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Turnaround Task Force, Part I: NHC community discussion of low-performing schools

Forest Hills principal Diego Lehocky presented to the Turnaround Task Force on June 21, 2023.
Rachel Keith
WHQR Public Media
Forest Hills principal Diego Lehocky presented to the Turnaround Task Force on June 21, 2023.

The New Hanover County Schools Turnaround Task Force, created to address the district’s 12 lowest-performing schools, met last month and created subcommittees around mental health, community support, school leadership, and early childhood learning.

One way the task force intends to increase performance and growth in the district’s students is by focusing on early childhood development and the possible expansion of pre-K education. Experts often refer to the “first 2,000 days” — the first five and a half years — as the most crucial developmental period for the human brain.

Wilmington City Councilman and task force member Clifford Barnett said at the June meeting, “if we could get some resources where we could help the kids in the first 2,000 days, they'll come to us better prepared.”

Related: The Newsroom: The daunting but doable task of turning New Hanover County’s low-performing schools around

Another task force member, William Buster, also the leader of the New Hanover Community Endowment, agreed with Barnett. He said the endowment is planning to focus on that time period.

“We should make it known that this task force is knowledgeable of the need to improve early learning. We are going to be taking a deep dive into that. [...] The first 2,000 days is a high priority for me. I think the school system should know that we’re trying to prepare children to come ready to learn,” Buster said.

Last school year in New Hanover County, 1,047 three & four-year-olds attended pre-K. There are nine public school sites — and 10 private ones.

Shannon Smiles, New Hanover County Schools Director of Early Childhood Education, said there are still waitlists for the district’s pre-K programs. For four-year-olds, NHCS pre-schools typically have 18 students per class. For three-year-olds, it’s about 16 students per class.

Dr. Thurston Domina of UNC’s School of Education said if the district and the county decide to further invest in early childhood development they need to ensure those gains are carried throughout their primary education.

“What you'll see happen is that students will take these great, great steps at the age of three and four. And then those benefits will fade out as kids move through, so you have to build the structures in elementary school to sustain the gains that you get from early education. But if you have those building blocks in place when students start elementary school that helps enormously,” Domina said.

Educational researchers say improvements in both early childhood education and in the district’s schools can take considerable human capital.

What do schools need?

The task force invited two principals to speak about their schools' needs. Diego Lehocky was one of them. He recently left the helm at Sunset Park to become Forest Hills’ newest principal for the upcoming school year.

Lehocky said about turning around low-performing schools: “It takes a lot of people to do it. And I'm concerned because there are always cuts that seem to come to the schools, and they have fewer people; it's hard to do more with less.”

The district’s Chief Academic Officer Dr. Patrice Faison said her priority is to focus on the principals who run the school building.

“I can throw money all day long at a problem, but if I don't have an expert leader who understands turnaround work, it doesn't matter,” Faison said.

Faison also said she wanted the task force members to think about their responsibilities to the district’s students, outlining what the schools manage such as academics and retaining and recruiting high-quality staff, and what the community can take ownership over things like student mental health, nutrition, and after school programs.

But one of the task force members Dr. Philip Brown, the former chief physician executive of Novant Health, had a different take.

“While we're conceiving of it into two circles, the truth of it is, it's not siloed like that, right?” Brown said.

Faison did say the district is looking for businesses, churches, and non-profits to “Adopt-a-school” — as some schools don’t have the community support they need. To start, they’re looking for these organizations to send volunteers to be first-grade reading buddies. She said she did this at one of her former schools.

“Between the churches, they found all kinds of people who would come and be reading buddies or lunch buddies, and lunch buddies just came and played UNO cards just so the kid has somebody that they can talk to because a lot of our kids, sometimes they don't have people that listen to their day. And that was huge. That was 30 minutes of their day, each week,” Faison said.

Lehocky said it’s important for the community to step in to take on more responsibilities so that the teachers don’t necessarily have to do more. And if a person decides to volunteer, Lehocky said, hopefully, it’s on a consistent basis.

He added that Sunset has historically relied on some local businesses and churches to support his school community, but said there is no official PTA or room parents like some of the more affluent schools have.

But Lehocky said he understands the pressures that some low-income working parents are under.

”They've got two jobs; they're just trying to make it to support their kid, and they trust us to do a good job with them. And they're involved when they can be, as far as those extra things, and I don't judge them, you have to do what you have to do,” he said.

And to further extend this community engagement, New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple said he wanted the task force to find new ways to turn school facilities into community centers.

”And right now, we use our school buildings for less than 1/3 of the day. And they're just sitting there yet we're paying for them for all 24 hours a day. [...] So make better use of those and find different, more creative ways outside of just education so that children become more comfortable going to their school,” Zapple said.

Ongoing discussion of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

The task force continued its discussion of looking into student mental health and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

At this task force meeting, Lehocky said he does see student trauma firsthand.

“It's heartbreaking to hear the things that happened to these kids because you'd be surprised they’re doing as well as they are. DSS, there are so many times where you have to call, and they [the kids] trust the teacher enough or the counselor [...] if they didn't tell them, no one would ever know. We had a couple of cases recently where we just noticed things, you start asking, you find out – and that's part of the teaching, too, that no one talks about is, it's not just well, the ABCD, 123. It’s everything that goes along with that,” he said.

Task force member Scott Whisnant, the former director of government affairs at NHRMC, asked about trauma-informed training for the district’s principals and teachers – and whether there will be a consistent commitment to that.

“There is thetrauma-informed resiliency task force – you can get training for that. The issue with the training is, will it be permanent if you don't follow up and stick with it? It's just a day of your life, you learn something and you move on. So how do we make [school] a safe, appropriate, and trustworthy place?” Whisnant said.

And students who have unresolved trauma can act out at school, which can be hard on teachers and staff.

Christianne May is the principal of Castle Hayne Elementary. In an interview with WHQR, May reflected back some of the issues discussed at the June task force meeting.

She said that all student behavior is a form of communication and that she and her staff try to address maladaptive communication in a more positive way, but it’s still difficult.

“I think one of the things for us, anytime we have students that have severe behaviors, and it happens, is helping the teachers understand that it's okay for them to be upset about it. And let's come together and talk, and what can we do to support you – how can we help you be a shoulder to cry on because not only it is traumatic for the teacher, but it's also traumatic for the other students,” May said.

In January 2022, the district released the results of its climate survey. It found that 41% of staff say they spend too much time disciplining students.

But Lehocky, like May, said they ultimately have to confront those behaviors because it affects the students’ academics.

“So this is a chance where you can change those behaviors around, let them [the students] know ‘you are loved’, ‘you are a good kid’, ‘everything is going to work out.’ But you got to support the teachers as well, because no one wants to get hit or bit or spit at, at work. I mean, that's not what you signed up for. And so, that's why you have that support staff who can take the kids out of that classroom for that short amount of time, and then integrate them back,” Lehocky said.

The next task force meeting is slated for September where its subcommittees are set to present what they’ve accomplished since June.

They’re also planning to conduct a roundtable discussion with some of the district’s principals. The event is slated for sometime in August.

[Disclosure notice: Rob Zapple is a member of the WHQR Board of Directors, which has no editorial role in news production.]


NHCS Community Partnerships & Engagement, Contact: Caleb Price — caleb.price@nhcs.net; 910-254-4280

NHCS Required Steps for Becoming a Volunteer:

1. Read all information contained in this presentation and the NHCS Volunteer Handbook

2. Complete the Volunteer Orientation Assessment with a score of 80% or higher.

3. For level 2 volunteers, complete a Background Check Application in addition to the steps listed above. Background Checks cost $22.50 and are valid for 3 years.

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