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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

NHCS seeks state help on calendar, low-performing schools

More details revealed for school improvement

As the school district plows through its second post-Covid-19 school year, addressing learning loss has been top of mind for the board of education. (PCD/file).

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The newborn New Hanover County Schools legislative committee met for the first time this week to discuss several pieces of General Assembly legislation and the district’s goals to improve low-performing schools. 

As the school district plows through its second post-Covid-19 school year, addressing learning loss has been top of mind for the board of education. The district is focusing on its state-designated “low-performing” schools.

READ MORE: NHCS aims to cut millions from budget, important repairs lack funding

NHCS Superintendent Charles Foust and Chief Academic Officer Patrice Faison outlined a three-pronged strategy to help improve learning at 12 schools which received a D or F grade from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and didn’t exceed growth expectations; the report was released in September 2022. The low-graded schools predominantly serve students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds and have the highest minority populations in the district.

The first approach was to offer a five or 10-day training intensive this upcoming summer for teachers in priority schools. The training would be tailored toward the needs of each school; Faison cited restorative justice and classroom management as examples of topics. 

Where the General Assembly comes in is funding the training — at least that’s what the district hopes. 

Faison proposed $250 per day for teachers, $125 for teacher aides. If the intensive ran for 10 days, the cost would reach just under $1 million, without including training presenter costs. 

“We’re asking [staff] to come in, we need to supplement them,” Faison said. 

Foust discussed the next component, a tutor program. He described methods aimed at improving math scores used at a previous district where grade-level proficiency ranged from 9% to 54%. Foust said a math tutor was provided for every 4th, 6th and 9th grader scoring below grade level. After implementing the tutors, Foust said the district’s scores improved by 21 percentage points.

Faison also introduced a mentoring program for successful principals at low performing schools — what the district calls its priority schools — to share their knowledge with newer principals. She gave a shout out to Diego Lehocky, principal at Sunset Park Elementary, the only school in New Hanover County to receive a D or F yet exceed learning growth metrics per the state report card system.

Faison’s plan will have a leading principal perform two school visits per year and weekly video check-in meetings with the mentee for the first quarter, biweekly in the second, along with a monthly check-in with district leaders. 

While staff didn’t specify cost estimates for tutors and mentorship programs, the committee agreed presenting the ideas as a “pilot program” to the state may garner funding and support. 

Committee members also emphasized the importance of retaining teaching staff and principals at priority schools to keep forward momentum on its initiatives. At the school board’s March 7 meeting, Faison presented an opportunity for funding staff supplements at the district’s two Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools — institutions that have poor graduation rates or sit in the bottom 5% of public schools in the state.

​​Under this plan, all staff — except principals who receive incentives from the state — will receive an additional $250 to $5,000 a year for working at either Forest Hills Elementary or Freeman Elementary for three years. Additional incentives up to $4,000 are available for teachers if their school exceeds its growth expectations.

The district will use $284,859 received for Forest Hills and $181,502 for Freeman from federal grants to pay for the incentives.

Faison told the board creating more incentives will help keep experienced staff in priority schools. 

“They do not leave because they built this culture of collective efficacy,” Faison said during the March 7 meeting.

Without additional money from the state, the district will be strapped to offer supplements or pay for additional resources due to budget constraints. Due to rising salary and benefit costs, plus a drop in enrollment, NHCS plans to reduce its budget by millions this year.  

Calendar progress

The legislative committee — Josie Barnhart, Pat Bradford, Stephanie Walker — also discussed state school calendar legislation. The General Assembly’s House Bill 86 would allow school districts the ability to begin their calendar year as early as Aug. 10. 

Right now, traditional schools are mandated to start on the Monday closest to Aug. 26, which results in plus or minus a week of school depending on where that date falls. The requirement — which has been defended by tourism lobbyists taking advantage of summer break — causes scheduling problems when districts try to end the first semester before winter break while still providing ample teacher workdays. 

The calendar has been a major thorn in NHCS’ side over the last year as many people, accustomed to the flexibility afforded during the Covid-19 pandemic, resisted a first term that ended after break. They argued the move was putting high school students who take exams at a disadvantage. 

 “We’re not asking for the moon and stars, we’re asking for a little flexibility,” Walker said during the committee meeting. 

HB 86 is sponsored by New Hanover County representatives Deb Butler (D-18), Ted Davis (R-20), Charles Miller (R-19). The bill passed 111-2 in the House on March 7 with their votes, along with Pender County’s Republican Carson Smith. Brunswick County’s Rep. Frank Iler voted against the legislation.

The bill now sits in the Senate rules committee awaiting a favorable recommendation to get to the Senate floor. 

“A lot of things go to the Senate rules committee to die, so that’s what we have to do is get it out of there, and the only way to do that is with an enormous amount of public pressure,” Pat Bradford said during the committee meeting.

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