RALEIGH, N.C. - Make no mistake about it. This place is banging. To visit here is to feel the rumble of the econ-omy, the crackle of community pride, the vibration of breathtaking growth.
Look around. Raleigh is awash in people, cars, highways, buildings, businesses, clout and, of course, money.
Those riches first started arriving in this North Carolina town about half a century ago when strong leadership ham-mered from pastureland and woods a place called the Research Triangle Park, a site only spitting distance from Ra-leigh and Durham and three world-class universities.
That was the start, then, for the super Raleigh of today. The bigger question, though, is what has kept the place go-ing and what has kept it healthy all these years?
Put simply - and there is broad consensus about this - it is public education.
More specifically, it is about an extremely innovative unified public education system. Some very big players in the business world may have rode down to the village of Raleigh in Wake County decades ago to be part of the Re-search Park, but the big players keep coming today as much for the area's elementary, middle and high schools as for anything else.
Raleigh's blueprint of success has some very specific instructions that Anniston and Calhoun County should read very closely. Look at the fine print. It says: If you want your economy to rattle and hum, fix the public education system. If you want to fix public education, start by unifying it. And whatever you do, don't stop there.
A COMPARISON Wake County, N.C., has a population of about 750,000 and a school population of some 113,000. There are 135 schools. There is one school system. There is one superintendent.
Calhoun County has a population of about 110,000 and a school population of 18,000. We have 31 schools. We have five school systems. We have five superintendents.
Imagine the perplexed look on the face of Bill McNeil, the superintendent of the Wake County unified school sys-tem for the past five years, when you run the latter numbers by him. As in, "what?"
Then, after he recovers, he will tell you that, "we have good schools everywhere in Wake County, not just pockets here and there. That's what I am proudest of."
He doesn't mention the system's headline-grabbing merits:
• more than 820 nationally certified teachers,
• picked by Forbes magazine as one of the best metro school systems in the nation,
• 92 percent of school kids score at or above grade level in North Carolina,
• Wake County students scored an average of 1067 on the SAT last year, 61 points better than the state average and far above the national average of 1026,
• no Wake County school is low-performing,
• the system has 49 schools of excellence,
• 87 percent of students go on to college
• or that he was voted superintendent of the year in 2004 by the American Association of School Administrators.
None of that is what Bill McNeil spends a lot of time talking about. He's just proud to say that every school in Ra-leigh is good, is solid.
To get to where his system is, however, he warns that you have to work for it. You have to have some vision, leader-ship and courage and above all you have to be creative.
"Now we've managed to do it here," he said in his cozy, but busy office in Raleigh. "But you can tell those people in Anniston and Calhoun County that if they want an outstanding system, they have to be strong and stand up and ex-plain how shared sacrifices are gong to pay big dividends in the future."
The main sacrifice McNeil is speaking of is unifying the system. Let's face it, Calhoun County public education is as balkanized as it can be, and plenty of people want it to remain that way. If you merge the systems you won't have five superintendents anymore, and you won't have five school boards. Five systems won't control their own budgets, won't run their own school systems. Anniston, Jacksonville, Oxford and Piedmont would have to work out how to continue to financially assist the entire system instead of just their own.
A county-wide unified system would be a huge undertaking. As most everyone knows, however, the biggest chal-lenge is the Anniston city system.
For 2003-2004, on average, Anniston High School had the lowest ACT scores in the county. Students there, on av-erage, fell a full three points below the state average on the ACT. Also in 2003-2004, on the Alabama Reading and Math Test (given to 4th, 6th and 8th graders statewide) students in the Anniston system, on average, scored signifi-cantly below students in the other systems in the county and far below the state average. Anniston students in the 8th grade, for example, scored on average some 30 points below the state average on the reading test.
Solving those problems would do worlds of good for the city, county and region. That's the place to begin and merg-ing it with the county would be a big, and massively controversial, thing to do.
From the county's side the obvious question is, why absorb a system that is having problems? Doing that would simply pull your own numbers down. There is also the question of resources.
In recent years there has also been a tremendous reluctance to entertain the idea of a merger from the city system as well. Seemingly illogical, yes, but this also goes to the heart of the complexities of power and race in our commu-nity. The system might have its troubles, the thinking in some quarters goes, but it is the city's system, something Anniston can call its own. Why give up that control?
Jacky Sparks, the county's superintendent isn't so sure merging into the county district is the place to start. He sees it as a shared responsibility for all of the systems.
"If we are going to do something to try to improve the situation in Anniston then everyone, every school system in the county should be involved in it, not just the county system," he said.
Anniston city schools superintendent Sammy Felton believes the local approach is best. Systems, he believes, can get too big.
"When you have a huge system, you have children left behind," he said. "What we are committed to here is making sure that not a single child is left behind. In big systems a few are sacrificed. We aren't prepared to do that here."
Mergers, Felton argues, are often attempted for economic reasons, not necessarily to improve the quality of educa-tion. If you want a sounder economy, then you must first improve the quality of education, he says.
Of course, a lot of people in Raleigh and elsewhere would call this is a circular argument.
SPREAD THE WEALTH, SPREAD THE POVERTY Looking at the Raleigh system it is easy to see how a merger of the county and city system in Calhoun County will not only help solve a problem, but could serve as a blasting pad for economic development. That is, however, only if you are willing to be creative and take the next courageous step.
Here's the thing: A merger by itself isn't going to solve any problems. Nearby Durham can serve as an example. Af-ter it suffered through a bloody merger of the city and county system, the makeup of the individual schools hardly changed. Poor and poorly performing schools continued on a downward spiral. Affluent schools continued to per-form. On paper, the situation had changed, when in fact little had changed.
No. To make it work, you have to be brave like Raleigh and spread the poverty and the wealth around.
It's called the Healthy Schools concept and it is the motor that drives the system's success. Here's how it works: The system strives to have no more than 40 percent of kids in any school be enrolled in free or reduced lunch programs. The mechanism that makes this work is not court-ordered busing but a network of magnet schools. Good, very good magnet programs, a total of 53, in the arts, in science and technology, in leadership, in all manner of fields, are spread throughout Raleigh, with many of them in the less affluent city center.
The Moore Square School is right smack downtown, near the museums. It has a base student population that comes from the surrounding low-income neighborhood. These kids may or may not be interested in the arts.
But it also has a wad of suburban kids who happen to be from wealthier families, are interested in music, art, and theater and so on. They take the bus or catch a ride downtown each day.
The main point is that it is their decision to come here, not some federal judge's. Students and their parents see a good school that offers courses they are interested in so they drive the extra distance to attend.
Incentives are used with great skill to achieve a balance in the Wake County school system. Balance means keeping the ratio of free and reduced-lunch participants low, but that, of course, also translates into a racial balance. And that, in turn - everyone from flaming liberals to hard-core Republican businessmen agree - translates into good indi-vidual schools. That, of course, begets a good system, which begets continued economic expansion.
Whatever you believe about public education you would have to admit that it is a wonderful thing to see that the area around downtown Raleigh schools isn't blighted or hurting but booming.
COME TO WHERE THE MONEY DWELLS Harvey Schmitt is the president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. He's got around 2,750 members, about 70 percent of the independent businesses in the county. Before coming here, he headed up chambers in Jacksonville, Fla., Greenville, S.C., and Tampa. He's pretty much seen it all, but the one constant he's identified in continued economic development is the need for a solid public education sys-tem.
"Education is always big when companies are looking to relocate," he explained in his downtown office. "If you can answer that question, if you can say without qualification that you have a good, solid system, then you have moved the biggest question out of the way."
So, what's his advice to the decision-makers in Calhoun County, Ala.?
"If you aren't paying attention to public education, you aren't serious about economic development," he said. "You cannot leave it to chance. You cannot count on private schools. If you understand that and are committed to it then you have to have leadership, from the politicians and from the business community and they have to show some courage."
By that, Schmitt means you need a unified system and a system that adheres to the Healthy Schools concept.
