “We’re not just a training ground for the rest of the county.”

Board member Jim Martin suggested the county adopt a “study abroad” program, where newer teachers observe experienced teachers at schools in other regions of the county.

“Some have no clue what it’s like to teach in your schools,” Martin said, looking at principals from eastern Wake schools who attended the committee meeting.

“I’d love to see us develop some sort of exchange program” countywide, he said. “It’s not gonna solve the experience problem, but it would be a valuable asset.”

Knightdale High graduate Jon Wall has a master’s degree in education policy and management from Harvard University. Wall agreed with Martin, saying well-executed teacher evaluations are the “bread and butter” of school improvement. But Wall pointed out that auditors noted improvements at Knightdale schools in recent years, and said a countywide exchange program may not be necessary.

“I had amazing teachers during my time in Knightdale,” said Wall, who’s entering Harvard’s law school this fall. “We don’t need west Raleigh to come in with a cape to fix our problems. From my interpretation (of the audit), we just need better evaluation practices.”

Local reaction

Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen, who helped form the local advocacy group Knightdale 100, applauded Martin’s idea for a teacher exchange program but said it doesn’t go far enough.

“Any proposal (to improve teacher retention) that doesn’t involve direct compensation – or something to incentivize the best and brightest – will fail,” he said.

Killen was among several education advocates in eastern Wake who said he wasn’t surprised by the audit results.

“This is what a significant group of people have been telling the school system and school board for the last 10 to 12 years,” he said. “This report is going to keep me awake every night until we fix this.”

Shannon Hardy, who leads Knightdale 100, said the audit proved her claim that the efforts central office staff aren’t keeping up with the efforts of local school staff members.

“This audit confirms that Knightdale has good, passionate teachers who are working themselves to the bone while the county continues to under-resource our schools,” she said. “Beyond unethical, I can’t imagine how it is legal for Wake County to maintain magnet schools in wealthy inner-Beltline neighborhoods while blatantly neglecting our region.”

Changes coming

Carla Jernigan, principal of Knightdale High, noted that the audit had many good things to say about Knightdale schools. For instance, auditors found that the culture and safety at Knightdale High improved in recent years. But she understands there’s room for improvement in teacher monitoring and says she plans to lengthen monitoring sessions.

“(A teacher) might have their 10 daily habits written on the board,” Jernigan said, referring to a popular instructional strategy. “But that may not mean they’re using it effectively.

“Our teachers know what to do,” she said. “We just need to make sure we’re giving them useful feedback.”

Meanwhile, Ed McFarland, area superintendent for eastern Wake, said his office plans to offer training and program assistance “quickly.” He did not elaborate. Central office staff members also expect Hodge Road Elementary and East Wake Middle to achieve better instructional cohesiveness this year as they shift from a multitrack schools to a single-track schools.

Specht: 919-829-4826

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