10/18/06 — Residents, officials talk about future of schools

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Residents, officials talk about future of schools

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 18, 2006 1:53 PM

The Duplin County Board of Education was prepared for a big crowd Tuesday night, with a sheriff's deputy on hand and a buzzer to control each speaker's allotted time, but when fewer people than expected turned out, the hearing turned into a conversation between the board, the school staff and concerned county residents.

Heading up the discussion were community concerns about recruitment and retention of minority staff, and students failing and dropping out because of absences due to long-term suspensions. Those concerns are ones that have been voiced repeatedly at recent meetings.

Citing statistics provided by the school system, county resident Dr. Winston Jennings focused on the current racial imbalance of the school system's staff and how unreflective it is of Duplin County.

Of the 13 administrators in the central office, only one is black. Of the 554 teachers in the schools, only 81 are black and 18 are Hispanic. Of the 54 coaches employed by the school, only 14 are black.

Jennings continued, listing the racial makeup up of each category of school employees, but his point was the same.

"I think those are very disproportionate numbers. I think anyone would say that when you look at the numbers in the county," he said. "We really do need to do something to offset that disproportion."

The board and the administrative staff agreed.

"He is correct. Certainly there is a disproportion between African-Americans, Hispanics and whites and certainly we need to do better," said Dr. Candace Turk, associate superintendent for human resources and operations. But school officials said they are taking steps to improve in minority hiring, she said.

One step has been the formation of the new minority recruitment and retention committee. Formed only in the last two months and having met just once, the committee is charged with developing methods to target minority teachers and staff.

Part of the problem is that of the 3,400 North Carolina students who graduate qualified to teach each year, only 850 are minorities. Duplin County must compete with the state's other 114 school districts and 10,000 job openings for that limited number of minority teachers.

"One of the challenges we face is we have to compete pay-wise with the Guilford and Mecklenburg counties and typically they pay a much higher local supplement than we do," Superintendent Dr. Wiley Doby said.

Helping with that fight are the just-budgeted increases in teacher supplements and sign-on bonuses, as well as a community incentive package the school system is currently trying to put together with the Chamber of Commerce. Turk also said that finally having funds available to hire new teachers directly from job fairs will help make Duplin County more competitive.

But, Doby said, the teachers who are in place are good. Ninety-nine percent of the county's teachers are highly qualified and 100 percent of the teacher assistants are highly qualified, he said.

Those numbers, however, don't mean much if the students aren't in the classrooms to learn, and that was the other overriding concern of many of those in attendance -- that students who miss too much instructional time because of long-term suspensions automatically fail and then end up dropping out.

While not arguing that misbehavior shouldn't be punished, several residents did say that they felt that there should be more alternatives to suspension.

"A lot of our children are being left behind because of long-term suspensions," county resident Clarette Sutton said. "I want to know what Duplin County has in place to leave no child behind."

Each school has the flexibility to handle discipline problems in its own way. Some use in-school suspensions, some after-school detention. All Duplin schools can use the district-wide in-school suspension program at the Renaissance Center, but space is limited.

In addition, a new twilight school program -- night classes for suspended high school students -- will be explored at Wallace-Rose Hill High School, if funding becomes available.

But an overall solution will take time, board member said.

"These are not new concerns," board Chairman Emily Manning said. "These concerns have been brought before the board all 16 years I've been here and we're going to address them, but we're not going to solve the problems overnight."

School board member Graham Phillips urged attendees to work with the school board.

"Keep coming to us and asking us questions, but don't pick us to pieces. Give us time to work," he said. "In my opinion, times in schools are harder than I have ever seen them. In my opinion, I have seen more progress in our schools in the last six to eight months than at any time during my 20 years (on the board)."