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NHC school board changes grading and attendance policies, GOP candidates say 'obscene' books should be banned

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Rachel Keith
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WHQR
The New Hanover Count Board of Education meets on July 13, 2022.

On Tuesday, July 13, the New Hanover County School Board voted unanimously to update the district’s grading and attendance policies. This decision comes after teachers voiced their concerns about the lack of student accountability.

Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust started the meeting by giving an update on what’s in the newly passed $29.3 billion state budget for education. For teachers, assistant principals, and instructional staff, the average salary increase is 4.2%. Some teachers and principals will also be receiving bonuses based on student performances on tests given in the 2021-2022 school year. This includes those who teach grades 3-8 math and reading, Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), Advanced International Certification of Education (AICE), and Career and Technical Education (CTE).

Chief Financial Officer Ashley Sutton said she would bring another budget amendment with the new state figures to the board’s next meeting. However, Sutton did ask the board to vote on a budget resolution, which included current state and local funds as of July 12.

The vote was 5 to 2 with members Stephanie Walker and Judy Justice dissenting, citing their previous concerns with the budget, namely the district not giving certified staff like teaching assistants (TAs) the raise they asked for.

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The Board's budget from state and local funds as of July 12th -- this is subject to change with the newly passed state budget.

Foust also said the district is doing its best to fill vacancies. As of now, he’s reporting that they have filled 98% of certified staff positions, and 96% of classified staff positions. Only about 5 schools have 3 or more vacancies — Exceptional Children (EC) and CTE positions take up the majority of those vacancies — and about 20 schools have no vacant positions.

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Foust presented current vacancies in the district. He didn't release which schools have them.

Grading and Attendance Policy Changes

Dr. Patrice Faison, chief academic officer for the district, said she and her team consulted at least 100 teachers to inform the new policies — and said these revisions will be a morale booster for them.

“So the biggest change that the teachers really wanted and advocated for was, our students will get whatever grade they earn. So if I do a project and I get a 45, I get the 45, and if I get the 90, I get the 90. Previously, the teachers were recording a 50 as the bottom grade,” said Faison.

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The former grading scale is crossed out.

But there is a caveat to the policy, if a student is failing in the first marking period, they’ll be put on a probationary contract instead of getting a zero.

“That first half [of a semester], if they are still not successful, we do a grade floor, but we do not do that for the second half. So what that [means] for someone who's not in education, you would never want students sitting in your class for a whole semester and they have no opportunity for success,” said Faison.

And if a student gets put on this academic contract and teachers and staff can’t a hold of a parent or guardian, they’ll need to inform a counselor, social worker, or school administrator. The district also compiled a list of strategies for teachers to use within the contract.

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The academic contract a student would receive if they're failing.

The new attendance policy isn’t really new, but a reversion back to the old one where students could fail if they miss more than 10 days in a specific course. That also has a caveat, if a student has legitimate reasons for missing that much school, they can plead their case to pass to a panel of educators at their school.

Call to Audience, future of seclusion and restraint

After Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill unveiled the district’s new rules of decorum for the audience during board meetings, about ten community members during the ‘Call to Audience’ period asked the board to end seclusions and restraints in the district.

After reviewing the data on the practice in May 2022, Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam said the plan moving forward is for the board to revisit the policy in October after schools finish their individual school improvement plans in September.

“We’re giving schools time to make adjustments, and the goal is for teachers and staff to feel confident in addressing student behavior,” said Varnam.

Varnam also told the board that she had been auditing processes and said that the district “isn’t quite ready” to end the practice.

Additionally, she touted the district’s expanding the work of “Lives in the Balance”, a model of care where adults identify the root causes of concerning behaviors in kids, at 10 schools — and getting more schools trained on “trauma-sensitive” responses to problematic student behavior. The timeline for this training has yet to be announced, according to Varnam, but "it’s in the works," as she recently wrote a grant to give this professional development.

Another theme that emerged from the public’s comments was the banning of certain books in schools. At least eight people said they were upset with District Attorney Ben David’s decision not to pursue charges against the district for these books being present in school libraries, as David said they were protected under the First Amendment and state law which protects public institutions from certain obscenity charges.

Two of those upset with the books were Republican school board candidates Melissa Mason and Pat Bradford.

Mason said the district has books in its libraries that are meant to “hypersexualize and groom children and show contempt for community values.” Mason also accused both the DA and Sheriff’s Office of covering up sexual abuse — and that Dr. Foust is in violation of state law for disseminating “pornographic materials”.

Bradford read a short passage from “All Boys Aren’t Blue," which she said had been available at the Ashley High School library. While she skipped a section she felt was too graphically sexual to read in front of the board she noted that the excerpt described incest. The book, which author George Johnson describes as a "memoir-manifesto" about his experiences growing up queer and Black, is one of the nine books the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office presented to David's office for legal review. The book has been targeted by conservative groups and banned by school boards in at least ten states, according to CBS News; in Flagler County, Florida, a school board member also went to the local Sheriff's Office, claiming the book violated state obscenity laws. Johnson's memoir has also received accolades from Kirkus and The New York Times, and ranked among the top ten young adult books in 2020 by the New York and Chicago public libraries.

A change in the district’s sex education policy

The board voted 6 to 1, with board member Pete Wildeboer dissenting, to update policy 3540, which outlines the district’s comprehensive health and safety programs.

Before the board voted, Faison said this change in policy was a result of “giving parents more choices” in regards to what their children learn about puberty and sexual reproduction.

For students in 5th to 8th grade, parents or guardians will have to ‘opt-in’ or give the district permission to teach their children sex education. The district follows ‘Growth and Life’ puberty education for 5th graders, and for 6th - 8th grade they follow ‘My Life: Choices Today for a Healthy Tomorrow’ or ‘Stepping Stones to Better Living: Responsible Decisions’ curricula.

However, for high school sex education, parents or guardians will have to ‘opt-out’ or explicitly tell the district their children can’t be a part of the instruction. This is what Wildeboer took issue with, arguing that, like middle school parents, high school parents should be able to ‘opt-in’ instead.

Upcoming Town Hall

Next Tuesday, July 19, from 5 to 7 p.m., the board is hosting a two-hour town hall. First, the board members will respond to pre-submitted questions – the form can be submitted here — next they’ll conduct a question and answer session.

Josh Smith, the district’s chief communications officer, and John White, a communications consultant, will be hosting the event. White produced a communications audit back in 2020 for the district and continues to consult with them on their communication strategies.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR