“It’s the Climb, Not the Slide” – Summer Learning Continues in New Hanover County Schools

by Dr. Julie Duclos-Greenwood, NHCS Director of Instructional Services

School is out for summer recess, but learning does not stop in New Hanover County Schools. Summer learning is the key to prevent the “summer slide.” On-going instruction allows students to maintain academic skills. Research indicates students who are engaged in summer learning activities continue to gain skills. On the other hand, students who do not receive instruction when school is in recess, progressively lose skills attained. Skill loss results in academic gaps. New Hanover County Schools provides students with summer learning opportunities to thwart the “summer slide,” which allows students to continuously “climb.”

NHCS Summer Program Highlights

Art Enrichment Camp:
Arts camp provides optional instruction in are variety of arts areas such as band, orchestra, painting, ceramics, drama, technology and photography for students in grades 1-12. Camps are located at Hoggard High School, Roland-Grise Middle School, Holly Tree Elementary, Parsley Elementary, Bradley Creek Elementary and Forest Hills Elementary.

NHC Summer Library Program:
All students of New Hanover County may attend the library learning program at six school sites. Any student living in NHC can attend programs offered at Blair Elementary, Carolina Beach Elementary, Pine Valley Elementary, Williston and Trask Middle Schools. Schedules and activities vary depending upon location. Program details are listed by school and shared on the NHCS website.

Title I Summer Learning Program:
By extending the instructional year by 20 days, the program’s goal to provide extra instruction to rising K students at Title I Elementary Schools, as well as rising 6th graders at Virgo and Williston Middle School. Extra instruction provides students with an academic jump and increased learning opportunity. With a focus on parent involvement and student-led learning, students are quickly engaged and continue to make academic progress.

Building Educated Leaders for Life:
The BELL Program assists rising 7th, 8th and 9th graders at Virgo and NHHS by providing math, reading and career awareness support. The program focuses on character development, college/career readiness and includes a range of experiential learning opportunities. Partnerships with outside agencies provide students with extra learning opportunities. BELL’s core values are respect, learning, excellence, collaboration and courage. Instruction is provided to increase literacy, math, build community, strengthen career awareness, and provide enrichment opportunity. Enrichment includes yoga, shadowing at businesses such as Verizon, Castle Branch and New Hanover Regional Memorial Center. Enrichment also includes classes on nutrition, dance, career advisement and college tours.

ESL Fast Start Summer School:
MC Williams Elementary hosts summer school for newcomer K-12 ESL students in New Hanover County. Enrichment and educational activities are provided to ESL students who have been living in the United States for less than one year.

AIG Brain Camp:
All NHC rising 4-6 AIG students can attend Brain Camp located at Forest Hills Elementary. The purpose of Brain Camp is to expand prior knowledge and extend thinking skills. Thinking labs are utilized by students to increase problem solving and higher order skills.

NCVPS Summer School:
Middle and high school students may receive online accelerated instruction and recover lost credits through the NC Virtual Public Schools Program. Site labs are available at Ashley, Hoggard, Laney, NHHS, and Mosley Performance Learning Center. Students can complete courses online through NCVPS and create their own learning pathway.

Education continues when vacation begins in New Hanover County Schools. All students experience some learning “slide” during academic breaks, but over the years the loss is cumulative, especially for students who lack skills or resources. Extended summer learning provides students with opportunities for academic success in the future. Our goal in NHCS is for every child, every day, to continuously “climb” academically, creating their own pathway to success.

Note: Student participation at some programs based upon eligibility.

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Trading One for the Other – Why Can’t We have Both Teacher Assistants & Reduced Class Sizes

Reading the news today can be confusing. A May 2015 headline in the Raleigh News and Observer claims there will be a $400 million state surplus. Then, I read a headline that says the proposed Senate Budget will cut 8,500 teacher assistant positions over the next two years and recommend the cuts in order to pay for the reduced class sizes in the early grades.

My question is why do we have to trade one for the other?

With a $400 million dollar surplus, the legislators could keep teacher assistants and decrease class size. I think there is a complete misunderstanding by legislators about what teacher assistants do in the classrooms.

Teacher assistants today are an integral part of what happens in an elementary classroom. Their position really should be called Instructional Assistants. We have emphasized that education should be personalized. Teacher assistants make this possible. Teachers create the learning stations, and the assistants work with small groups in these learning stations. They also do one-on-one instruction, allowing the teacher to keep the rest of the class moving. Teacher assistants help teachers assess students, which opens up more instructional time for the teacher.

Beyond the classroom, many teacher assistants drive buses and perform other vital school duties. In some districts, they are the primary pool of bus drivers. Legislators are proposing new rules to help provide duty-free time for teachers. If the teacher assistants are not available to provide supervision and duty, the duty-free time will be not be possible for teachers.

I would encourage our elected officials to visit classrooms and see what teacher assistants really do. I would also reiterate that it should not be a forced choice of either teacher assistants or reduced class sizes. North Carolina should invest in both.

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A Perfect Summer Reading Adventure for Your Student

By Stefane Beddard, NHCS Language Arts Lead Teacher

SUMMER IS HERE! As parents, we worry that much of our children’s reading progress will dwindle during the long, lazy days of summer. Aside from summer trips, camps and beach days, you can encourage your child to keep their reading skills sharp and their love of reading alive by providing access to engaging books and dedicating time for reading. Here are a few helpful hints to create a perfect summer reading adventure:

Allow your children to choose their books. When real world readers choose a book, they are reading to learn and to enjoy. Research confirms that selecting what to read is a major part of becoming a reader (Ollman, 1993). Being able to make choices positively affects the educational development of children. It helps children become both independent and responsible. They learn to adjust with differing levels of books, understand that there are different purposes for reading, and learn to assess their progress by gauging their choices against their own standards and the choices of others (Ohlhausen & Jepson 1992).

More books = more chances for your child to find a fantastic, amazing, very awesome book that they can’t put down. Consider keeping a basket of books in the car for children to enjoy while traveling to a vacation destination or even on the way to the grocery store.

Visit the Library-
1.) NHCS Summer Library Programs-
This year’s NHCS Summer Library Programs will be better than ever. Not only will students be encouraged to check books out for summer reading, but they will be able to return their selections, as well as choose new books, at any of the open locations. Plus, each location will be celebrating summer learning fun with special events and activities designed to fight the summer slide! From coding with kids, to comic book days, to battle of the books, to bring your pet to the library day, there will be something for everyone! Checkout the Summer Library Programs webpage for dates, locations and a complete calendar of activities!

2.) New Hanover County Public Library Programs-
This year’s summer theme is “Every Hero Has A Story To Tell.” The summer kickoff event is Saturday, June 20th. Visit the NHC Public Library website for more information.

Attend the Kids Music Festival at the Oceanfront Park and Pavilion at Kure Beach on Saturday June 20th-
Children can enjoy musical performances, participate in various activities from The Children’s Museum of Wilmington, experience events from North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher and have the opportunity to register for the Summer Reading Club.

Kids need opportunities for reading. Make sure they are not filling all of their time with TV, video games, and iPad time. As parents, we schedule sporting events, summer camps and family trips on the calendar. Consider adding time on the calendar for reading adventures too!

Don’t forget about audiobooks, Kindles, iPads, and Nook reading. These count too! Check out these free reading resources:

Free Reading Apps for Kids- Memetales, Storykit, ICDL Books for Children, Kid Mode: Play + Learn

Share the Love of Reading-
Kids love to be read to so make sure to read with your child this summer. Family reading promotes stronger relationships and communication. Have a conversation about an exciting part of the story, make predictions about the next chapter and discuss what the author may have intended the reader to gain from the book. Reading to our children creates a loving, literacy-rich environment which promotes self-confidence and a shared love of reading.

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One Data Point in Time: A Reflective Memo for Students, Parents/Guardians, Teachers, and Administrators

By Karen Greene, NHCS Testing Director

To the Students, Parents, Teachers and Administrators of New Hanover County Schools:

As the 2014-2015 academic year wanes, during the final days of the school year students in our district and across North Carolina participate in the End-of-Grade (EOG)/End-of-Course (EOC) assessments. The results are among the many ways to determine how well students are progressing in school, but it is only one measure, among the other indicators, of student achievement. Although the results are merely one indicator of student progress, it prompts parents, teachers and administrators to reflect on the academic year. As the assessment time nears, below are thoughts to consider.

To Our Students:
You have worked hard and have demonstrated your progress many times throughout the year. As you prepare for the assessments, remember the following:

- Do your best! Rest well and relax;
- Although taking the EOG/EOC is a chance to show what you know, keep in mind that your teacher monitored your progress all year, has lots of samples of your work, and knows how much you have progressed; and
- Your teacher and your parents/guardians are proud of you!

Thank you for working hard and doing your best each and every day!

To Our Parents/Guardians:
Thank you for all you have done to support your child throughout the school year! You have discussed your child’s academic performance with him/her, encouraged your child to ask questions about things not yet understood, and maintained open communication with your child’s teacher. In preparation for the end-of-year assessments:

- Note the testing schedule to ensure that your child is at school on time on testing days;
- Make sure that your child has gone to bed on time the night before so they are well rested;
- Serve a healthy breakfast including protein so that your child is not hungry during the testing session. If your child eats at school, the Child Nutrition Department will provide such;
- Encourage your child to listen to and follow all directions given by the teacher; and
- Remind them that this assessment is only one measure, on one day, during the entire school year.

Enclosed with your child’s final report card is an Individual Student Report which provides information regarding your child’s performance on the assessments. The results compare your child’s progress to other students in the same grade at the school, the district, and across the state. Please contact your child’s principal if you have questions about the report. You are a pleasure with which to work. Thank you!

To Our Teachers:
Great teachers are part of the key to success in our schools. You have worked tirelessly all year to design and implement effective strategies to ensure student success. As you analyze the end-of-year results, keep in mind the following essential questions:

- Did my students show growth? In addition to the end-of year results, what other pieces of evidence do I have to determine my students’ progress?
- Did my students demonstrate proficiency, meaning did they score at a level that indicates that they consistently demonstrate mastery of the content standards?
- How am I using the end-of-year results and the results from numerous measures during the year to reflect upon and improve my effectiveness?

You emulate a life-long learner as you continue to learn and grow. You have contributed to your students’ academic success and have demonstrated it in numerous ways throughout the year. Thank you!

To Our Administrators:
You create an environment which engages the community in the support and ownership of the school and develop strong relationships with students’ families and community members. You lead the staff in the use of the best instructional practices and model and encourage collaboration between teachers and create an environment in which the staff is accountable for the performance of their students.
As you analyze the end-of-year results along with multiple data measures considered for school improvement, use them to:

- Establish an understanding of the “big picture” of your school’s current state, including student achievement, and other important measures such as the school environment, teacher community, parent community, and administrative issues;
- Reach consensus across the school community on which needs represent the highest priorities for action based upon the potential to improve overall student and school performance; and
- Identify implementation goals and strategies, including specific targets, indicators and milestones required to address the school priorities.

You are a data-driven instructional leader committed to improving the school and its progress. Thank you!

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New Hanover County Schools’ 2015-16 County Budget Request

by Dr. Tim Markley, Superintendent & Mary Hazel Small, Chief Financial Officer

The 2014-15 school year is quickly coming to a close and I expect our students to achieve at a very high level. New Hanover County Schools continues to be the leader in the southeast region, surpassing surrounding counties. We are one of the highest performing urban districts in the state. This could not happen without county government support. Their support means:

• Assistance to overcome unfunded state and federal mandates.
• Additional teachers to support more high-needs students.
• Teacher assistants to help with small group instruction, which allows teachers to reach all students.
• More students will graduate than ever before.
• Opportunity to attract the best teachers and staff possible.

Our 2015-16 Budget Request is for $75,997,200, including both Operating and Capital funding. This budget request exceeds the prior year by $5.2 million (8%). The increase is being driven by several factors that include unfunded mandates from the state, increased cost for employee benefits and our desire to provide the best education possible for the students of New Hanover County. The budget was crafted with the needs of our students, front and center. Operating needs exceed the County Request by $2,320,000, and our recommendation includes using $1,033,000 of fund balance. For Capital Outlay, in addition to the County Request our recommendation includes use of available State Lottery and Technology Funds, along with fund balance in the amount of $1,033,000.

The first budget driver is unfunded mandates. A prime example of this is Driver Education funding. The state budget eliminates the funding for this mandatory program for next year and does not allow districts to charge enough to cover the cost of this program. While we hope the state corrects this, we have to develop our budget plan based on current law. Other anticipated mandates include estimated increases for state salaries, health care costs and employer contributions to the retirement system.

The next driver in this budget is student growth. We must ensure we have enough teachers to deal with our growing district. Our student population increased by over 300 this school year, and we are forecasting growth for the upcoming school year. We anticipate the budget will address this, though until we have a state budget, we must plan for the worst possible scenario. There are additional teacher positions in this request that help address the continuous growth. Without them, already crowded classes will increase, courses will have to be eliminated and programs trimmed.

The final driver and the most important one is making sure that the resources for student success are in place. Over the last several years, the state has significantly decreased funding for classroom resources and support. We continue to ask teachers to do more with less, but we believe it is critical to provide an appropriate level of resources and support to allow them to provide the services to students at the level our students need and deserve. This increase in funding would allow us to strengthen classroom support through increased instructional resources, professional development, administrative and mental health support.

In addition, we have included a 1% supplement increase for veteran teachers (26+ years), because this group of hardworking and loyal teachers has been ignored by the revised State Teacher Pay Scale. We are also requesting increased funding for custodial services, which were significantly reduced over the last several years to protect the classroom. Currently, we do not believe we are providing adequate custodial coverage in all buildings. While the detailed operating budget changes exceed our request, we are hopeful that some of these items will be included in the state budget.

We are very appreciative of New Hanover County citizens’ support for the 2014 School Bond Referendum, though additional capital outlay needs exist. We have documented our top priorities for the next two years, which will address several significant needs including:

• A new transportation facility for our Northern Bus Division at the Sidbury Road site. This division was moved from Laney High School in January, freeing up much needed space, but the site will need a new parking lot and building to house staff when we begin using the facility as a swing site for schools being replaced in the bond funding.
• Demolition and site repair for the old Lakeside School building.
• Renovations and repairs at several schools including bathroom renovations, HVAC upgrades, window and carpet replacements, and painting.
• Phase II of system wide classroom computer replacement.
• Furniture, equipment and vehicle replacements.

The capital needs will be funded from multiple revenue sources, including the North Carolina Education Lottery, for allowable renovation and repair projects, the state technology reserve (funded by state fines and forfeitures revenue) and fund balance.

To put this request into perspective, I wanted to provide a brief overview of our current operating budget. The total operating budget is $237,600,000, excluding child nutrition and capital outlay. Our total budget per pupil is $8,870, and the current county per pupil funding is $2,534. The local budget currently funds 15% of our instructional positions, along with an 8% teacher supplement.

Eighty-nine percent (89%) of the school system’s General Fund is funded by County Appropriation and used to fund 631 of our 3,700 positions. A breakdown of the positions is as follows:

• 51% for Salaries and Benefits for locally funded positions (excluding supplements):
     -418 Instructional (66%), including teachers and certified instructional support, assistant principals, and teacher assistants.
     -213 System wide Support (33%), including technology and maintenance support, custodians, clerical and central administration.

• 13% for Supplemental pay for teachers and school administrators paid by state and local funds.

• 36% for Non-salary line items including:
     -Instructional support (23%)
     -Administrative support (8%)
     -Technology and Operational support (49%)
     -Transfer to Charter Schools (7%)
     -Transfer to Capital Outlay (13%)

We are so fortunate to live and serve children in a county, whose leaders value the importance of education. Complete 2015-16 NHCS Budget information can be found at this link:


The Operating Budget by source and purpose is shown in the following charts:

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School Mental Health- Challenges and Supports

By Lisa Burriss, LCSW, NBCT, NHCS Lead Counselor and Social Worker

In serving well over 26,000 children and youth in the New Hanover County School system, there are numerous opportunities to identify and respond to the mental health needs of the students in our care. Teaching, modeling, and instilling mental health wellness for all students is as critical as assuring a quality education for each and every one. In fact, without a full spectrum that includes prevention, intervention and treatment, individuals as well as all stakeholders are at risk of unintended consequences.

When wellness is replaced by disorder or distress, assuring safety for the individual and the school is paramount. At times, the need is clear even if the solutions are not. Hidden indicators, on the contrary, present with added complications. Educators from varied disciplines must be skilled at recognizing signs and symptoms. Understanding that behaviors are motivated by thoughts and emotions, met or unmet needs, and the presence or lack of wellness, provides a framework for support.

A quick fix would be to stop the behaviors of concern or remove the student from the school environment. However, the matter is much too complex. The root of the misbehavior may be social, emotional, psychological or physical (lack of food, sleep, medical care). Substance abuse/misuse, sexual abuse or promiscuity, physical abuse and neglect, or unmet physical needs for survival may impede one’s ability to thrive and to achieve. Problematic behaviors may be trauma based, fear based, anxiety ridden, or the result of hopelessness. On the other end of the spectrum, students who believe themselves to be capable, connected and contributing are more likely to make healthy behavioral choices and experience wellness.

The challenge in schools is to equip students with coping skills that instill healthy living both emotionally and physically. The response must be rooted in school wide character building, outreach to groups, individual students and families as needed and a collaborative partnership with community resources.

Student Support personnel in schools, as well as the Central Office, provide extensive, multi-layered supports and interventions. School nurses, counselors, social workers, graduation coaches, school psychologist, behavioral specialist, school resource offices and site coordinators from Community in Schools provide individual counseling and specialized supports, large group initiatives, classroom guidance, and collaborative efforts with community resources. Guidance curriculum is integrated in academic subjects as well as athletics and the arts. Outreach to families includes access to food, housing, school stability, school supplies, and opportunities to enhance parent engagement.

At a higher level of need, New Hanover County Schools has a long standing contract with the New Hanover County Health Department which secures mental health therapists in 18 of the schools; the WHAT Clinic has established sites in three of the four traditional high schools, and three other local mental health providers have placed therapists in seven schools through a Memorandum of Understanding. Lake Forest Academy continues to secure day treatment for eligible elementary and middle school students.

The NHCS Crisis Response Team is ready on a moment’s notice to respond to critical incidents in schools. Each school must develop and abide by Safe School Plans collaboratively established with the Safe Schools Division and community emergency supports. Suicide and Self-Injurious Protocols are adopted and annually reviewed. Bullying claims are assessed.

In conclusion, the efforts to instill emotional and mental wellness in students is extensive and ongoing. Solutions to provide support, redirection, and care for those in crisis are vast and varied. The response to mental health needs must be significant and continue to remain a high priority in order to assure academic success and college and career readiness for all.

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The Looming Crisis

By Dr. Tim Markley, Superintendent

High school seniors around the country are finalizing college applications, and more than likely, they are contemplating their college major and ultimately, their careers. One major they are not choosing is education. There is a silent crisisshortage of teachersbrewing for the future and many do not realize that it is coming. Universities are seeing drastic decreases in the number of students enrolling in education. In some states, the number of students enrolling in teacher education programs is down by over 53%. Here in North Carolina, the number is down 20% in three years. This is also a trend for alternative teacher training organizations such as Teach for America. For a state such as ours, this is a pending crisis. We are the ninth most populous state, and one of the fastest growing states in the nation. Even now, we do not produce enough teachers in North Carolina to cover annual attrition and have to recruit teacher candidates heavily from out of state.

What is driving students away from teaching? Like many problems, there is not one easy reason to identify. Instead, there are a number of factors that have contributed to the crisis. The politicizing of education, the increase in high stakes testing, budget cuts, elimination of teacher scholarship programs and low pay are some of the major culprits. When all of these factors are taken into consideration, together they paint a picture of a career that is not as valued by the public as a whole. Teachers are often used as piñatas by politicians and policymakers to score points with their base constituents.

Unless there are changes made, this crisis will only accelerate. We need to stop this war on teachers and treat them as professionals. How do we do this?

Address pay issues
Support meaningful professional development
Restore teacher scholarships programs such as Teaching Fellows
Ease rules related to lateral entry
Allow easier transfers between states

We also need to work to keep the talented professionals we have currently teaching our students. We need to recognize their efforts by supporting their attempts to increase their skills. This means paying for master’s level education, rewarding high performance and giving them the tools they need to do their jobs, which includes more classroom resources, better facilities and the support of strong paraprofessionals.

Without changes, I worry about the future of our educational system. During this legislative season, let your legislators know how important teachers are to our future!

State legislators’ contact information is available on line at: http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/representation/WhoRepresentsMe.aspx

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We Have Reached the Insanity Point on Testing

by Dr. Tim Markley, NHCS Superintendent

I was planning for a recent meeting with local leaders and asked one our high school assistant principals to prepare a calendar about testing at his school. What he submitted can only be called ridiculous. He indicated that at his high school, they will administer 188 subject exams. Forty three of these exams will be one time tests such as AP, CTE credentials and ACT. The other 145 exams are administered at the end of each semester and include CTE, EOC and NCFE.

These numbers are just the total number of course exams. They do not reflect the number of testing rooms/administration sessions required, which would be a much larger number due to multiple sections of the same courses and the testing of students with accommodations.

To offer a more specific idea, testing for the Fall of 2014 at this school was as follows:
• Jan 15th – 15 subjects to test; 58 testing sessions needed
• Jan 16th – 13 subjects to test; 59 testing sessions needed
• Jan 20th – 14 subjects to test; 54 testing sessions needed
• Jan 21st – 11 subjects to test; 34 testing sessions needed
• Jan 22nd – If all students would have attended make-ups, 25 testing sessions would have been needed.

This level of testing disrupts the entire school. Even when only one grade is testing, which is what happens with the ACT, it causes changes to the entire schedule for the school.

When you examine the elementary testing, the picture does not get any better. We are even testing kindergartners. We are testing 5-year old students with an assessment that was meant to provide diagnostic data for teachers. The original Read to Achieve legislation required 36 tests to assess third graders. Luckily, this was reduced in 2014, but not by much.

Why are we doing this? There are a number forces driving this insanity, but one primary driver is a federal mandate that says when you accepted Race to the Top funds, you agreed to using test to evaluate teachers. While the tests are supposed to be aligned to curriculum, I often hear complaints that there is a disconnect between the two. In order to meet this mandate, the state has tried to create assessments for nearly every subject taught. For those tests that cannot be measured by a multiple choice exam, the state has implemented Analysis of Student Work (ASW) this year, which is a topic for another time.

There has to be some support for reform. There are several groups working on this issue and one group formed by Governor McCrory is about to make significant recommendations to reform our current assessment model. I believe we need accountability, but it must not come at the expense of high-quality teaching. Tests that are not aligned to the curriculum do not measure anything. Using tests that were designed to help shape instruction as the measure of teacher input is poor pedagogy. We must push our legislators to implement a balanced assessment system that is designed to drive instruction, not to meet a misguided federal mandate.

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We Are So Much More!

by Dr. LaChawn Smith, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction and Academic Accountability

On Thursday, February 5th, schools in New Hanover County and across the state will be issued School Performance Grades for the first time. The NC General Assembly passed a law in 2012 requiring the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to issue grades A-F to each school based on the Ready Accountability Model Indicators. For K-8 schools, a separate performance score and grade for reading and math will be reported as well. Grades are calculated based on 80% student achievement and 20% academic growth. The academic growth score is comprised of the EVAAS School Accountability Index converted to a 50-100 point scale. More information regarding EVAAS (Education Value-Added Assessment System) can be found at the EVAAS public website. The grades will be based on a 15-point scale for the first report card, but then be reported on a 10-point scale for following years.

As a district, we are extremely proud of the work and achievements of our students, teachers, and administrators. We are concerned that in grading our schools, some of our many accomplishments and successes will be overlooked. The achievement and growth of our students cannot be adequately captured in a letter grade. Our schools are unique and reflect the challenges, interests, and needs of the communities that they serve. In each of our schools, we offer unique programs and learning experiences tailored to meet the needs of our students. Our goal is not only to increase proficiency levels at our schools, but to ensure that our students are meeting or exceeding their academic growth rates. Unfortunately with the current process when our grades are released, we will have some schools assigned a letter “D” or below who have met or exceeded their growth expectations. We believe this sends the wrong message to our students, their families, and the teachers who serve them.

