By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on November 29, 2009 1:50 AM
Goldsboro High School students pass through the hallways between classes. The school is one of the focuses for Wayne County residents as they think about what's next for the county's schools.
Eastern Wayne High School students change classes. There are some who say that differences in perception between city and county schools are why the county's education system still needs work.
There is little middle ground when it comes to opinions about education in Wayne County in general or more specifically, county's schools.
Some say the schools do the best they can with the students and facilities they are dealt, giving local children a solid educational base. Others say there is a lot of work left to do and not enough attention paid to better graduation rates, better programs and more students leaving school with the skills they need to make it in the world.
So, what do county residents think about their schools? What are their suggestions for improving the way education is viewed in the county?
Acknowledging that there is a perception problem would be a start, Goldsboro Mayor Al King said.
King said changing perspectives that have developed over a number of years can be difficult -- especially when it comes to feelings about city versus county schools.
One he hears often, he said, is "that we have two school systems -- we have the inner school system and we have the county school system. And the county school system is getting all the attention."
That sentiment runs pretty deep, he said.
"Years ago, we had two school systems," King said. "At that time, I'm told that the city system got the money. But then when they had to combine, the county system took over.
"There are people that believe that the county is trying to pay the city back, like, 'You guys had your day and we're in charge and we're going to take care of the county.' Now that's a perception."
Another challenge that makes improving the city schools more difficult is the number of people packing up their families and moving from the city to the surrounding county -- an option not available to everyone.
"Parents with kids, there's nothing more valuable or important to them than the education of their kids," he said. "If you have got the funds and you can afford it, I can understand why they would want to get the best possible opportunities for those children.
"But it leaves the other population with no choice. Not everybody can move."
Ideally, changes would be made to make the inner city schools more attractive. The mayor said he knows people who would "love to be able to send their kids to Goldsboro High, but because of the stigma attached, they will not let their kids go there."
Diversity is a plus, he said, and a necessity, whether parents realize it or not.
"I think there's those out there who believe it's OK to have non-diverse communities and non-diverse schools, but that's not realistic, and it's not in everybody's best interest," he said. "Certainly not the kids, because when they get out of school, they're going to hit the real world and let's face it, this country is getting more and more diverse every year."
An important facet of education is being equipped to live in the world, King said. Beyond the classroom, some of that starts at home, specifically with parent involvement.
"We need to be able to pay more attention to that because there are many, many parents out there who are not involved," he said. "You will find that these are the parents at the lower level of the economic scale or not as educated. The middle level, middle class, they're taking part in their child's education. But there's a large group of people who will only go into classrooms when there's a problem."
Education, essentially, he said, begins at home and must be supported and reinforced there. When that's lacking, the whole system breaks down and children are the ones who pay the price.
One positive development is recent interest from the county's Chamber of Commerce and the business community -- offering advice and support to the schools, the mayor said.
But that's a start and not enough to change the course of the schools, King said.
"I think there's a segment of society or there are students who are victims of this," he said. "I'm sure that we're losing some talent here. I am concerned about the students because the students are being caught in the middle."
Jimmie Edmundson, senior vice president of BB&T, is part of a group of area businessmen who have volunteered to work on reform in the public schools. He agreed with King's assessment that there have been some areas of improvement in recent years.
"One thing I'm pretty proud of is the fact that we do these different programs in the high schools now for the kids that aren't planning to go to college. They can at least learn a trade," he said.
There is still a problem at Goldsboro High School, however, he pointed out, especially regarding graduation rates and enrollment.
"The school board needs to take some action with Goldsboro High School. That's just the bottom line," he said. "Are they going to let it dwindle down to nothing or make it something we can be proud of?"
The public schools' image, Edmundson said, is a "huge problem."
"Some of the things that are being said about our schools are not true. They may have been true years ago, but I don't think they're true today. But we still have a perception problem," he said.
And Goldsboro High School is the lightning rod for that criticism, he said.
"It's a bad apple and it's making the school system look bad," Edmundson said. "The graduation rates are pathetic. That's a problem that needs to be dealt with. I recognize that the minority people don't want it to be dealt with, but this is not about appeasing people."
The question he hears repeatedly centers around graduation rates and outcomes at the high school, he said -- "'When are you going to do something at GHS, when are you going to do something to help those kids?'"
Edmundson has a theory -- "If kids are around other kids who don't give a damn, they won't either. But if you can take that kid and get with other kids who do care, if their peers are doing well, I think they are going to do better."
And that could mean mixing some of the at-risk students from the city schools in with their county counterparts who have proven they are on the right path.
"I've never been a proponent of busing, but we have got to do something," Edmundson said.
Ulis Dawson, 82, a regular volunteer mentor for youths in the school district, decided long ago to be part of the solution rather than sounding off about the problems.
"I really do have a lot of ideas, but I don't want it to appear that I know everything," he said. "When you do that with people who are elected or in charge, they will turn their back on you."
Dawson said his strategy has been one of listening and sharing ideas -- talking with the superintendent and board members, as well as principals and teachers, rather than criticizing what is being done.
"I don't think (most people) realize that the elected officials, they have policies and procedures," he said. "Many of us don't know what they are and so we just come out and try to give our ideas. Many times our ideas might be contrariwise to these policies."
Some of the fundamental problems are in the homes some of these children come from, Dawson suggests.
"Many of our parents, especially those who are impoverished or poor, many of them cannot read or write, don't know a noun from a verb, and when their children come home from school, they tell them, 'Get over there and do your homework' or 'Go to bed,'" he said. "(These children) don't have anybody at home to help them with homework.
"In most homes that I go into, parents -- many of them are single-parent homes -- the parent is working and when they get home, they're just worn out."
Children without parental supervision or a caring adult in their lives often venture into gangs or wind up in jail.
And if Wayne County wants to fix its schools, home is where the work must start, Dawson said.
"If we can work in some kind of way with the parents so these children can feel that they're important to our society because if we don't, I have a very keen perception -- in 10 to 15 years, our country is going to be in a mess."
One effort Dawson has been impressed by is the addition of the graduation coach at Goldsboro High School, he said.
"I think she's going on the right track, but I feel it's going to be very difficult for her when she starts working with these parents unless she's very cooperative and has the right attitude and behavior," he said. "I was impressed with her. I believe she would use that approach."
As a retired educator, County Commissioner J.D. Evans understands how a school system works, and the inclination for people to demand "instant success." But that's not the way it works, he said.
"I think at this point pretty much everything's moving as well as can be with the economy," he said. "The school system's making what moves it can make."
There have been positive strides, he said -- the Work Keys program to better equip students for the workforce, a report that the dropout rate at Eastern Wayne High School is down.
As for the inference that there is any difference between the equality of education in the city schools versus the county schools, "That's a tossup," Evans said.
"I think most people would prefer more diversification in all of those schools," he said. "That's been the cry for quite some time.
"Of course there's some people in the central attendance area who may not necessarily totally agree, but by and large I think most people see that the world is so diversified that we need a diversified situation in all of our schools. ... For us to function at a higher level of achievement, it's still something that needs to be done."
And there is another consequence of schools that are not functioning well -- especially when potential new employers come to call.
"When industry considers coming here, one of the things that we're concerned about, (is they) have a tendency not to move into the Goldsboro area," he said. "That is inappropriate. That's a perception and that keeps things from happening like they should."
But to suggest that dwindling enrollment at some of the central attendance schools is the culprit, without taking some sort of action, creates the impression "that we're waiting for something to happen on its own," Evans said.
"I'm not sure I appreciate that concept. The leadership in Wayne County needs to come to recognize what's going to be best for the future of Wayne County, not just let it happen on its own."
Progress, like solutions, takes time and planning, Evans said.
"Some efforts have been made in that area," he said. "Somebody's got to be open to potential suggestions and make recommendations of what can be done."
One of the glaring reasons that perception is such a tough area, he added, is that the feeling usually originates with people who aren't even in the school system, or privy to what's really going on behind the scenes.
"It's amazing how people know more about certain things, and they're not a part of it," he said.
For Bud Gray, chairman of the county commission, the district is doing much better than it was.
"Our schools are improving, I think they're trying," he said. "Our main concern is graduation. If they don't graduate, a lot of them wind up in prison and then the county has to take care of them."
Conversely, there are still some who can afford to transfer their children to other schools like Rosewood or Eastern Wayne, Gray said. And that's "what hurts the central attendance area, I think," he said.
Overall, however, public perception seems to be improving, Gray said.
"I think they're doing a lot better than has been in the past. Of course, I think we have helped a lot with that, providing funds for different things, such as the graduation coach. I think it's going to work. A mentoring program is what we need.
"I have been proud of our board because anything that they can do, they don't mind spending money if it will help. We'll put up the money there, and this board has been good for that."
Dr. Kay Albertson, president of Wayne Community College, sees the outcomes more clearly than most. By the time many of the students reach WCC, some of the problems are evident -- students who cannot read for information, or with other learning deficiencies.
"One of the things that we know that we have got to do better is help the Wayne County Public Schools get prepared for those placement assessments, that they have got to take no matter where they go to college," she said. "Many times students that we get from WCPS -- and that's about 38 percent that come immediately to us -- they don't always know the importance of those preparations.
"What we see as they're coming in, they're not as prepared as they might be and they don't do as well and therefore, they have to take remedial courses. When students have to take remedial courses from the gate, they're not into the core curriculum as quickly. They may get frustrated, not do as well."
Efforts such as the graduation coach at Goldsboro High School are a "huge step" in the right direction, she said. But is it enough? "Obviously, it's not enough," she said.
"It's a pilot and for this pilot to be a success, I think it will indicate to the community at large how important it is, that sometimes you have those areas that are important to the system," she said. "We can't change years and years of deficit."
One of the glaring deficits, she suggests, is the socioeconomic climate.
"There's still those pockets that it's going to take longer and more specialized attention to get those kids where they need to be and do as well as the other cohort groups," Dr. Albertson said.
Another challenge faced at the college level is the greater percentage of students being identified with "learning differences," she said.
"That's a hard challenge when you're dealing with 15 percent, and it's probably more than that, that have some kind of learning difference. That requires specialized services. But it's not enough to get specialized services. They have got to get the consistency of the home environment."
Education matters, she said, and that means getting students to complete high school, especially some of the young teen mothers.
"That's a socioeconomic problem that we can't control," she said. "You take them where you get them and you move them as best as you can move them."
It's not even about having innovative resources, however. Sometimes it's about the time and commitment, and certainly the school district is willing, Dr. Albertson said.
"I believe with all my heart that Wayne County Public Schools, the Chamber of Commerce and other non-profits, we're all trying to step up to the plate and assist with this," she said. "When you're faced, as the public school is, with all these external things, requiring this test and that test, lots of time has to be spent teaching to those kinds of things rather than the more creative or application thinking.
"I think they know that and I think they recognize that they're going to have to do something different in the classrooms. ... It needs to be the right assessment tools."