03/18/10 — What about reform for Wayne schools?

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What about reform for Wayne schools?

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 18, 2010 1:46 PM

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Kim Kemp, teacher in the Wee Wings preschool program, reads with students Isabelle Wellman and Christian Stephenson, both 4, this morning. Wayne County Public Schools was able to add a second bus to the traveling preschool last year, when county commissioners funded the expansion. Early childhood education is one of the priorities county school board chairman Rick Pridgen says will be critical to student success.

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Rick Pridgen

Whenever he hears a parent argue that his or her child has too much homework, Wayne County School Board Chairman Rick Pridgen cringes a little inside.

That's because he knows that unless American students buckle down they can never expect to compete with students from countries with stronger stances on educating their youth.

"I hear parents say all the time kids go to school too much, that they have got a rigorous course of study. But if you want to compete, you have got children in India, children in China, by the time they graduate from high school they have got two-and-a-half to three years more education than our children. They're the ones that are getting the jobs, coming over to our colleges and surpassing us," Pridgen said in a recent interview.

President Barack Obama has weighed in on America's need to improve its education system. He recently outlined a plan to toughen standards.

But closing schools or taking other drastic measures -- such as firing principals or closing some schools -- to comply with President Barack Obama's plan for educational reform is not something Pridgen wants to see happen.

He said the bar is constantly being raised in the competition for jobs in a global marketplace, and he questioned whether the president's plan will go far enough toward raising American students' ability to compete.

Pridgen said he fears the trade-off might be losing sight of the proficiency standards and academic standards.

"Overall, what I captured most from the (president's) speech, it's more about reform than anything else, being able to identify the problems and being able to better solve them," he said. "But I do have concerns about the lowering of academic standards.

"We prepare students fantastically -- doing an excellent job in a certain career field -- but when they can't balance a checkbook, they can't read a bank statement, that's a concern."

Pridgen said it is too early to speculate, since the plan has not been officially explained in detail, but from his research, he said he can't help but wonder how other states will handle reform.

With speculation about phasing out No Child Left Behind, what measuring stick will be in place to monitor progress, he wonders.

"There's a lot about No Child Left Behind I don't like, but we have finally found a way to fit No Child Left Behind and North Carolina's ABCs accountability together," Pridgen said. "I'm concerned whether this new plan is going to be lowering the academics standards we're already holding ourselves to."

Pridgen said the key will always be parental involvement.

"I'm convinced that a solution to the dropout problem is getting more parents involved. Obama's talking about getting the parents engaged. That's one of the reasons why we have moved toward, and thank God the commissioners bought into it, the Wee Wings buses. We're able to identify areas where children are not able to get as much help."

The buses provide youngsters with a school experience without being bused to a campus.

The school board has long embraced the notion of "front-end loading" students, getting them the resources and tools needed as early possible, Pridgen said.

"We as a community, we can't make parents parent," Pridgen said. "We have got to find a way to make them accountable, but we can't make them parent."

Wee Wings is one way to combat lack of preparation, Pridgen said. He said he hopes Congress will support funding more pre-kindergarten programs like it.

Year-round schools are another matter.

Pridgen said he is uncertain whether the state will buy into that.

"We already had the tourism industry involved in the school calendar, which I think is wrong, and I don't think the tourism department should dictate what's going on in the school system," he said. "I'm not opposed personally to year-round schools if we had turnaround schools. I think it would benefit students to be in year-round in that they would have less time in between semesters or quarters."

The bigger issue will be whether, and how much, the federal government involves itself in local education.

According to the plan, much could change -- from how individual schools are run to the way they are funded.

"My concern is this -- No Child Left Behind is in many cases the largest unfunded federal mandate that I have ever seen in my life," Pridgen said. "We have already got a problem with Pell grants and student loans not being paid back. Where's the money going to come from? Is Congress going to approve?

"I'm unclear on the teacher pay. (Obama) said he wants more board-certified teachers and wants to base their pay on student performance." The question that raises, Pridgen said, is how to measure students' academic success, both internally and against other counties and other states.

"How are you going to get uniform with this program to say that Goldsboro or Wayne County Schools pay teachers on this academic performance, and are Johnston County or Wilson County paying by the same standard?"

States like Texas and Alaska have already chosen not to take the federal money, Pridgen said. But they also have money from oil reserves they can turn to.

Pridgen said the Wayne district is already looking at how money comes into the school system, and has long struggled with being able to find the tax infrastructure to offset a teacher shortage and pay teachers better supplements.

Obama also talked about teacher tenure and getting rid of poor teachers. Pridgen said he would like to know how that will work.

"My question is, 'How's Obama going to enforce this? Is he going to be able to do this in the state's education process?' Eighty-four to 86 percent of our money comes from the state. You have got about 9 to 11 percent in federal funds that come into school systems in general. The rest is made up by the county commissioners, so basically education has always been in the hands of the state but the federal government's been getting more involved.

"Is this a massive plan to switch the emphasis in the states to the federal government over time or is it still going to be the state has a lot of play in that?"

Pridgen said school officials can only try to stay abreast of developments in Washington.

In anticipation of some possible funding available to the state, the school board in January adopted a resolution to access momey from one such program, called Race to the Top. The $4 billion fund created under 2009's Ameri-can Recovery and Reinvest-ment Act would provide stimulus money to make reforms to improve graduation and college enrollment rates. Wayne County stands to get $3.2 million for the four-year period if the state is one of those selected.

Of course, there would also be conditions, namely complying with one of four proposals -- turnaround model, restart model, school closure model or transformation model.

Again, there is mention of the word "closure" as it relates to a school.

"There was some talk, if you were to close a school like Goldsboro High School, you might have to wait six months to reopen it. I'm not sure we would be interested," Pridgen said. "That right now is not an option for us because we really don't have the space at the schools to put all the kids at GHS."

Pridgen said he could not speculate on which model would be followed, or whether the district would have a choice.

"We already agreed through the resolution that we need to participate in the funds and take advantage of them," he said. "Not having all the details, it's very hard to decide which model we would follow."

Locally, there might be some input into the process but Pridgen said he was uncertain just how much. The state Department of Public Instruction likely will have final approval. At this point, it's all moot, he said, until the state learns whether funding is forthcoming.

"I think there's a lot of possibilities, a lot of good possibilities, but I'm not sure it will trickle down and get to this level," he said. "I would imagine if (GHS) were closed for some reason, naturally the students there would have to be split up between two or three schools because there's no high school that we have got that would have room to accommodate all the students.

"The state could come down here and say, 'If you want the money, here's your two options' and dictate what we do. We're just weighing out what's the best way to go (and) how do we feel we could be the most effective with that and go at it from there."