2012 CITIZENS OF THE YEAR: Proving Lee County can be at the Head of Class

Jan. 26, 2013 @ 04:30 PM

When they started out, they just wanted to improve local schools. Now, the three who will share the title of The Herald's 2012 Citizen of the Year are talking about putting Lee County on the national radar.

Dennis Wicker, Kirk Bradley and Carol Chappell are being honored for their work with the Lee County Education Foundation — specifically for creating The Head of Class Project, a privately funded merit-pay system for local public elementary schools that could possibly have the rest of the state, or even the nation, following in Lee County's footsteps.

"It's healthy competition," Wicker, a former lieutenant governor and Lee County’s most famous native son, said in an interview at Greenwood Elementary School, the most recent Head of Class winner. "It's where the business community and leaders can directly influence the classroom without interfering with the teachers. And that's the point."

The honorees were quick to acknowledge the local officials and their fellow foundation members who helped set it in motion, but it was these three who were the most instrumental in creating the groundbreaking program. Wicker came up with the idea; Chappell, the director of K-5 instruction in Lee County Schools and first cousin with Wicker, had the knowledge and skills to work out the specifics, and Bradley, a wealthy investor and real estate developer as well as former chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, brought the business sense it needed to exist well into the future.

The project actually kicked off in 2011, but 2012 marked its ascension to increased prominence. Wicker pitched it to a crowd of dozens of policy makers and legislators at a meeting of the James B. Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, and it served as the model for recommendations an education lobbying committee sent to the N.C. General Assembly.

But most importantly, say the trio of honorees, the project has led to immediate gains in student performance and staff morale. The goal of the foundation, now in its 10th year as a public/private partnership with the schools, has always been to enhance the experiences of children in the classroom. Head of Class, they say, allowed them to do just that by giving a $50,000 prize each year to the elementary school whose students perform the best, an honor which is judged by overall test scores, year-by-year growth, the percent of students considered economically (and thus educationally) disadvantaged and other factors.

An example of the kind of growth it can cause: The foundation did a preliminary study in 2010 and found that B.T. Bullock Elementary School would have placed last. When the group visited schools to talk about Head of Class, someone let the folks at Bullock know about their standing. When the program began the next year, Bullock won.

According to state data, the amount of Bullock students passing both the reading and math standardized tests jumped from 59.6 percent to 64.4 percent in that year. That same statistic for economically disadvantaged students went from 48.2 to 57 percent, and from 29.6 to 40.6 percent for students whose first language isn’t English. In 2012, all of those numbers went up again, but not by enough to stave off the competition from other improving schools.

The history of the Lee County Education Foundation can be divided pre-Head of Class and post-Head of Class. Wicker compared those early years, when the group gave out about $200,000 but with no pattern or long-term planning, to the Biblical story of Moses wandering the desert. By extending that analogy, Head of Class is the Promised Land.

When a school wins, every employee — from janitors to the principal — gets a cut of the $50,000, and everyone at the same pay grade gets the same cut. There can be no differentiation between teachers’ bonues, for example, based on their individual classes' scores or an administrator’s opinion. Each level is treated as a team of equals working as part of a larger team.

"Educators have a hard time with incentives, culturally," Bradley said. "But by rewarding the whole unit, we found acceptance."

Chappell said educators also bought in because it weighted test scores with the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, a common benchmark for measuring poverty in schools. She said it’s the only incentive program in the country to use such a model, despite widespread acknowledgment that there's an achievement gap between students who receive those discounted meals and those who don't.

"I think that was the key to teachers believing it's fair," she said, noting that in the official state system, "... It was only the schools with low poverty that were getting recognized."

About two-thirds of students in Lee County are considered disadvantaged. That presents a challenge for teachers, as well as fund raisers. The foundation has an endowment of about $1 million, which Bradley said is a healthy amount to be able to guarantee the program’s survival. And while it wasn’t easy getting that much money from donors in a struggling economy, he said the effort was worth it.

“It’s been one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been a part of, making this model that could be adopted nationally,” he said.

All three also mentioned the deep feeling of accomplishment they got when, at Greenwood last fall, the unveiling of the large cardboard check for $50,000 was met by a loud gasp from the assembled students. Chappell, Wicker and Bradley all agreed that they thought that gasp was more out of pride for themselves and their teachers than about the money itself.

And when asked why this program was able not to just exist in Lee County, but to start here, they had two reasons:

The economy was a factor, Bradley said, because community leaders know Lee County has had one of the highest unemployment rates in the state for years, and they realize the link between education and career options. He noted that Lee County voters passed a quarter-cent sales tax increase for the schools during the recession, and by a wide margin.

Wicker said there’s also a more ingrained reason why an experimental and expensive program such as this was able to take flight in a small, rural county.

“We’re builders,” he said, pausing emphatically. “If you look at our history in Lee County, we like to build things. I think this reflects that desire to create something, or to fix something when it needs to be fixed.”