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Knightdale High turnaround took working smarter and harder

It is my daughter’s senior year, and we are trying to squeeze every tradition and dream into our last months before she leaves for college. As we embraced climate change and headed for Christmas in Nags Head, I became cognizant that my daughter has changed. She is profoundly ready to pursue her future. Although new to me, most parents of seniors know what I speak of.  

Born in Wilmington and raised in the Triangle, my surf loving daughter longs to be a Seahawk. I think often of her and her classmates preparing to graduate from one of Wake County’s “failing” high schools.  

Knightdale is a middle-class town about 10 miles east of Raleigh. Our median income ($72,000) and the 2013 mean price of homes ($273,000) are both above the state average. Yet our high school’s U.S. News & World Report “college readiness index” was at 5.9 (20-50 points lower than most of the high schools in Wake). Our students faced high teacher turnover and less AP opportunities. When she was an 8th grader, Knightdale High was ranked as one of Wake’s most violent high schools. 

Yet she wanted to go, and we were right to send her.  

In her short time at Knightdale High we have watched the school develop into a “turn around” school. When my daughter was a freshman only 96 students (of 1700) enrolled in AP classes. That spring, March of 2013, WCPSS contracted an external audit where it was found that only 10 percent of the student body agreed or strongly agreed that the school held “high expectations for each student.” Thus there was no permeating culture for learning.

In just two years, her junior year, 268 of the 1,650 Knightdale students took at least one AP class. Of those students, 204 students took a total of 477 exams, an average of 2.3 tests per student. An 80 percent increase in AP participation! In addition, KHS ended 2015 raising its graduation rate 7.4 percentage points ending above the state average at 88.8 percent

How do low performing schools improve? Since 2009, our mayor and Chamber of Commerce have organized efforts on behalf of Knightdale’s schools. In 2013, Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) initiated a community work group to identify issues and explore solutions. Over the last two years, WCPSS and community leaders have made major investments in Knightdale’s schools including professional development, new principals, new teachers, validation for our high-quality veterans, reinvestment in PTSA leadership, and collaboration with NC New Schools.

There is no “Godspeed” in growth. It is laborious, data-driven, and latent with risk-taking. It is sometimes a chaotic process. This includes a new name — Knightdale High School of Collaborative Design (KHSCD) — and new schedules. The poignancy of the changes has not been lost on our seniors.


“Knightdale high school affected me in many different ways, I was held back from the lack [of] classes I could take, but it also granted many real world experiences such as how some students took wrong paths and teachers shared their own hardships with us. I think that Knightdale helped me find who I am by being able to take agriculture classes and meeting this wonderful lady named Josie Griffin. She was my Animal Science teacher and took me under her wing. She allowed me to work on her farm and taught me how to be the leader I am today though FFA. As a senior and president of Knightdale FFA Chapter I plan to open others’ eyes like Knightdale did for me.” — Kailee Elise Wheeland, a future agriculture professor with interests in genetics, crop yield, agroecology, and animal medicine.

LaDarrius“I want adults to understand that I have made a lot of changes in my life, so I am not the same person you saw last year. I have matured and I am always looking forward to learning something new.” — LaDarrius Ellison, a photographer with specific interests in art, design, shoes, and travel.   


“We are teenagers, not toddlers. If you want us to be college ready, we need a little room to mess up and find our way on our own.” — Kirsten Young, a future occupational therapist. Her passion for special education was discovered  through a Knightdale High class called PEPI — designed to get students learning about students with cognitive and physical disabilities.


“I’m getting off to a late start on many things. I think the senior class has seen benefits while the underclassmen, especially freshmen, have gotten the short end of the stick. There are (too) many good ideas surfacing that are trying to be implemented all at once, and it has caused an extremely disorderly school year. I think administration needs to communicate with the student body on some ideas, and get a concrete plan down before making changes. Most of these ideas are coming from administration or teachers, and not from the students who are going to be affected by them, which is why communication to students needs to be a priority…” – Xandra Savini, a keen observer.  “I’d like a career in something among the science field, although I find myself becoming more interested in the political sciences and humanities lately. I want a career that pays well, both monetarily and through accomplishment. I would ideally be out in the community making a difference in some way.”

Student Government Association President and future biophysicist Crystal Villines understands that many question the high school’s re-design.  


“I want my parents and other adults to just trust the process. As many adults may believe that since this isn’t how they were taught, it may not be a good opportunity for students. It may have been hard for the students and upperclassmen to adjust to the new changes. But we have, it simply takes time. And no, it’s not all fun and games either, school is still being taken seriously, just in a new way. This transition really will help us prepare for the real world, as we connect more and more of our classroom subjects to real world problems or work in collaboration, as we may have to in our careers.”  

On Christmas morning my daughter gave me one of her homemade presents, a “UNCW-mom” ornament. At first I thought it was a little premature as she only just applied. Then I opened the attached letter. Early admissions came through, and she was saving the news.  She is a Seahawk, and as I now re-read her UNCW admissions essay I am reminded of the character that she has built in high school. She is a resilient, savvy, open-minded woman that loves the village we call Knightdale, and there is no greater gift than the lesson that we all have the ability to fail forward!


“I paddled back into the lineup and waited for the next beast. The cycle surfing provides, failure leading to success, is a parallel concept to how I tackle life. To see change you must have the mental capacity to be strongest in the hardest situations. To grow one must overcome failures. Falling and finding the fight to continue is what allows me to improve in all aspects of life. When I’m faced with a challenge I know that the end result will reflect the heart I put forth. Surfing is the sole reason why I truly believe that determination creates a path to the highest quality products. I have learned to accept failure as an opportunity to improve.” Brenna Hardy, enjoys physics, math, and, most of all, waves.

Shannon Hardy

Shannon Hardy sits on the board of the Knightdale High PTSA and is a teacher at The Exploris School in Raleigh.