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NHC school board debates learning loss, academic calendar, and transgender athlete policy

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This shows the district's learning loss between the 2018-2019 school year and 2021-2022

The board also discussed their parliamentary procedures, the district's school accountability scores, and the upcoming school year calendars.

The meeting began with Chair Stephanie Kraybill discussing the way in which the board conducts its meetings. She said she wanted to clarify parliamentary procedure as outlined in Robert’s Rules of Order and for the board to agree on the rules for the agenda and time limits for discussion.

Kraybill said she wanted these rules in place before the “new” chair takes their seat. But members Hugh McManus and Vice Chair Stephanie Walker said they didn’t want to discuss changes until the new member(s) arrive in December.

Kraybill said she just wanted the board to abide by its own rules, as they have not “been good at following them.” Member Judy Justice said she doesn’t think the members go too far over time and if they do, they’re “doing the public’s business.”

Kraybill said when she tries to move the agenda along, Justice gives “her looks,” and said she wanted everyone to be on the same page when it comes to expectations for the board’s discussions.

Superintendent's report

When it came time for Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust to give his report, he said he’s visited all of the district’s 45 schools and had met with all the principals. He said his main focuses are currently addressing learning loss and updating the district’s mission and vision statements.

Foust also announced the district will give up to $3,600 in incentives, up to two installments of $1,800, for bus drivers. He said he’s still working out the details of these payments.

District spokesperson Russell Clark said the funding would be used for “attendance bonuses with the money coming from the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).”

Tammy Wilson, a district employee and parent, who works in transportation, came to the ‘Call to the Audience’ to ask Foust to choose a good leader for the next permanent director of the transportation department, as Deb Trafton is currently serving as interim.

Wilson also used her time to talk about student misbehavior at Hoggard High School and the rate of teacher turnover at that school.

Student academic achievement discussion

Elizabeth Murray is the district’s director of testing and accountability and presented information on the school system’s annual accountability report.

Overall, Murray touted the district’s graduation rate, now at 89% compared to the state average of 86%. She also said New Hanover County Schools still has top performances on standardized tests in comparison to other districts around the state.

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Comparison of the district's tests scores to that of the state's.

But Murray said that the district is not using the post-pandemic academic data from the 2021-2022 school year as a baseline for growth on their strategic plan. They’re using the data from 2018-2019 for this purpose.

The previous school year’s data, according to Murray, only shows students’ significant learning loss. But she said they are using this data to inform how the district intends to recover from this loss.

In particular, students are struggling in Math 1, which is typically freshman math. She said, this subject, “took a hard hit,” because students are coming into high school without foundational knowledge, which then puts additional strain on teachers to catch them up.

Lo DeWalt is the director of curriculum and instruction. She also spoke during this discussion on school accountability and said there is an increased focus on Math 1.

As a result, DeWalt said they’ve implemented common planning periods across the four area high schools and teachers can use their ‘flex’ or ‘free’ period to work on this content with students.

Additionally, the district will provide a Math 1 “boot camp” for any rising 9th graders — and they’ve also adopted common curriculum resources for this subject, so there’s more consistency among the district’s students.

However, Murray did say that math is recovering at a faster rate than some of the district’s reading scores.

These school accountability grades given by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) are driven by the state’s 2017 adoption of the federal “Every Student Succeeds Act'' (ESSA) model, a change from No Child Left Behind.

Based on the ESSA model, schools are graded on academic achievement on standardized tests, which accounts for 80% of the grade, and on student growth, which accounts for the rest.

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How the accountability scores are calculated.

Murray mentioned that NCDPI is currently re-evaluating this grading system and state superintendent Catherine Truitt is asking for educator and community feedback on what factors schools should be graded on.

Murray also chose to highlight to the board that over 65% of New Hanover County Schools educators met or exceeded the expectation for student growth last year.

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These student growth models are based on the Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) developed by the SAS software company.

Board member Pete Wildeboer asked if Murray could briefly describe this tool. She said that students have a beginning assessment, then an ending one, so it measures the difference or ‘growth’ from the start to finish as a result of the teacher’s instruction.

Murray said she thought the media didn’t portray accurately which schools grew and which ones did not. She highlighted that six of the district’s schools did exceed growth: Sunset Park Elementary, Eaton Elementary, Murray Middle, Bellamy Elementary, Sea Tech High, and Castle Hayne Elementary.

Walker asked Murray if the EVAAS system track when students leave certain teachers? Murray said the tool does denote this.

Wildeboer reiterated Murray’s earlier point that it might take about three to five years to make up for the learning loss that occurred, and said that since these accountability models mainly focus on core subject areas the district should emphasize those, especially reading and math.

Foust said during this exchange with Wildeboer that these core subjects are important, but so are other things to students such as the arts and athletics. He said they are going to focus on improving these scores but that students do need breaks and the opportunity for their minds to recover through creative outlets.

Board member Hugh McManus said he was still concerned about the state’s accountability scores for the district’s schools. For example, he said he commends the exceeded growth of Sunset Park, but they still received a ‘D’ score. He asked Foust, “It’s still low, what can we do differently?”

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The district's accountability grades are compared to the state average.

Foust said the reality is that kids come to school at all different levels, and that “it is a long road to travel, and there is no magic wand.” He also described that the state understands, through algorithms like EVAAS, their preliminary academic level at the start of the school year, so if a student starts at Level 1 and moves to Level 2 on a 4-point scale, then that’s on the path towards improvement.

McManus responded that if the student is still low performing at the end of the year, then they tend to be passed along to the next teacher which affects their scores.

Foust said the district intends to give educators additional professional development and support, including giving them solid feedback. But McManus said, “I think the teachers are killing themselves to do everything they can.”

DeWalt said she’s focusing on teachers using proven methods to improve academic achievement such as increased time talking about content, setting clear academic goals, and using strong visual support tools.

She praised the district’s LETRs training for the improvement in 3rd-grade reading scores, although, this professional development was named as an additional stress for some educators on the December 2021 staff climate survey.

Justice did ask DeWalt if this professional development is becoming too much for teachers, as they are being “stretched too thin” with all the demands on them. DeWalt responded that the district is trying to be strategic with these offerings during work days.

Other board items: next year’s calendars and the resurfacing of the transgender middle school sports policy 

Dr. Patrice Faison, chief academic officer for the district, presented two high school calendar options for the board to review. These options came out of the calendar committee’s recent recommendations.

One of the calendars has the school year starting on August 28 and ending on June 5. This option has more “balanced semesters” but ends the first one after the winter holidays.

The other option would start on August 21, requiring the district to get a waiver from the state to start earlier, and would end on May 24. This option, the one preferred by the committee, would have the first semester ending before the holiday season.

The board members decided they needed more time to think about the options for these calendars and would likely vote on it at their next meeting.

The board also voted to amend some of the district’s policies. They all passed unanimously except for the update to policy 3620. Wildeboer asked to pull this one because he said he’s still uncomfortable with the following paragraph:

“A student participating in middle school athletics can participate on the team consistent with their gender identity. Athletic participation consistent with a student’s gender identity in middle school does not guarantee high school interscholastic athletic participation based on the student’s gender identity.”

This policy was originally passed in the summer of 2021, but Wildeboer said that New Hanover is the only county in the state that has this policy — and that it’s a “bad situation” because transgender athletes can participate in middle school but not necessarily at the high school level.

The policy update passed 5 to 2, with Wildeboer and McManus dissenting.

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