01/22/12 — Wayne County Public Schools hope for better economy

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Wayne County Public Schools hope for better economy

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 22, 2012 1:50 AM

No matter how tough things get for the public schools, Dr. Steven Taylor, schools superintendent, tries to remain upbeat.

It sets the tone, he said.

"Being in a leadership position, we have to remain positive," he said.

Whether it's the economy, budget cuts and unfunded mandates from the state, or reversions that have resulted in the district leaving positions unfilled, Taylor said there will always be challenges. But there are also reasons to rejoice.

Wayne County Public Schools is the second largest employer in the county, the 20th largest district in the state.

And it has actually fared well, he said.

"I give our teachers and staff, support staff, a lot of credit," he said. "We looked at their test results last year. We pretty much maintained, and if you look at AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) results of last year, we ranked second among the largest districts in the state and first within those counties within a two-county radius.

"We feel good about where we are. Obviously, we're never satisfied and want to improve and move beyond that. In spite of the reduction in personnel, our staff, teachers and support staff have worked very hard to try to make all those benchmarks that we have at the state and federal level."

While 2012 just started, it is the mid-year point for the school system, which operates on a fiscal year schedule.

The biggest drawback, of course, continues to be the budget.

"I went back and looked up the numbers," Taylor said. "In 2008-09, we reverted about $760,000 (to the state). Now we're up to $5.6 million. In 2011-12, unless there's some change, we're expecting to cut even more, have more discretionary cuts for the coming year."

The economic situation is tough everywhere, he said, and everyone has to share in the burden.

Taylor's position has always been to make every effort to maintain programs and protect jobs.

"But that doesn't mean that we haven't had positions lost, through attrition and people retiring," he said. "We're about 135 down cumulatively since 2009.

"When you cut personnel, you cut services to children. ... When you have less people, more people have to shoulder the responsibility. I'm very proud of (our staff), their commitment to the highest achievement of students."

Graduation rates also remain a concern. The county's cohort graduation rate -- students graduating within four years -- is up slightly from the previous year, from 73.6 percent to 74.6 percent. Wayne Early/Middle College High School had a 100 percent rate.

Part of the problem with the cohort model, Taylor said, is the challenge of completing high school within that time frame.

"We're still concerned with those variables that count against us because it lowers our rate," he said. "We know that some may not finish in four years. There's a lot of circumstances that dictate it. But the point is we want them to graduate and our focus is to help them graduate from high school and get that high school diploma. Our job is to help them graduate on time and be prepared to get to college, into the military or into the workforce. I think we do a decent job of doing that.

"Every year when I look at the amount of scholarships, renewable aid that students receive, I think that's a testament to the hard work of our teachers and staff, support staff. And then we're always pleased to hear of the success of our students. Over 80 percent of our kids do go to college. I think that's a pretty good statistic."

Taylor said he has been impressed with programs like the CRC, or Career Readiness Certificate, used by employers to assess a person's trainability for a job or promotion.

"Right now the eastern region is No. 1 in the state -- 60 percent of the CRCs completed have been completed by the schools," he noted. "We have been very pleased to partner with business and industry as well as Wayne Community College to make that a reality. We certainly want to do well, but also to demonstrate that our students are work-ready."

Efforts are also made to assist educators, Taylor said, from providing staff development to cope with curriculum updates, which are scheduled to be completed by next fall, to ensuring beginning teachers receive the support needed to remain in the profession.

"I want parents to understand that if we have got some teachers that are developing, we will certainly work with our teachers, through our principals, teachers, learning coaches, providing the resources (they need)," he said. "We certainly want highly qualified teachers working with our students because that's going to impact student scores.

"Our job is to provide our students with the very best teachers that we can find but at the same time, we have a very effective beginning teacher program. I think it's second to none because our teacher learning coaches, they're assigned all the teachers in (their) first three years."

He continues to advocate for the public to become more involved in the schools, whether or not they have a child in the district. "Caring Friends" mentoring program, introduced over the past year, has afforded the community a great opportunity to serve, working with an individual or group of students as a role model.

"I think key to our success, whether it's in the middle of the school year, beginning of the year, is always parental involvement," he said. "We want to encourage our parents to be involved at all levels.

"We need parent involvement from pre-K to K-12, the whole spectrum because we know that an involved parent is going to equate into a successful child."

Something else that might help would be the ability to change the school calendar.

"We would like to have a calendar in which we could start earlier and finish our first semester at Christmas," he said. "We don't like the scenario where our kids go home at Christmas, come back and have tests."

That dynamic, he said, affects test scores in a negative way.

"We're hoping that legislation will be changed to help us with that," he said. "But right now I don't know. There's been some discussion about it."

He remains optimistic that the economic tide will turn, the state will end up with a balanced budget and school districts will be able to fund programs and move forward with construction projects.

Wayne County is among the fortunate, he noted, thanks to successful collaborative efforts with the Chamber, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and even the funding entity, the county commission.

"I understand their challenges," he said of the latter. "They have the same challenges that we have.

"I appreciate that, while we haven't gotten increases in recent years, they have maintained funding, they have not decreased our allocations at the local level for several years."

Status quo might work when it comes to maintaining funding, he said, but not as it relates to the ultimate "product" of a school system -- successful students.

"I always tell people we cannot recycle children," Taylor said. "We have to get it right the first time."

To that end, he said he strives to provide the best level of service to help students do well.

"That's our focus, that's what we're about and that's what we're going to do."

One of his main goals for the foreseeable future is that patience will pay off and the economic climate will improve.

"The recovery has been slow but our hope is that maybe we're turning the corner a little bit," he said. "We're hoping that the cuts will not continue to go up, that it will level out, that some of the pots will be replenished that have been taken away.

"You do the best you can with resources that you have and that's what we have tried to do. But it's getting more difficult. ... I'm hoping if the economy does turn around, pick up and improve, that there'll be an opportunity to discuss some of the facilities needs."