This sentiment is echoed a few blocks away by the former mayor of Raleigh and longtime public-education advo-cate, Smedes York. He owns a booming real estate company with offices just across the street from his old down-town high school. When he went there in the late 1950s, it was lily white, segregated. Today, it's a popular, success-ful magnet that is roughly 50 percent white and 50 percent black.
And that, make no mistake about it, has been good for business and good for real estate.
"Some of the highest real estate prices anywhere in Wake County are within a few block radius of right here," he says with a mile-wide smile.
For this businessman, however, it's not all about business. He is egalitarian right to the bone and the living, breath-ing organism of Raleigh is what it is all about.
"The best thing that ever happened to this county was the merger of the school system in 1976," he said. "Today Ra-leigh isn't just growing; we're a strong city right down to the core."
And one reason for that strength, one reason Raleigh has positioned itself to play in a world economy is that the people of Raleigh have long learned to mix with each other.
"We can't afford to be isolated anymore," he said.
Not many cities, he rightly points out, can say that. Not Birmingham. Not Montgomery. Not Anniston. Whereas a lot of metro areas all over the nation have donut holes in the middle, Raleigh has a thriving downtown.
When you hear that and take in the area around the North Carolina capitol building, you begin to realize this place drips with as much pride as opulence.
That's something reinforced by Susan Parry, the president of the Wake County School Board, and perhaps the board's most ardent supporter of the Healthy Schools concept.
"We have a real culture here of this system belonging to all of us," she says over coffee in a trendy downtown café. "We own it."
MAGNET IN THE WOODS What does this all mean, though, to the people who matter most: Raleigh's children?
To answer that, I went out to South East Raleigh High School, a sprawling cluster of buildings set among pines on the bucolic outskirts of town.
It bustles to say the least, but tag along on a tour through the school of 2,200 with principal John Modest and you are liable to feel your head start spinning. He speaks to everyone and is spoken to. He stops to chat with language de-partment head Rachael Ramey who's got her work cut out for her heading up an office that includes Spanish, Ger-man, French, Japanese and Latin. He spends a moment with Kenny King, age 17, helping him to put in for a grant to support a high school fraternity he's trying to get off the ground. He snags Patrice Graham, the SGA president armed with a 3.0 GPA, to ask about her college offers. (She's off to study hospital administration at North Carolina-Chapel Hill.) He collars Jenell Moore a towering center on the school basketball team to give her pointers about tonight's game with across town rival, Athens Drive High School and to ask about university plans. She's just gotten word she's getting a full ride at South Carolina State, thanks to her skills on the court and her 3.0 GPA. "I'm going straight into biology," she said. "I've been loading up on it here and I love it."
S.E. Raleigh bills itself as the Leadership and Technology Magnet School. Come here to study biology or computer technology or any number of different electives.
The rigorous and varied course offerings also seem to have paid off. The kids at S.E. Raleigh, principal Modest says, have done very well. In 2004, 85 percent of African-American males, 87 percent of white males, 90 percent of Afri-can-American females and 95 percent of white females went on to college. Most of them, says Modest, go into the outstanding North Carolina system, but plenty go to other places, he says such as The University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Howard and Yale to name a few.
The kids at S.E. Raleigh learn something else too. They learn from and about each other.
"We are a very inclusive school, we mix our kids a lot," says Nancy Driscoll, the coordinator of magnet programs at S.E. "They learn from their fellow students, from their backgrounds."
OPPOSITION Ever since Raleigh/Wake County found its happy place, the focus has turned to how to stay there. Problems can crop up with little notice. Leadership changes and suddenly people begin to lose confidence in the sys-tem. Things can fall apart, in a shockingly short period.
So even here, in the land of Public Education Oz, there are opponents.
These can be found all around the county, but especially in the more affluent areas outside Raleigh, such as Cary and Apex. In recent years, some small town mayors have come out against the system and a vocal opposition group called Assignment By Choice, or ABC has formed.
Mainly parents object to the system's practice of having to reassign some students from year to year. Some 95 per-cent of students either go to the school that is nearest to them or go to a magnet they have chosen, according to Bill McNeil, the superintendent. But mostly because of growth, the system is forced to reassign some five percent of stu-dents each year.
