N.C. Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson and state Reps. William D. Brisson, R-Bladen, and Larry Bell, D-Sampson, joined members of the Sampson County Board of Education and other local education officials Tuesday morning to talk about school issues,with the hope that, once these concerns are heard in Raleigh, resolutions or improvements can be made.
After enjoying a breakfast together, superintendent Dr. Ethan Lenker welcomed everyone and began discussing the school system’s mission. Lenker noted that they are dedicated to continuing education and that they are ready and willing to make the necessary changes and reforms in order to best meet the needs of the schools. “What was going on five or six years ago is different from what is going on now. We have to be able to change with the need.”
Lenker discussed various student populations, such as the migrant population. “They may only be here five or six weeks in school so that presents its own challenges,” said Lenker. “But we put them in school. A lot of other schools wouldn’t do that because they don’t have to, but we get them in school.”
As he reported on much data and statistics, which provided “a snapshot of the last four to five years,” Lenker said, “We’re using this data to better understand where we’re at and it’s showing positive trends. We’re getting better and moving forward.”
Improvements were evident according to the data presented. Fifth grade science, eighth grade math, and high school math were all above the state average. Other grades and subjects, including third grade reading and high school English, had shown great improvement. “In third grade reading, the gap is closing. Now the gap is a little over two where four or five years ago the gap was much larger, around nine,” explained Lenker.
Sampson County Schools’ dropout rate had also improved. “This is an area we’ve been targeting, especially in the Union and Lakewood districts, and we’ve cut our numbers almost in half over the past four to five years,” Lenker reported.
Despite its improvement, Jackson questioned why the dropout rate wasn’t lower, specifically in comparison to the city schools. Lenker and several board members explained that many challenges remain that affect the dropout rate, such as varying socioeconomic statuses, geography and parental involvement.
“It’s obviously a lot more complicated than I anticipated,” remarked Jackson.
Also on the agenda was the new Common Core curriculum which was just implemented this school year. With Common Core, “kids are working together more, they’re writing more, they’re doing more projects,” explained Lenker. “There’s more expectation to work together.”
While discussing the curriculum, Lenker shared that fewer and fewer textbooks are being used in the classroom. “Textbooks now are really going to computers,” said Lenker, adding that a few schools have already been using iPads and apps in lieu of, or in conjunction with, textbooks.
Lenker also noted that emphasis is shifting from secondary sources to primary sources. The example the superintendent provided was of students reading a book about a historical figure versus students reading an actual letter written by that historical figure. Now, Lenker said, the letter would be favored over the information in the textbook as it helps raise the subject’s level of rigor and complexity.
Soon, the topic turned to teachers with Lenker sharing that “we bring all our teachers together two times a semester. Now, teachers are talking to each other. It’s what doctors do, it’s what professionals do, so it’s what we’re doing. Our teachers are definitely working together at a higher rate.”
He also explained that teacher evaluations now include videotaping, a move that is meant to encourage improvement. The tapes are “not punitive; they’re for reflection purposes,” said Lenker.
“We’re also going to start doing student evaluations of the teachers,” added Lenker.”It’s a way to see how the teachers are relating to students.”
Challenges concerning teachers were also brought before the legislators. Lenker and the board members discussed the challenges in finding math and science teachers. “We’ve had a real difficult time getting and keeping math and science teachers. Most do not come from within the county. We’ve been having to go a whole lot farther away to find them,” said Lenker.
Lenker used the Union district as a specific example, explaining that because Union is so close to Wilmington where teachers receive greater pay, it’s hard to secure teachers for schools in that area.
The budget was also presented and up for discussion. Lenker showed a spreadsheet which listed the budget and where all the dollars had gone.
“We’ve had to get a little creative with the budget,” said Lenker, explaining that the majority of the money was used on teachers.
Lenker added that they were not firing teachers to help the budget but were doing all they could to keep their teachers and add more.
“I’m proud that we’ve got people in place who have been creative with the budget and made it work. We’ve done what we set out to do, increase teachers and funds for teachers. We’re making it work,” responded Jackson.
Last on the agenda was the schools’ calendar. Lenker commented on how charter schools seemed to have more opportunities because they operate under different slightly laws. “I just want the same laws as the charter schools,” said Lenker, pointing out that charter schools have nine months to fit in 180 days of school where public schools do not have this much time. “I want the same flexibility as charter schools.”
Aligning the schools’ calendar with that of colleges and universities, including Sampson Community College, would be very beneficial, according to Lenker.
“If I have students graduating after the first semester who want to start college the second semester, they can’t the way things are now,” said Lenker, noting that college classes have already been in session two weeks when high school seniors at public schools return from winter break and graduate.
Despite the challenges of the current calendar, Lenker remained hopeful, telling the legislators, “We’re working with Dr. [Paul] Hutchins [Sampson Community College president] and that relationship is growing.”
Before adjourning the meeting, Bell asked Lenker and the board for their thoughts on school safety. Lenker reported that they had reviewed all their safety policies, and he listed a few safety improvements that needed to be made such as improved, and in some cases additional, cameras.
As far as the idea of teachers carrying guns and helping with school security was concerned, Lenker and many on the board felt that teachers shouldn’t have to be security guards too. “It’s not a reflection of our schools but of our society,” said Lenker about the heightened issue of school safety in light of the recent school shootings. “A teacher’s job is to teach, that’s what they need to do.”
Lauren Williams can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 123 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.