The decor in the Elkin High School media center Thursday set the stage for annual elected officials reception hosted by Elkin City Schools. Windows and frames, along with dozens of pieces of student art work and projects like a jellyfish hologram, greeted the elected officials, students, parents and community members attending the reception.
The program for the evening was coined “Windows of Opportunity” and featured five speakers — a student, a teacher, a parent, a principal and the superintendent — on five educational priorities for the school system. Each spoke from behind a frame, a “window of opportunity.”
Students were at the forefront of the evening, from preparing and serving the heavy hors d’oeuvres, to having student council members in attendance, to EHS Student Council President Cameron Beals opening the “Windows of Opportunity,” highlighting a need for a flexible calendar.
“Although the calendar may not be as much of an issue at the elementary school, it currently brings up several problems at the high school,” Beals said.
The school calendar start and end dates are mandated by state law, with very few exceptions for areas receiving tremendous amounts of inclement weather or who opt for a year-round schedule. At present, that state law doesn’t allow school to begin prior to Aug. 25, putting first semester exams in the middle of January after Christmas break. State Sen. Shirley Randleman and Rep. Sarah Stevens were not in attendance Thursday, but Rep. Jeffrey Elmore of Wilkes County was present.
“Take me, your average student. I start school at the end of August, and my first semester comes to a close in January. Not only do I have the two-week break at the very end of my semester, but it happens to fall only a few school days before my end-of-semester exams,” said Beals. “Many students would choose this time wisely to study, but many do not; those that do not are hurt by this break and their time off so close to their end-of-semester exam.”
She also noted difficulties with the school system calendar not aligning with area community colleges’ schedules, making it hard to match up dual-enrollment opportunities for juniors and seniors. “Take me, your average student. I take a class with Surry Community College to get the credit out of the way before graduating. With the start of this class being before school starts in August, I am already behind once arriving at Elkin High School on the first day. In addition, my Surry class, having the same breaks as most college campuses, would not line up with the breaks that my high school takes. On top of that, I would finish out the course before my high school winter break even starts, leaving me without a class for the rest of the semester.”
Other calendar obstacles included students who may need to graduate a semester early to begin courses at SCC to get in the workforce earlier and help support their family, but aren’t able to because the high school semester hasn’t ended yet, as well as student athletes who have to return to school Aug. 8 because that’s when fall sports begin, even though school doesn’t begin for several weeks later, causing them to miss some other opportunity like participating in an end-of-summer mission trip, Beals said.
“If the school year was to begin a bit earlier, I believe the result would be better test scores, a more fitting sports schedule, and more students headed to college after graduating early,” Beals said.
For seventh-grade English teacher Emily Rycroft, the focus was the school performance grade system adopted by the state.
“In the 2013-14 school year, Elkin Middle School’s seventh-grade students ranked third in North Carolina [school systems] in reading and 10th in mathematics. Elkin Middle School eighth-graders ranked seventh in reading and fourth in science education. Yet, according to the state’s A-F school performance grading system, we are merely average with a C rating,” she said. “I don’t believe there is anything average about our school.
“On last year’s seventh-grade reading end-of-grade, a student grew 16 percentage points. Although he did not meet proficiency, he showed significant learning and progress. How can I not jump up and down and celebrate his achievement?” Rycroft said. “This success deserves to be recognized through our state’s accountability system as well. On the same exam, another student grew 17 percentage points and scored in the 99th percentile of the state. Yet, we are a C school.”
She said there should be more accountability in the grading system for students’ growth, which right now is just 20 percent of the equation, with the other 80 percent made up by achievement. “If a school is meeting or exceeding growth standards, more than just average learning is taking place, and more than just minimal effort is being used by teachers and administrators in that school,” Rycroft said.
That grading system is looked at when businesses and individuals are searching for a place to relocate or recruit, and it should better reflect the successes of the school system. She asked for the state to revise its grading system.
As a parent of a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader and a former president of the PTO at Elkin Elementary School, Jennifer Gambill expressed her desire to ensure educators and school personnel are compensated for their work at a fair level.
“North Carolina ranks 50th lowest in the nation in principal pay,” she said. “We must recognize the need to overhaul the current school based administrator salary schedules and reconnect them to the teacher pay scales. The new system should mirror the approach the General Assembly used to improve teacher pay in recent years.”
She acknowledged that Elkin has “school administrators who love their students, their community and ultimately their job.”
Also, Gambill said she wants to see the state increase all school personnel’s salaries in 2017. “We must recognize the need to move closer to the national average. … I want to make sure my children are ready to compete in a global world. I want my children to have the same advantage of a quality education as other states. To ensure they are ready, we must recruit and retain quality teachers and administrators.”
Also in attendance Thursday were Surry County commissioners, R.F. “Buck” Golding, Van Tucker and Larry Johnson, with Eddie Harris and Larry Phillips not present. The county commissioners determine the local per-pupil funding each of the three school systems in the county will receive each year, while the state determines its per-pupil funding allocation, which was a priority for Pam Colbert, principal of Elkin Elementary School.
Comparing her role as principal to a building contractor, Colbert said, “To do any job well, it is important to have adequate resources.
“If I were a building contractor, I would require access to quality architects, painters, plumber and other professionals. I would require the necessary materials to build a house. Building one without a roof, or windows, or floors would not be acceptable. And if new techniques or installation plans are needed, my employees would need proper training or the installation would not go as needed and again would not be acceptable. We must have the proper and sufficient resources to do our jobs as educators,” she said.
State per-pupil spending dropped from $6,300 per pupil in 2007 to $5,616 eight years later, Colbert reported, noting that while that funding was reduced the cost of resources and training has increased. “We need updated text both paper and digital, learning resources, online resources, apps, technology that is up to date. Would you want your building using lighting or flooring from 1980?”
She also asked for the state to consider changing the kindergarten through third-grade class size ratios for the 2017-18 school year. “We appreciate the General Assembly’s commitment to lower class sizes for our youngest students to help get them started on the right foot, however, there may be some unintended consequences of the mandated reductions that could use a fix. Our district would require an estimated five teachers added to our current elementary staff … To pay for these additional teachers we would be forced to look at cutting our arts, music, media and [physical education].”
Funding for professional development for staff and teacher assistants and central office staff also were priorities for Colbert. “Our teachers do a tremendous job meeting the needs of our students, but imagine what we could do with all the resources we need. … We want them to see that the sky is the limit as they look through their windows of opportunity,” she said.
Equal accountability between public, private and charter schools was the focus of Superintendent Dr. Myra Cox’s presentation during the “Windows of Opportunity” program.
“We are performing well under rigorous standards of accountability that we and other public school districts in the state must follow,” said Cox. “Which brings me to a key focus we believe lawmakers should consider — ensuring accountability in all school choice options, especially as those appear to be on a trend of continuing expansion.
“North Carolina has many types of schools — public, private, home schools, charter and virtual. While these different types of schools provide educational choices for parents and students, they are not all held to the same level of accountability,” she said.
Transportation is not required to be provided by charter schools, and for those which do provide it, they are not held to the same safety requirements as the public schools, Cox said. “They also get a share of transportation dollars from school districts even if they choose not to transport students to and from school.”
In addition, licensed teachers or administrators are not required at private and home schools, she said, and “charter schools can hire some unlicensed teachers and have no certification requirement for their principal. All public school principals employed in our school districts must hold a master’s degree in school administration, an advanced degree most earn after serving first as classroom teachers.”
Curriculum choices is another difference in the school options available to parents, with the state mandating what curriculum will be covered by public schools and what tests are required for public and charter schools. Private and home schools do not have to follow any specific curriculum or tests, meaning there is no equal comparison to the accountability of public schools, she explained.
Two other areas, she said, which differ are that class sizes requirements do not exist for any schools except public districts, and while the state mandates the calendars for public schools, the charter, private and home schools have local control of their calendars.
“The sting of these inequities hurts worse when we consider that public schools have been sharing state and local funding with charter schools for years, and charters have been asking for more district funding for programs they often do not offer and from federal and private funds that they should be pursuing on their own as we do to supplement the resources for the students we serve,” Cox said.
She continued, “We must have proactive lawmakers, other politicians and lobbyists, educators, and community members who support education working on our behalf to keep the ‘windows of opportunities’ open for our students and staff. You have a voice. If you feel passionate about any of the five legislative priorities that have been presented this evening, please communicate them to those with power to make a difference not only for Elkin City Schools but for all public schools in North Carolina.”
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.