Parents, grandparents, and various community members joined Clinton City Schools’ district staff, school principals, and school board members Thursday evening for the system’s first town hall meeting, discussing a wide array of topics including state test results, dress code, and the current curriculum.
Gathering in the fellowship hall of First Baptist Church at 900 College St. in Clinton, meeting attendees signed in and took their seats as city schools’ superintendent Stuart Blount welcomed them and introduced the employees of Clinton City Schools that were in attendance.
“The purpose of this meeting is to provide a district perspective,” said Blount, adding that if anyone had an issue related to a specific school to take those concerns to that school’s administration first.
Blount then provided an overview of the district, talking about where the school system is now and where he and school officials are striving to take it. He stressed that the system’s vision is “to be able to provide for all children who attend Clinton City Schools the highest level of education possible.”
With that vision in mind, Blount shared that the system has honed in on four main goals — teaching a rigorous, relevant curriculum; employing highly trained, qualified staff; building and maintaining strong communication and partnerships with the community; and creating safe and welcoming learning environments for both students and employees.
Anticipating questions about the recently released state End of Grade (EOG) and End of Course (EOC) test scores, Blount approached the topic by stressing that “there is more to education than standardized testing” and explained that the new Common Core/Essential Standards curriculum is “a standard course of study that has been ramped up,” noting that “the bar has definitely been raised which is a good thing.”
“What our children were exposed to last spring was a whole new thing,” he continued, noting that prior to the new curriculum students were assessed to see if they were ready for the next grade level but that now students are assessed to see if they are ready for college and careers. “Those are a different set of standards.”
“I will be the first to say that we’re not where we need to be, we’re not where we’re going to stay,” said Blount, mentioning that last year ,with the old curriculum, the system achieved 78 percent proficiency whereas this year under the new curriculum the system achieved a much lower 39 percent. “Our goal is to be well above the state average.”
Switching the focus to city schools’ staff, Blount explained that classroom staff are licensed staff teaching in the classrooms, instructional support staff includes teacher assistants, and non-instructional staff includes custodians, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers.
“One is not more important than the other,” he said, sharing the system’s desire to employ the best people it can. “We’re all pieces of one big jigsaw puzzle, and if you’ve done jigsaw puzzles before you know it takes all the pieces to make the puzzle.”
As for how the system is working to effectively communicate with the community, especially students’ families, Blount explained that the system has a new home database called Power School where a variety of information is stored, including test scores and grades. A part of that new database is Parent Portal, which has been recently implemented at Clinton High, allowing parents 24/7 web access to their children’s school information.
When an audience member expressed concern for those parents or guardians who may be low-income , don’t have internet access, or simply are not computer savvy, Blount explained that the school system was simply trying to be proactive by adding an additional form of communication but would still continue with its other forms of communication — sending out paper notes and information, providing printed progress reports and report cards, and holding parent-teacher conferences.
“Nothing takes the place of good, old-fashioned face-to-face conversation,” said Blount. “That’s the best way.”
Mentioning that another school shooting had occurred Thursday — this time at North Carolina on NCCU’s college campus — Blount moved to the issue of school safety, sharing that security at the all the city schools was being stepped up with the addition of video intercom access controls at all front entrances.
“We have to try to put new things in place and still be customer-oriented, customer-focused,” he said, apologizing if the new safety measures seemed cold but said, “we have 3,100 children and there’s not one that’s more important than another and we have an obligation to protect them…and our employees.”
“We hope you see that we’re driven by four very simple goals and four very simple priorities. I try to be as optimistic as possible but I also try to be real,” the superintendent said as he concluded his presentation.
“We always have to center back on our core beliefs and what is important for all our children,” he shared, noting that the community plays an important role in that. “I’m really interested in knowing what you have to say.”
The floor was then opened up for questions and discussion from the audience. While audience members could speak up, prior to the start of the meeting, they were given index cards to anonymously write down their thoughts, questions, concerns, and suggestions, which were collected by district staff and given to the superintendent to address on the spot.
In response to questions that were raised about the system’s dress code, Blount noted that dress codes were “a hot topic for every community,” explaining that from the system’s perspective the most important thing was “the enforcement of whatever policies and procedures are in place” and that “consistency in discipline” is key.
He also asked that the community help the school system uphold that discipline, saying that “students are a reflection of where they come from” and “we encourage everyone to join in that fight.”
Many index cards that Blount read expressed concerns about the system’s current curriculum, asking such questions as why students no longer know basic grammar and basic math skills like how to count back change.
The school chief agreed that he was concerned about the same kinds of things, particularly that many students cannot effectively carry on one-on-one conversations.
“We’re moving at an extremely fast pace,” he said, noting that phonetics is still being taught and writing is infused at every grade level. “If you haven’t visited a Kindergarten class in a while, I encourage you to do so because what they’re encountering is what you and I encountered in the second half of first grade and in second grade.”
In order to keep basic reading and math skills from falling through the cracks, “we’ve got to have some help at the front end,” added Blount, mentioning that volunteers coming into the schools to help children practice their reading could be one way the community could help.
In addition to concerns about the everyday curriculum, attendees also raised questions about the amount of testing in schools.
“Do we test children too much? Most definitely,” agreed Blount explaining that many of the tests the system is required to administer. He shared that his main question as the school system continues to move forward is “do we take that data (from the tests) and use it to ultimately change the instructional path in that classroom?”
And Blount pointed out that many of the tests, like the benchmark tests given to students throughout the year, are very helpful.
“If you wait until the end of the year to test and then change patterns, those kids are gone,” he said. “Benchmarks help make adjustments when adjustments need to be made because nothing is more frustrating for a child — and an adult — than being lost (in class).”
As the almost two hour meeting came to a close, Blount informed attendees that “a lot has changed in public schools. What school was when you walked the halls is not what it is today” and expressed his appreciation for the interest shown in Clinton City Schools, especially from the variety of generations represented. “I expect you as a community to hold Stuart Blount accountable for what happens…We hope that our problem is that you want more of these meetings.”
Another town hall meeting will be held in the spring but no date has been set yet.
For questions or more information about Clinton City Schools at the district level, please call 910-592-3132 and visit the system’s website at www.clinton.k12.nc.us.
Lauren Williams can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 117 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.