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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Turnaround Task Force, Part II: What principals need to be successful

 NHCS compilation of results from principals' needs assessment -- reasons why their schools are low-performing. sic [Student trauma]
NHCS compilation of results from principals' needs assessment. sic [Student trauma]

During the first New Hanover County Schools Turnaround Task Force meeting, district officials said that principal leadership is one of the biggest factors in achieving growth on end-of-year tests.

Educational researchers say that number one, the biggest impact on student growth is teacher quality, followed behind that is principal leadership.

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

Leadership and culture

Diego Lehocky has been the elementary school principal of Sunset Park for the last seven years. He attributes the success he’s achieved at Sunset to the teachers and staff inside his building — so keeping them in the profession is a high priority.

“It sounds like a cliche, but it is like a family [...] And you have to care about them as people, too. They’re teachers, that is their number one job, but really, they're also a mother and a father and a son and a daughter [...] You want them to succeed. If they're struggling, you try to help them,” Lehocky said.

He said he tries to limit the amount of extra duties put on his staff.

“The number one thing is that teachers have to be able to perform between 7:50 and 2:30 when the students are in front of them,” Lehocky said.

But there’s still more work to be done; according to the most recent North Carolina Working Conditions Survey, only 26% of Sunset Park staff say “Non-instructional time provided for teachers in my school is sufficient.” And 57% of teachers across the state agree with this statement; for the NHCS district, it’s half of all teachers surveyed.

Lehocky said while he’s gotten his Sunset Park students to grow on end-of-year standardized tests, there are still considerable needs among his student population that teachers and staff have to meet.

One of those needs is Spanish-speaking staff. Half of Sunset’s student population speaks Spanish as their first language. Lehocky speaks it fluently.

“I was fortunate my mom's from Spain; I spoke Spanish before I spoke English. So I help in that respect, but there's only so much I can do. It's hard to find employees that speak Spanish that are willing to work for the school system because of the low pay,” Lehocky said.

Christianne May is the principal at Castle Hayne Elementary. She said this is a need, too. She only has one staff member who speaks Spanish — but a quarter of her students are Spanish-speaking.

But despite these challenges, Lehocky and May remain focused on helping their staff.

“I just believe that if I pour into the teachers, then they can pour into the students. If they feel supported, if they feel like that I've got their back, then I think that helps them have a little bit more confidence in their own decision-making,” May said.

Aaron Livengood, the principal of Blair Elementary, agrees, saying the job is about being a leader the staff can rely on. He recently spoke to the district’s Turnaround Task Force on principal leadership.

“Teachers are gonna work harder if they feel valued, and you got to empower the people in your building. [...] You definitely had to have that sense of community – and teachers have to trust you. If they don't trust you, they're gonna work hard for themselves, but I don't know if they're gonna work harder for the betterment of the building,” Livengood said.

These three principals also said that engaging their school families contributes to a positive school climate.

For May, it’s about the teachers just asking how the students are doing.

“Our teachers start the day every day with a morning meeting. And that is a critical time for them to connect with students for them to get the pulse of a classroom, get the pulse of what's happened the night before, over the course of the weekend. My teachers make a very, very solid effort to get to know families, and the dynamics of families, and what's happening outside of school in their students' lives,” May said.

Academic achievement

Besides building a positive climate, researchers also say focusing on academic achievement improves student growth and behavior.

Livengood said that last school year, they paid for two days of substitutes so that the teachers at Blair could review their testing data — and make plans on how to support students who were not improving.

“Everybody's data – grade level, school, teacher’s [name], it's all laid out. Because I feel like the only way we can move forward is to be completely transparent. How can you have an honest conversation about moving a building forward if nobody knows what everybody else's data is?” Livengood said.

According to preliminary testing scores, which are currently embargoed, this worked — his school had some significant gains.

Shifting limited resources

While Lehocky has had success at Sunset Park, he’s now moving to Forest Hills to become their next principal for the 2023-2024 school year.

Lehocky said of the move, “It's a real restart button for that school, and they deserve it. I just think about the kids, those kids deserve the best education they can get. And for whatever reason, it's not showing up on paper, but I think that's gonna change rather quickly.”

During the June 21 task force meeting, member Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, asked why Lehocky would leave Sunset Park after his success there.

He responded that it’s really the teachers that make Sunset Park, not him, and said the school will get a good candidate because of the reputation that he and the staff have built over the last seven years. (Just recently, the district named Joseph Pazar as the new principal of Sunset Park. He moved from Reno, Nevada to take the position.)

Dr. Lam Pham, an assistant professor at NC State University’s College of Education, said he’s come across this phenomenon in his research in terms of shifting teachers and staff around the district. Lehocky is taking some of his teachers and staff with him to Forest Hills.

