ELIZABETHTOWN — North Carolina spends almost half of its $22 billion budget educating the 1.07 million children that attend its public schools. It’s no wonder then, that, as the overwhelming choice for Bladen County residents, the public school system elicits strong opinions.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about our school system is that we’re on the verge of being taken over by the state,” said Bladen County Schools Superintendent Robert Taylor. “I’ll dispel that rumor right now. The only district the Board of Education has engaged in direct governance of is Halifax. Our district is nowhere near being taken over by the state.
“What I heard was that we were one point away,” he added. “If that were the case, where is this number scale? I know of no such thing. That’s the kind of thing that’s put out there that’s totally untrue — it’s not even a possibility.”
Such misunderstandings may have arisen because of the system’s status, attributed by the State Board of Education, of low performing.
“One thing people need to understand about that distinction is the new accountability system we have in place as a state,” explained Taylor.
Prior to the new system, 18 schools across the state had been identified as low performing. After the implementation of the new standard, the number jumped to 840 statewide.
Likely, people assume the jump is attributed to raising the standard of education, and a low-performing label indicates a system’s inability to meet the new higher standard. Educators knowledgeable about the politics involved in education have speculated, however, that the standard was adjusted because politicians, economic developers, and educators all saw an advantage to having a larger number of schools in the low-performing category. Rather than setting an academic standard for categorizing schools, the state determined how many schools it wanted to label as low-performing and drew the line at the level necessary to accomplish a desirable end goal.
“Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever,” said Taylor, “but if they changed the height of the basketball rim from 10 feet to 11 feet, his numbers would change. His ability hasn’t changed, and he’s not a worse basketball player just because they changed the standard.”
Taylor cited the following as proof of the system’s quality education:
— 210 pre-K students are being taught by certified teachers in a program with a 9:1 student/teacher ratio.
— A graduation rate of 88 percent puts the district above the state average.
— Performance this year brought the system out out of the low-performing status.
— For three years, students have had access to college courses at BCC, UNC-G, and East Carolina. More than 90 percent of the high school students educated in Bladen County pass those college-level courses before graduation, saving parents millions of dollars in college tuition.
— State teacher assistants can get Read to Achieve certification, a statewide program available as a direct result of work produced by Bladen County teacher assistants and central office staff.
— 100 percent of the students enrolled in the nursing program have demonstrated proficiency by passing the exam for the last three years.
— Upon request from the county, the district began, and recently saw its first graduating class from, a Firefighter Academy at both high schools.
— Students graduating from the welding program are going into work making $50,000 annually right out of high school.
— A 1:1 laptop program at the high school level and ipads and computers at all levels give higher-than-state-average access to technology.
— Student performance across the district has increased every year since Taylor came, despite decreasing funds for eight consecutive years.
— Every K-5 student has access to certified art, music, and P.E teachers.
— Through N.C. Virtual Schools, classes aren’t limited by needing a certain number of students at the school to merit a teacher. If just one student, for example, qualifies for Math I (formerly Algebra I) at eighth grade, he or she can take the class through the Virtual School program.
“I would ask anyone to identify any other organization that can offer that kind of service for 5,000 students,” said Taylor. “When you look at our performance as a county, we do quite well and provide opportunities that some counties better off economically don’t provide. I suggest that anyone go to a wealthy district and look at the students from low socioeconomic status and determine how well they are performing.”
Between 75 and 80 percent of Bladen County students qualify for free or reduced lunch based on family income.
“When we have children come to school that haven’t had quality pre-K education or exposure to learning from birth until the time they enter school, there is a severe learning gap between those kids and those who have had exposure,” Taylor said. “The true measure of a school is determined by how well you close that gap.”
Academics aren’t the only reason parents opt for public schools.
“Parents want to see their children participate in extracurricular activities,” speculated Taylor. “That’s why you see so many students whose parents exercise choice K-8 returning to public schools in high school. And through a change in state mandate, we’re now going to be able to offer every sport except football to sixth-graders.”
For at least one family, the pull of the extracurricular was strong.
“We’ve had a child in charter school, in public school, and in private school,” said Pam Bostic, the parent of an eighth-grader at Clarkton School of Discovery. “We chose to go back to public school because of Clarkton School of Discovery and the opportunities there he would not have gotten elsewhere.
“It’s about being a well-rounded student academically and socially and with regard to athletics,” she added. “We came back for Project Challenge, the opportunity for sports in middle school, and electives like the Science Olympiad and Bridge Building. Our son was able to participate in sports while continuing with quality academics — he’ll go into high school with Math I and English I and move right into honors courses and taking classes at BCC.”
Taylor pointed out that so much is going right with the system, in fact, that it gets nods from educators at the state level.
“The state superintendent visited two years ago and made the comment that he didn’t know we were doing all this in Bladen County, and that we needed to tell our story more,” said Taylor. “There’s so much that we do that people don’t know about, and maybe we could do a better job telling our story of how successful we are, but we’re trying to focus our efforts and time on doing good work and providing quality education to students in Bladen County.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.