EDUCATION: School board talks Head of Class, academics

Nov. 13, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

The Lee County Education Foundation made a large step forward in local education through its Head of Class project, the Lee County Board of Education declared Tuesday — and that was only the start.

The foundation’s Head of Class project bestows $50,000 on the entire staff of the school which is judged to be the best school in the county through a mixture of both test scores and the amount of low-income students at the school. That formula is perhaps unique in the entire country, and when the project began in 2010 it brought former governors and education experts — including a former U.S. Secretary of Education — to Deep River Elementary School speaking in praise of the program.

Dr. Lynn Smith, chairman of the school board, said having all those dignitaries in Lee County praising the foundation was well deserved for a program which could be emulated nationwide as a more realistic form of doling out merit-based pay.

For that work, the group was honored Tuesday night at the school board’s monthly meeting in advance of a North Carolina School Boards Association (NCSBA) meeting later this month. The education foundation was awarded placement on the NCSBA’s honor roll for business and non-profit groups which have helped public education in North Carolina.

The school board also heard presentations about academics. Superintendent Andy Bryan said the district's recently released test scores have spurred conversations about how to best improve teaching methods, and Carol Chappell, the district's director of K-5 instruction, updated the board on new state law which requires a stronger focus on early childhood reading.

Multiple times a year, Chappell said, students must read a passage out loud and then answer questions about it, and teachers will then grade them on a scale of 1-10, with 7 being the cut-off for grade level. If a student is below grade level, parents must be notified and a personal education plan will be created for the student.

“I think this will give parents info they never had before, not this specific,” Chappell said. “I think it’ll also get parents more involved at home. They’ve got to be reading to them.”

The state will also now require all children who can’t read at grade level by the end of third grade to attend summer school for reading-intensive classes. Students won’t be held back, though, even if they don’t improve after summer school.

School Board Vice Chairman Mark Akinosho asked if teachers like these changes. Chappell said reception has been mixed, with some teachers worried that more and more required tests are pushing into instructional time. Akinosho then asked about separating struggling students into groups, so they wouldn’t have to face being embarrassed by stronger readers in class. Similarly, board member John Bonardi asked if it would be sensible to group the worst students with the best teachers; Bryan said it might be a better idea to use tutors or teaching assistants.

“We’d have to really look at it to see if we could make a determination about students and what they need,” Bryan said, adding that he's also considering a summer program for struggling second graders in Lee County.

Akinosho said Bonardi could be onto something, although Wendy Carlyle, a fellow board member, interrupted to say she was against tracking students by ability instead of by age as is done now — especially since having the best teachers only focused on the worst students would unfairly punish good students.

“Children on both ends of the spectrum need master teachers,” she said.

Bonardi, though, said he thought it was still worth considering since many of the struggling students might have parents who also don’t read at a third grade level. Since they're not going to get help at home like their more advanced classmates might, he said, why not give them the best help possible in the classroom?

“It won’t level the playing field, but it will help,” Bonardi said.

Bryan said a new literacy committee made up of Chappell, Director of Secondary Education Tina Poltrock and Director of Special Programs Lyn Warren will be looking into many possibilities related to reading instruction from Pre-K to 12th grade, and that the school board will be receiving reports soon.

Earlier in the meeting, the board also heard presentations from a Lee Early College science teacher and a group of science teachers and students from Lee County High School who talked about a new teaching method called modeling that is used to teach science.

The students said they liked the more collaborative nature of the work, and the teachers also said they hope this method stays in place Stephen Roman, a Lee Senior science teacher, said it makes the information more interesting and relevant to students while also making them more accountable for their own education.