This time last year, Wiley Magnet Middle School didn’t exist.
On the eve of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools’ annual magnet school fair, it’s poised to become one of the district’s most popular magnet programs.
Wiley Middle School – one of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools oldest and most historic schools – was struggling. The school had low test scores, high poverty and a plenty of open seats and school officials knew something needed to change.
“For years, we were not a consideration,” said Sean Gaillard, Wiley’s principal. “In a school system of choice, we were the non-choice.”
For the most part, middle-school assignment in the district works like this: students are placed in a “residential zone” that includes three middle schools from which they may choose. Students are guaranteed placement in one of those three schools, and often are granted their first or second choice. Wiley is part of the Midwest Zone with Jefferson Middle School and Paisley IB Magnet School.
Gaillard said that when given those three choices, Wiley was often the last choice.
That is starting to change, though. Wiley began piloting a new theme for the school’s sixth-graders two years ago. It uses a curriculum, known as STEAM, which integrates science, technology, engineering, art and math across subjects.
In November 2013, Wiley appealed to the district’s Board of Education to become its 19th magnet school.
The board granted the request, allowing Wiley to take its STEAM theme school-wide.
What the magnet also allowed Wiley to do – other than change its name – was to open enrollment to students across the county. Wiley accepts students from outside of its competitive residential zone.
“I thought, we’d get maybe 10 kids,” Gaillard said.
Wiley accepted 80 magnet students. Dozens more were put on a waiting list.
The effect was two-fold. Not only did Wiley attract those out-of-zone students, its new theme also helped it attract more students from inside its zone.
Under the radar
Dawn Nelson, president of the Wiley PTA, said Wiley wasn’t even on her radar until last spring.
Wiley is in the Nelson family’s residential zone. Before Wiley’s move to magnet status, Nelson said she was looking “all over” at schools for her daughter, Audrey, a sixth-grader at Wiley this year. Nelson said she looked at Summit School – a private school off of Reynolda Road – as well as other magnet programs, like Hanes Magnet Middle School with its STEM theme and Paisley IB Magnet, which offers the International Baccalaureate program. Then she said she and other parents from Whitaker Elementary School learned more about Wiley.
“Once it became a magnet, I was interested,” Nelson said. “Before that, I was leaning toward Paisley for the IB (program).”
Nelson said she was looking for a program that would challenge her daughter. She thinks they’ve found that at Wiley.
“They’re engaging, making the children think on their own,” she said. “We couldn’t be happier.”
The Nelsons were not the only families impressed with Wiley’s debut as a magnet. More than 100 students applied to Wiley using the magnet application – more than the school had room for. The school had to close applications and put families on a waiting list. Some were turned away. Wiley, like many magnet programs, sets aside a portion of its enrollment for residential students. The current sixth-grade has about 80 magnet students and about 135 residential students. Wiley’s enrollment has climbed from 489 in 2012 to 608 this year.
“To have a waiting list for their first year is phenomenal,” said Kim Marion, the district’s program manager for magnet schools and STEM programs.
Marion said only about half of the district’s 21 magnet programs usually fill up. Wiley’s success is likely due to several factors, she said.
Wiley’s theme is an attractive one. STEM, a focus on science, technology, engineering and math, has been a popular trend in education. Adding art only makes it more attractive for many, especially in the City of Arts and Innovation, Marion said.
Wiley had been piloting the STEAM theme in its sixth-grade for several years. Once it became a magnet, Marion said Wiley did a good job engaging the community.
Already, Wiley has established partnerships with the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, SciWorks, SECCA, Winston-Salem State University and other community institutions. Those partnerships help bring clout to the program and allow the school to fulfill the robust mission of magnet schools: provide unique educational opportunities both in and out of the classroom.
So far, Wiley seems to be doing that. Sixth-grader Logan Brown said he came to Wiley for the STEAM program, though his older brother went to Paisley. Brown said he has loved his first semester at Wiley.
“I really like science and math,” said Logan. “It helps you understand in a different way.”
Wiley is the district’s 19th magnet school and 21st magnet program. The programs were started, Marion said, as a way to not only provide unique opportunities, but to diversify school populations. The most successful programs have student populations that reflect the makeup of the school system as a whole, not just the neighborhood the school is in or the makeup of its zone.
“We try to look at schools that we want to change the dynamics within so that it better reflects the diversity of the district,” Marion said. “(Wiley) has done a really good job of pulling from across the district.”
With just one full semester in the books, though, Wiley still has a lot to prove and one of those things has to do with test scores. Just last year Wiley was named to a state watch list of the state’s poorest schools for achievement gaps between its highest and lowest achieving subgroups of students.
Test scores from 2010-11 show that while less than 30 percent of the school’s students for whom English is not their native language passed reading and math assessments, nearly 87 percent of white students passed.
Wiley will remain on that list for three years, during which time it’s expected to implement strategies to close that gap. The goal for Wiley (and the three other Forsyth County schools on the list) is to improve enough to be taken off the list. Schools that have not shown sufficient improvement could be subject to greater scrutiny from the state and more drastic reform mandates could be imposed.
Overall, just one-third of Wiley’s students were proficient on their end-of-grade reading and math scores last two years. Gaillard said he’d like to see test scores improve, but he’s more concerned with growing and engaging students. Wiley has met or exceeded expected growth for the last two years.
Wiley’s diverse and growing student body should help, Gaillard said. And aside from attracting new students, Gaillard said Wiley’s magnet status has also attracted new staff.
One of them was Scarlett Mooney, who spent five years at Hanes Magnet Middle helping build that school’s popular STEM program.
Mooney joined Wiley this year to serve as Wiley’s STEAM instructional coach and magnet coordinator.
“My heart is in magnet schools,” Mooney said. “I really believe in what Gaillard is doing here.”