CARY — Sixty percent of students at Kingswood Elementary received free or reduced-price lunch last year – the highest percentage of any elementary school in Cary.
In a town where affluent families often means affluent schools, Kingswood doesn’t always fit the mold. It’s a Title I school, a federal designation that means at least 40percent of students come from low-income families.
Kingswood soon may become a magnet school, a tool used for years in Wake County to balance socio-economics by attracting students who don’t necessarily live in the neighborhood.
But the magnet designation comes with a caveat: Kingswood must embrace a Montessori theme – a teaching method that last year caused a North Raleigh school with similar demographics to publicly reject the magnet program altogether.
The Montessori theme calls for individualized attention to students, integrating students of different ages into one classroom and providing hands-on activities.
Kingswood would become the only Wake County public school with a Montessori theme. Poe Elementary has been the lone school with the magnet program since 1995, but the southeast Raleigh school has had trouble recruiting families; it plans to drop the program next year.
Wake school leaders want to offer at least one Montessori program in the county, said Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for school performance. Kingswood Elementary staff seemed willing to accept the program.
“We definitely feel there’s a need for a Montessori and want to continue offering that option,” Moore said.
The school board is expected to consider the issue Oct. 1, giving Kingswood Elementary enough time to prepare for the magnet school fair and magnet application process in November.
If the process works out, Kingswood would begin implementing the Montessori theme next year for students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Eventually, the program might include grades three through five.
Sherry Schliesser, principal at Kingswood Elementary, said she’s excited about the possibility of a Montessori program, although she was skeptical at first.
Her friend, Eloise Sheats, was principal of Lynn Road Elementary last year when the school system offered the magnet-Montessori there – and parents successfully fought the program, saying it would be too much of a culture change for students.
Schliesser said she’s not expecting similar complaints from the Kingswood community. The school is already a STEM school, so teachers are trained to teach science, technology, engineering and math through project-based learning, a strategy Montessori programs call for.
“For years, we’ve designed lessons to meet students’ needs instead of going with the ‘sit-and-get’ method,” Schliesser said. “All our activities are still designed around Common Core standards. It’s not like we’re taking them to Walmart and choosing games off the shelf.”
Schliesser and Moore suggested Kingswood would be a good fit for a magnet-Montessori because its student population is similar to Poe’s. Both schools draw students from areas with several apartment buildings.
“Many of the students we start the year with move somewhere else,” Schliesser said. “We’ll end up with the same number of students (at the end of the year), but not the same students.”
Last year, 56percent of Poe Elementary students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, similar to the Kingswood figure.
It’s hard to measure the effectiveness of the Montessori program at Poe Elementary. The school typically has had lower end-of-grade test scores than Kingswood but showed more dramatic improvement than the Cary school between 2009 and 2012.
At Poe, the number of students who passed end-of-grade reading tests jumped from 58percent to 69.7percent over the three-year period, while math passing rates jumped from 73percent to 80percent.
Over the same period at Kingswood Elementary, passage rates increased from about 85percent to about 90percent on end-of-grade math tests, while end-of-grade reading test scores hovered between 77percent and 80percent.
Schliesser said her teachers are data-driven and eager to implement Montessori methods, so she expects to build on the school’s recent designation as a “high-performing” Title I school.
Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht