04/30/04 — State chairman says smaller schools result in better performance

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State chairman says smaller schools result in better performance

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 30, 2004 2:05 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- The chairman of the state Board of Education says that small schools should be a priority for communities, but it isn't the state's place to step in and rule on it.

Former state Sen. Howard Lee, who is now the board's chairman, spoke at the Mount Olive Rotary Club meeting Thursday night. About 48 people, including members of the Mount Olive town board, the county school board and county commissioners, were in the audience.

Lee said smaller high schools would result in better student performance and higher graduation rates.

He said that there was a tremendous problem with dropouts and expulsions. A high school with 2,000 students has a larger dropout rate than one with less than 500 students, he said.

"We're not doing as well at the high school level as we need to," he said. "We need to bring together the Department of Public Instruction, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services, and work in unison as partners and work with the entire child.

"We either pay for it now, or we pay twice for it later" when a child ends up in the prison system, he said.

James Ray Cox, president of the Grantham High School Foundation, asked Lee if the state board has publicly endorsed community schools.

"The state has not taken any kind of formal position with regard to school size," Lee said. "We have not jumped into dictating what size schools should be.

"At this point we have to keep our eyes on the larger prize."

He said the state board can and does say that small schools should be a priority, but that it will ultimately be up to the county commissioners and local school boards to determine funding and construction plans.

"It's the local decision on what the local school board determines fits into its plans," he said. "But I can continue to talk about the importance of small schools, which I do."

Kenney Moore, president of the Andy's Restaurant food chain and a proponent for having a high school in Mount Olive, made reference to the proposed bond referendum in Wayne County.

"If that doesn't happen," he said, "what are our other options? Can the state step in and help us find a way to get this done?"

Lee responded, "It's the responsibility of the local commissioners. ... I think it would be wonderful if the county commissioners could come up with the resources.

"But I think it would be a mistake for us at the state level to start dictating, when the commissioners and school board are in place to do that."

He said the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has begun allocating grants around the country that will be used to re-engineer high schools. North Carolina was among the states that received a grant, for $11 million, with the stipulation that the state match it with $10 million.

"If we do well, we could be eligible for another $10 million," Lee said.

School board member Shirley Sims asked whether any of the money from the grants could be applied for construction or if it was all designated for programs. Lee said that the money applies to programs and perhaps personnel who might be working with some of the programs.

Lee also said that he is a strong advocate for the federal No Child Left Behind law. It does have limitations, however, he said.

"We have an obligation to teach every child and move them forward," he said. "The argument is that it demands perfection and there's no such thing in education as perfection.

"Everyone can't learn at the same level and everyone will not make the same progress. We shouldn't hold a school accountable for a student who didn't make it."

He said that North Carolina is not where it needs to be in terms of education. Keeping highly qualified teachers in the classrooms is a particular struggle.

"There are 3,000 teachers in the classrooms with temporary licenses," he said. "That's unacceptable.

"You have teachers teaching out-of-subject; that's unacceptable. And unqualified substitutes because the schools have no choice but to have a warm body in there."

Lee said that it cannot be left up to teachers and the schools alone to close the achievement gaps. Some of the solutions he suggested included after-school programs and more involvement from the business and faith-based communities.

"I feel so strongly that one of our greatest assets is the business community," he said. "If we could get retired males and businessmen to descend on the schools, and if they could choose even one or two identified students, I think we could really go down the road a long way."

He said he has seen churches becoming more involved and has taken the opportunities to speak about the need for mentors.

"You want to save some souls, start with these kids," he said. "Ask your members to volunteer as tutors. This is where we need to start, and the hereafter will look after itself."

School board member Thelma Smith thanked Lee for his comments and asked if he would be willing to visit communities in the area and have similar forums.

"It would help for the residents to hear more than just what we have to say, if we could get some of this from the state level and have you come talk to some of the communities," she said.