Additionally, ABC argues for more school choice and for the school board to make more of an effort to keep all kids closer to home, spending long periods of time on a bus and leaving the area is not something parents involved in ABC appreciate. Why not, they ask, put fewer magnets in downtown Raleigh and more in the suburbs?
"This is not a progressive system," said Cynthia Matson, president of ABC. "Kids in this system are reassigned all over creation."
In Matson's opinion, the success including the high scores in Wake County have nothing to do with the Healthy Schools concept and everything to do with the high level of education to those who move into the area.
The Boston native and mother of two kids in public school says that McNeil is guilty of manipulating the numbers and that there more effective ways of improving the performance of schools with high concentrations of low-income students.
"Reassigning kids and moving them around isn't the answer," she said. "You have to reduce the student-to-teacher ratio in these schools, and put more resources into them."
Wake County, she said, needs to move toward a model that is more in line with what Calhoun County has now.
Robin Lambert is a consultant with the Washington, D.C.-based Rural Schools and Communities Trust. Although she is a strong advocate of small schools and small school systems, she urges a model along the lines of Wake County for Anniston/Calhoun County.
"Wake County is certainly a good system," she said in a telephone interview, "and it would be good for Anniston to strongly consider it. But they should only do so if they are committed to take that additional step, to make sure that it is managed in the way Wake County does it. Merging by itself isn't going to help."
THE FRIENDLY WATCHDOG Challenges to sustaining the system and the Healthy Schools concept will always be present. But the way to overcome those challenges is to improve forever, to forever demand excellence and that includes accountability.
This, then, is where the Wake County Education Partnership comes into play. It is an organization people here refer to as the "critical friend" of the school system.
It is a critical friend with about 2,000 corporate backers, including GlaxoSmithKline, IBM, Wachovia Bank and Cisco Systems that has been around since 1983. It has a full-time staff of 10, close to 40 board members and 25 trus-tees. Its mission might best be described as helping the system and the community to keep an eye on the ball, that is to say maintaining a quality school system.
Every year the partnership holds a summit attended by some 500 business, political and education leaders. The main emphasis for these meetings is to set goals for the future.
For example, five years ago about 81 percent of elementary school kids in Wake County were scoring at or above grade level. The summit set a goal that by 2003 the average would be 95 percent. Today is system is at about 92 per-cent but leaders have now set a goal of attaining 95 percent for grades 3 through 12 by 2008.
The partnership also publishes two informative studies. One is a perception study full of polling data from the com-munity done every two years. The "Community Assessment" measures, mostly, the county's confidence in the sys-tem.
The other study is one that proves to be a popular item among the general public but that sometimes causes sleepless nights for school administrators.
This is "Quality Matters," a publication that amounts to an audit of the system. It celebrates that which deserves to be celebrated and scalds that which deserves to be scalded. Business leaders, especially, seem to be big fans of the no-nonsense, business-like approach of "Quality Matters."
The Partnership keeps people on their toes. Mostly, though, it is a place that can be a focal point for setting overall goals and objectives for the system, a kind of collective think-tank for the community.
LESSONS Wake County is a different world from Calhoun. The economy is booming, but so too is the population and the challenges that come with super-hot urban growth. There, some 5,000 new students arrive each year. School construction is going on constantly. Calhoun County is actually losing population, our economy is not booming. In a strange kind of way, we actually have less to worry about than metro Raleigh. We don't, for example, need to worry about floating a $500 million bond issue to build new schools as Wake County did.
Still, there's no reason not to pluck some choice bits from the Raleigh model, beginning with merging the city and county school systems. It would be a mammoth first step, but it would be wasted time and effort if we didn't recog-nize the importance of and implement a structure such as the Healthy Schools concept that would solidify the suc-cess of the system in the years to come.
Yes, a tremendous amount of sacrifice would be called for. But judging by the landscape in Raleigh, they are sacri-fices that would pay enormous dividends for generations to come.