“When a low-performing school recruits a highly effective teacher, that teacher often comes from another low-performing school that's nearby, that doesn't have the label, but it's still low performing in many of the similar metrics. And so the idea of, are we taking from some schools in order to support specific schools? And are we just shifting limited resources around? I think that's something that at the district level these planning committees need to be thinking about,” Pham said.

Needs-assessment survey: more staff, higher pay

To find out what support principals want at some of the lowest-performing schools, the district conducted a needs assessment. Results show that principals asked for more mental health care staff, teaching assistants, and tutors.

While Castle Hayne Elementary does have one counselor and one social worker, May said she needs more — a sentiment echoed by many of the other principals.

“I don't think we have enough people to help all the needs of our students. And it's not for lack of effort, it's just that the needs are so tremendous,” she said.

For example, May said, “My mental health specialist who works for the Department of Health and Human Services, his caseload has been full for probably two-thirds of the school year. And so, there are students that are on a waitlist to receive mental health services. And I think the more people we can have that are working hands-on with students, the better the students are.”

At the June 21 task force meeting, Chief Academic Officer Dr. Patrice Faison outlined four major categories from the assessment: staffing, recruitment and retention, resources, and professional development.

Compilation of results of what 12 district principals say they want.
Compilation of results of what 12 district principals say they want.

She did reiterate to the members that the district does have some support for mental health services.

“Every school has a full-time counselor. Middle schools have two; high schools have like four or five,” Faison said.

Last year, the district also had access to 32 mental health therapists for elementary and middle schools, which were provided by New Hanover County. Coastal Horizons provided six therapists for the district’s high schools.

But the needs assessment continued to underscore the need for more people to do this turnaround work.

For example, the first question of the assessment asked, “Assuming your school would have support for the next five years, what are the top three steps you would take to improve its performance if money was not a concern?”

So some administrators asked for specific positions.

At the initial task force meeting on June 9, member and City Councilman Clifford Barnett asked Faison, “What do the principals need to be more successful? Is it more bodies in the school?”

Faison responded, “I'll be honest, I think they would say that, but I would say the data doesn't say that. But I think as a principal, I'm never going to say, ‘I have too much.’ I mean, you’re just not. ‘I can always take more.’ I don't know if you guys are aware, but [the county] supplement[s] more [positions] than what the state does already.”

Specific positions administrators asked for on needs assessment
Rachel Keith/WHQR
Specific positions administrators asked for on needs assessment

Coming in second behind additional staffing was an increase in pay. One administrator from Williston wrote, “I would like to be able to recruit experienced staff who have thrived in a similar setting. It would be beneficial to be able to provide additional incentives to their current settings and come here.”

An administrator from Snipes said they wanted to double the supplement for every staff member.

New Hanover County does offer one of the highest teacher supplements in the state. It’s ranked fourth behind Chapel-Hill/Carrboro, Wake, and Charlotte-Meckenburg at an average of $9,015 for the 2022-2023 school year.

And six of the lowest performing schools are in the top ten for highest per pupil spending. *See the per-pupil spending list at the end of this report. 


Many of the issues — and the proposed solutions — for lower performing schools come down to more funding, whether that's incentive pay for teachers, or county supplements for more positions.

Pham, an NC State University educational researcher, said, “If a school needs $10, and they have $3, and that's more than other schools, that's still not enough. So this idea of, they do receive more, which is nice, but is that enough to do this very difficult work of school turnaround? That's the question. And I think it varies depending on the district and the school, but if we're not seeing improvement, and if, particularly if, the school leaders and educators in those schools are still telling us that they need resources, then that school doesn't have enough resources to do what they need to do.”

University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Education leader Dr. Thurston Domina said of the district’s lowest-performing schools, “it's not that their funding levels are lower than other schools in the district. And that's not unusual, it really is that the need is greater.”

Pham added that supporting human capital should be number one for any administrator.

Supporting technology, or highly up-to-date textbooks, those kinds of things, they are very good and important, but if I were a school administrator, I want to put all of my money into the people who are going to be working with students every single day, that's the most important thing,” Pham said.

The district did use a large chunk of its $88.9 million in Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief funding (ESSER), which is federal Covid relief money, on their one-to-one initiative, which ensures every student has access to an electronic device at school. $56 million will be spent on this plan over a five-year period. The district is embarking on year three, which targets most of the school system’s middle schools.

And state funding isn’t helping the situation. North Carolina has one of the lowest per-pupil expenditures in the country, according to Pham.

He cites in the “The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems” report released in December 2022, educational researchers from the University of Miami, Cornell University, and Rutgers University, found that North Carolina has "the capacity to raise more revenue" for education.

The researchers added these are “largely deliberate policy choices on the part of state legislatures” and that states like North Carolina are “effectively choosing to underfund large swaths of students.”

Further, the authors said that empirical research is showing that the amount and distribution of school funding have a “substantial effect on student outcomes. [...] The idea that ‘money doesn’t matter’ is no longer defensible.”

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