05/23/06 — State superintendent outlines schools' future

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State superintendent outlines schools' future

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 23, 2006 1:48 PM

The "power of one" could make all the difference in the education of a child, says the state superintendent of public instruction.

Dr. June St. Clair Atkinson, the first woman to serve in the post, should know. She was elected to the position in November 2004, with the race decided by the N.C. General Assembly on Aug. 23, 2005.

Monday night, she spoke before a group of 50 at Wilber's restaurant. Her visit was sponsored by the Wayne County Democrats.

Rattling off statistics of presidents elected by one vote and states voted into the union on the basis of one vote, Dr. Atkinson said that most don't even know who cast those deciding votes. And yet every citizen has the power to turn the tide if they will only use it, she said.

Educating the anticipated 1.4 million school children expected in North Carolina next year, Dr. Atkinson said she feels very strongly about the role of public education.

"Today, we know that our students are going to be competing with people not just from North Carolina, not just from the United States, but our children are going to be competing with children from all over the world," she said.

She recalled hearing as a child the adage, "Eat all the food on your plate because there are people in China who would love to have that food." Today's message, she said, should be, "Be sure to do all your homework because all the children in China are doing their homework."

Education in this country is at a critical point, she said.

"No other time in our history have our schools been required to be highly successful with as broad of a population as we have now," she said.

There is much to be proud of, she said. For one thing, the state boasts having one-third of all the nationally board-certified teachers in the country, she said.

But, she added, there are also some "really big challenges before us."

"Guess how many homeless children are in our schools? (Across the U.S.) 1.3, soon to be 1.4 million, and over 10,000 homeless students in our state," she said.

Other problems she noted include having an average of 72 percent of students receive free or reduced lunches, 83,000 students in the state who have English as a second language, and an estimated 44 percent of African American children who did not score at the proficient level.

"We know that if we are going to be successful in North Carolina, we're going to be successful in our nation, we must address the needs of our children," she said. "We have to reach out to community people and get them involved."

Moving forward will take efforts to shore up the graduation rate, provide help and assistance to students, and to improve the teacher recruitment and retention rate.

"We need about 10,000 new teachers every year," she said. "Next year, we'll have 38,803 new students in our classrooms that require extra funding for textbooks, exceptional children, technology education, professional development, the list goes on."

Another area that is often overlooked is principals, many nearing retirement age.

"Fifty-two percent of the principals today could leave and retire," she said. "In addition to recruiting and retaining, we also have to focus on recruiting and retaining principals."

Building a technology infrastructure will also be vital, Dr. Atkinson said.

"Students that are accustomed to technology, they expect technology and we know that if we can use technology effectively in the classroom, we can improve students' learning," she said.

She shared about going to a career fair in Charlotte, where she was told about a young man who had attended the year before. While there, someone was impressed enough with the youth to promise him a job "when you graduate" and also offered to pay his college tuition.

"The young man made a beeline for his teacher," Dr. Atkinson said, where he asked for help in talking to three teachers in classes where he had goofed off all semester. Because the "light went off in his head" and he now realized the importance of getting his high school diploma, he set out to complete his education.

"I don't want you to ever underestimate the power of what you say to young people," she said. "Use that power to help improve the future of our kids and that you use that power to help influence the political process."

Bringing it home to the current situation at Goldsboro High School, Dr. Atkinson said the state has been tuned in to the students' test data there.

"We recognize that the principal and the faculty have made tremendous progress in improving end of course tests," she said. "We want to encourage them to work collaboratively to identify what are some needs that we as a state can be a broker."

Some plans being considered are providing professional development, working toward using technology more effectively, expansion of the ninth grade transition program at the school, and looking at ways to provide extra help for students, she said.

"We also want the community to take some responsibility for making sure that students are successful," she said. "That will require community leaders and parents to encourage them to stay in school, it's important to do your homework.

"We have to constantly look at ways to make instruction relevant for the students."