So on February 5th, when School Performance grades are announced, please remember that regardless of the grade a school receives, the school system’s focus continues to be on providing a high quality education to all students , and school grades cannot reflect the total quality education that our schools are providing.

We are so much more!

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Entering the Legislative Season: A Teacher’s Perspective

By Meredith Kokoski, NHCS Teacher of the Year

Editor’s Note: Last week, the New Hanover County Board of Education and Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley hosted the district’s annual Legislative Luncheon for local and state elected officials. One of the keynote speakers was NHCS Teacher of the Year Meredith Kokoski, an English teacher at Laney High School. The following is Ms. Kokoski’s speech, which brought a standing ovation from the audience. The Legislative Priorities that were reviewed by Superintendent Dr. Markley during the luncheon follow Ms. Kokoski’s speech.

I absolutely love my job. Teaching runs through my veins and I feel it is as innate to me as breathing. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying I could never leave this love of mine because its place in my heart could never be filled by anything else. We never go into this profession for recognition or reward, which is a good thing because teaching is often the job of the unsung hero.

I was so fortunate to receive the title of New Hanover County’s teacher of the year in June. It came at a low point in my career: I had extremely difficult and unmotivated classes; I had just come back to work after my son, Ben, was born, and I had yet to see a raise in my six years of teaching. It was like someone above knew I needed to be reminded of my destiny as a teacher or education was going to lose another one.

I am grateful for the doors this award has opened for me and I am thankful to have been recognized for my dedication. However, I am one of 2,500 teachers in this county alone, so I don’t feel as though I represent the whole in this specific regard. All teachers deserve the reminder that they are valued, and most importantly that they are deemed capable of making sound decisions in their classrooms for their students. After all, they know their students best. However, I do represent the whole in that we all are in education for the same reason. We go into teaching because we recognize the need for the adults of today to positively impact the adults of tomorrow, and sharing our love of learning and our love for them is in so many ways its own reward. We go into it for the humanity of it all-the passion, the heart.

New Hanover County is comprised of strong, passionate leaders and educators who steadfastly work to reach our students and equip them with the skill sets they need to be productive, capable and happy citizens -after all, “Reach, Equip, Achieve” is our motto. Twenty years ago, in 1994, the World Wide Web was invented, cell phones came in suitcases for the car alone, there was no Google, we saved on Floppy Disks, and the DVD wouldn’t come out for another year. The mission of our county, in short is “to strive to provide children an excellent education in a safe and positive learning environment … for a world yet to be imagined.” This mission is a daunting one in that keeping my students safe keeps me up at night, but the scariest part of it is imagining the necessary skills one will need in twenty years. How can we adequately prepare them for our future world? What will it possibly look like in 2035?

Yet, we take this mission with pride and purpose every day because despite the issues we personally face as educators; it isn’t about us- at all. Education is about the students, the young minds at perpetual diverging paths with thousands of choices to make that can be the difference between a successful and happy life and a difficult and arduous one. It is our job to equip them to make these crucial decisions for themselves, by themselves and to live in the present but prepare for the future. I believe we are failing them in this regard and thus the “world yet to be imagined” is one that fills me with much trepidation.

As a district, NHCS has worked tirelessly toward our mission and has succeeded in a number of ways. Our county reached an 82.4% graduation rate last year; Laney High School reached 88%, 6% above the state level. Our schools lead the state in Grade Level proficiency and College Readiness Standards, and lead the region in multiple EOG’s and EOC’s, including English II and Math I. If numbers are indications of student success, we are meeting or exceeding the expectations for achievement and growth that have been put in place.

However, unlike the score reports for these exams that try to depict who our students are, it is hard for someone outside of it all to really tell how a school and its students are doing.

Having interned at Laney High School, I have stayed at Laney for seven years because I deeply respect my principal, and I believe in my fellow teachers and administrators. However, what I love most about my school are the students. I repeat, IT IS ALL ABOUT THEM.

I love the culture of my school, I love its diversity. Every day I witness deep personal friendships. I see inclusiveness. I see them look out for each other. I see them struggle. I see them fall, but get back up. I hear smart questions and intelligent statements. They are funny, and they are polite. They make me truly, deeply proud to be a teacher. Our students are the heart of our Buccaneer family, just as the students are the heart of every school in this county and beyond.

We have been inundated in the last few years with state tests, and every year despite the frustration and the worry that we are missing the point, we work so hard to help our students meet the requirements set forth by people who don’t know their stories, their battles, and their tribulations. Teachers are the bridge between many of you who want to see a collective whole succeed and the individual students who personally want to believe that their success is not measured by a number. We are the scaffolding that connects these two seemingly discrepant ideologies and makes them seem less incongruous.

When I broke the news to my seniors last year that they would have to take a state exam in English IV, they were devastated. They were confused. They were angry. Seniors in New Hanover County complete a rigorous semester-long Graduation Project on a contemporary issue of their choice. I had seniors start support groups, host dinners for the homeless, collect items for veterans. I had young men and women teach others about the importance of physical health and coastal environment protection, work with students with autism, foster and learn how to train service animals. I had young adults make care packages for the terminally ill, work weekly with the elderly, coach youth sports teams. “How, at the end of all of that,” they asked, ”was it a multiple-choice examination that would test their growth and what they had learned?

A test cannot possibly measure a student’s achievement in every subject, so I do not believe a North Carolina Final Exam is needed in every subject. Personal achievement and growth is just that-personal. It cannot be measured without taking into consideration the HUMANITY of education.

This issue becomes an even bigger problem when these same scores are used as what I believe is unfortunately becoming the sole basis of Teacher Effectiveness. North Carolina is one of 34 states that considers student growth when evaluating its teachers; however, we teachers do not feel that this is accurate. Our Summative Evaluations used to be a genuine dialogue between principal and teacher, but are now just an hour of clicking; how can accurate observation data even be obtained when the measurement tool is so impersonal?

If all we are doing is teaching to a test, we are not doing our job. I became a teacher because I had a teacher in high school who gave me a voice and taught me how to use that voice to make this world a better place. I became a teacher because I learned at a young age that what teachers do every day matters. Not the last day of the semester. Not the 120 minutes that a test lasts. Every day. When I polled my 115 juniors and seniors anonymously and I asked them, “On a scale of 1-10, how important is your relationship to your teacher to your success in a subject?” The average was 9. 75 of them said 10.

If we do not have passionate, positive teachers who love their students and want them to succeed as humans, not just for the EVAAS rating we receive from their test scores, what are we doing? I think we are losing our students not because teachers are giving up on them, but because public education is. Investing in teachers and giving them control over their classrooms creates the positive learning environment that New Hanover County Schools aims for in its mission.

The impact a teacher makes on a student is immeasurable. In spite of adversity, we teach with all of our hearts like our students’ lives depend on it-because they do. Our students’ futures are in our hands, and it is our responsibility to always construct education with this in mind. I am in this job indefinitely because it is in my blood. I do not intend on leaving the classroom as long as I feel I can prepare my 21st century learners to be conscientious adults who think for themselves and have the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a globally competitive society. I hope this remains possible in North Carolina.

“There isn’t a single person you wouldn’t love if you knew their story.” All children are who they are for a reason. Every child can learn, every child wants to learn and wants to be proud of his or her accomplishments; every student wants to be reached, to be equipped, to achieve. It is imperative, then, for teachers to keep teaching. We have to bring the love of learning and the desire to inspire back into our classrooms and schools. We have to make our students fall in love with learning again against all odds.

At the beginning of class on Monday, Evan, one of my juniors told me about a book he had read over the break. At the end of class, he stayed behind. “Did you ever just read a book just to read it? Not because there was something at the end to test your comprehension or whether or not you had read it, but just to appreciate the book for what it had to offer?”

Of course I laughed for a second- after all, I am an English teacher. “Yes, I have, once or twice.” He continued, “Did you ever come away from a book feeling like you were better off than you were before it, not because someone told you, you were, but because you were invested in it?” He paused. “I wish school was like that. I wish learning was like that. And I ask you, why can’t learning be just “like that?”

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