Gerald Grant on Wake's school success | Q&A | Indy Week
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Gerald Grant on Wake's school success 

The full transcript of our interview


Are you following Charlotte's change of direction? They've moved, in recent years, from a diversity policy similar to Raleigh's to one based on "neighborhood schools," and they're spending more money in an effort to lift up the schools in Charlotte's poor neighborhoods.

I've read the research, in particular the research of Roslyn Mickelson, who's done the most research there for 15 years, and I know a lot of discussion has been going on in the press about Raleigh versus Charlotte.

Both [Raleigh and Charlotte] demonstrate the underlying truth of the benefits that creating balanced schools really helps poor kids without harming rich kids. Charlotte, once it was declared "unitary" [meaning, under recent U. S. Supreme Court decisions, that it had overcome the vestiges of its old segregation policies], did go back to more of a neighborhood policy. They did mothball some schools.

But overall, a lot of the economic success in Charlotte, as in Raleigh, can be attributed to what they did for kids in their schools. I think that's still true; I think Charlotte is still providing much more of an equal educational opportunity for kids than Syracuse is—and more than most cities in the Northeast and in urban America are providing.

But you don't agree with the critics of Wake's diversity policies that we should go in the same direction as Charlotte, to neighborhood-basd schools?

I don't agree, that's right.

I also think that another false premise that's often promoted is that folks will point to a turnaround school—they'll point to a school in Newark, or a school in Harlem—The New York Times recently had a piece, [columnist] David Brooks did, about the Harlem school miracle—and it's really about just a very few schools in Harlem.

As is very often the case, a school has brought together the most motivated parents among the poor—they've collected the "social capital" there—and they're parents who've agreed to very long school days—the Harlem schools website says often up to 10 hours a day—and to Saturday morning schooling, and so forth. And they have had good results in those schools. But the notion that you can replicate that for 137,000 kids, as Wake County has done, is false, because it's based on a small number of schools acting as magnets to draw together the most motivated parents who will sign up to do those kinds of things.

But you don't think it's possible to motive all the parents in poor neighborhoods to do those things?

I think you can bring those sorts of parents together and pour in resources, in some case huge amounts of resources, and you can have impact. But we've yet to see that happen in an urban system—like Syracuse—for all kids. I think that's what's really different about Wake County.

I should ask you to explain what you mean by "social capital," which is something you talk about in your book.

Sure. It really means that you have a major gain when you bring people together who have strong relationships—you know, physical capital is land, tools; human capital is a term that's thrown around that means that someone has more skills, enough to get a better salary; but social capital means all the benefits you get by being in wider networks, so you don't spend your whole life in a deprived group with no links to the wider world.

And the benefits of that are enormous, not just for the poor kids; I think that the diversity policy in Raleigh is providing all kinds of benefits for kids who are going to be looking for jobs in international corporations—[diversity has] huge benefits for the middle- and upper-class kids in Raleigh's schools over the Syracuse schools, and over the Syracuse suburbs for that matter. Even though the [Syracuse] suburbs' scores are high, the black population in the suburban schools is still less than 2 percent. The Syracuse metro area—city and surburbs—is just 9 percent black overall. At the time of the merger in Wake County, that number was three times as high.

You argue that a policy of balancing schools, and diversity, helps poor kids without any harm—and some benefits—to rich kids. But in western Wake County, I think there's a belief that, OK, there are no bad schools in Wake, but there are no excellent schools either because of the policy of making them all pretty good. They think they are paying a price for diversity in terms of the reassignment of their own kids out of their own neighborhoods.

The closing of the gap is the closing of the gap on tests of literacy, basic math skills and so on.

Wake County also has a very rich program of advanced placement courses, SAT scores have gone up for the county as a whole, more kids are taking the SAT than ever before, international baccalaureate programs, all kinds of tremendous enrichment—even for the kids at Washington Elementary, for example, if they're below grade level in reading, they're required to take two of their (enrichment) courses in reading, but they can take a third elective in ballet or something else, so even for those kids, there's enrichment. And I was in many classes that were just stunning classes for kids in Raleigh. And I don't think, by any measure, that the kids who are the top performers are being handicapped.

In your book, you talk about a successful culture of teamwork by the teachers in the Wake system that's caused by, or related somehow to to the diversity policy. Is that right? Do you think the one is related to ther other?

I think there are schools without much in the way of diversity where they have a lot of teamwork. I also think it is wrong just to see Wake as a system that organized everything around tests. [But] the success of the system as a whole did in part come from having the guts to set the 95 percent goal [of students in grades 3 to 8 scores passing state exams]and focus the whole community on it.

That was accompanied by all kinds of other smart policy. This really incredible launching of a whole range of new magnet schools at the same time as [merger] happened, and that were filled up, and that began with two-way busing when most of the busing that was going on, particularly in the North, was all one-way, busing black kids out; and the way that the magnet schools were set up on either side of the inner Beltline, and they were being bused both ways, created a lot of dynamic change in the system.

What you mentioned, the teacher teams, really changed the culture of teaching in Raleigh. Teaching traditionally is, go in my room, shut my door, do my thing. I had some wonderful interviews with teachers, and I went back and talked to many of them again later on, and I heard some incredible stories of that kind of change. I hope that comes through in the book.

It does. Last question: You’ve been in Wake enough to have a sense of the political debate over diversity. Are the supporters in danger of becoming blasé, do you think? And if so, and they lose control of the school board to the critics, what happens then?

I think it's a battle that's going to recur, and recur and recur. I mean, it's really amazing. [It would be amazing] if another school system was able to do what Wake County did without wave after wave after wave of new kids coming in every year—I mean an average of almost 6,000 new kids coming in every year; remember, I started this work eight years ago, I think there were 70-some thousand kids in Wake, and now there's 137,000.

But I think the way they've dealt with the [growth and reassignment] issue has been very smart, which is: Let's have the hearings. As one of the former school board members, Tom Oxholm, told me, we decided to do reassignment like DOT does new highways ... nobody wants a highway in their backyard, and nobody wants their kids to be bused, but let's have the hearings.

They've been a school board that's had vision, and the Wake Education Partnership has played a big role, I think. The data is so much on their side. The vocal minority has gotten more vocal, and it's probably grown some in size. But the data on parent satisfaction, in Wake County, is really high. And of course, the hullabaloo that [you're] doing all this busing: The latest data I've seen is that the average student's one-way ride is 19 minutes, and the average distance is 4.4 miles. And the percentage of kids who have a half-hour or less ride time is about 85 percent.

Yes, but some kids do have longer rides.

Yes, 5 percent average 64 minutes one-way [and] that gets huge play. But this is in a system with 137,000 kids.

Actually, Charlotte spends more money on busing than Wake does, and spends almost $500 more per student overall, which multiplied by 137,000 students is about $65 million more a year.

That's right.

  • The full transcript of our interview, including Grant's views on Charlotte's "neighborhood schools" policy.


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