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NHCS 'Principals' Roundtable': Supporting Hispanic students, handling ACEs, and retaining teachers

NHCS Turnaround Task Force Principals' Roundtable on August 3, 2023.
Rachel Keith
NHCS Turnaround Task Force Principals' Roundtable on August 3, 2023.

At the last New Hanover County Schools’ Turnaround Task Forcemeeting, members heard from 12 principals across the district, some of whom lead schools that have been identified as ‘low performing’ by the North Carolina Department of Instruction (NCDPI).

During the event, 11 of the 16 task force members were present to hear from these principals on what they need to make their schools more effective. Board members Stephanie Walker (also a lead task force member), Stephanie Kraybill, and Pat Bradford also attended the roundtable.

The members first heard from groups of six principals — then they broke into smaller group discussions, with two task force representatives meeting with two principals at a time.

Overarching themes coming from these principals were finding ways to support Hispanic-speaking students and their families, teacher recruitment and retention efforts, and dealing with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which include poverty.

Degree of student poverty, students with ACEs

Many of the principals discussed the challenges related to teaching in schools serving low-income neighborhoods, where conditions are more likely to produce students with ACEs.

Diego Lehocky is the newest principal at Forest Hills Elementary. He’s been at Sunset Park Elementary for the last seven years.

He said the task force should be looking into ways to expand their mental health staff.

”You got to have it because these kids need that. They get that, then they get back in the classroom, so they can learn,” Lehocky said.

He said he sees firsthand the poverty that some of his families both past and present have experienced.

“Everything's kind of bleak when you don't have money and you're struggling. That's why it's so important to have that [support] at school, where it's a positive place to go and people believe in you,” he said.

Jordan Steinhilber is the principal at Alderman Elementary. She said her school’s theme for this year is the ‘commitment to the positive.’

“It takes so much effort and time, and going back to helping our staff because it is draining because we take on all that trauma in these buildings,” Steinhilber said.

Rachel Manning has been the leader of Snipes Elementary for the past seven years. She said she prides herself on getting the school out of the bottom 5% percentile in the state. She said she did this through creating a positive school culture, but noted major systemic issues remain.

She said she’s worked in both rural and urban schools – and, according to her, there’s a stark difference between the two.

Manning said urban schools in areas experiencing poverty have more drive-by shootings — and more breakdowns of family support systems because they’re struggling with housing and food insecurity.

“Some of my kids have no idea where their parents are. ‘Mama didn’t come home last night. That’s why we missed the bus.’ Gangs. I don’t think this community understands how deep the gang stuff is,” Manning said.

Dr. Brad Lewis of Holly Shelter Middle School said that he, too, witnessed this stark poverty in some of his students. He said he’s seen some of his students and their families being displaced or become homeless.

Manning agreed. Some of her students live in hotels on Market Street, where they are “renting a room, and there is one mattress on the floor. [They’re] sleeping on the floor with five brothers and sisters. It's heartbreaking.”

Lewis said he remembered a time when the highest aspiration one of his students wanted to achieve was cooking at McDonald’s. He said he wanted to push the student to realize that there were other opportunities out there for him.

Debbie Calvert, the principal of College Park, said she wanted the task force to help with incentives for attendance, as chronic absenteeism is an issue within her school.

Steinhilber said she wanted them to find innovative ways to help support parents.

“Not necessarily overstepping, but assistance, like how can we help you in the ways that you can support your child so that your child has the best opportunity for success?” Steinhilber said.

Dewey Furr is the interim principal at Williston Middle School. He told the task force that most of his educational career has been at the school, and he wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else. He said that in order to connect with the students, he tells his staff to truly listen to the concerns of the students and their families.

“If nothing else, saying, ‘Wow, I didn't know,’ or ‘Thank you for telling me that.’ Not try to fix it. Not, ‘well, you should have done this,’” Furr said.

Teacher retention, incentives

During these discussions, principals said that it’s more challenging to teach students with ACEs; hence, the reason for adding more social workers and counselors. But asking teachers to move schools for an extra $5,000 (the high-end stipend that the district is offering to teach at Forest Hills and Freeman) in these high ACEs schools, might not be enough.

“But I found that people don't want to go for $5,000, because a veteran teacher has been doing it for a while, you get a young teacher that’s first starting out, $5,000 is a lot of money, but if you've got 20 years, you're probably doing okay,” Lehocky said.

Steinhilber said she wished that other schools like hers could also have access to those bonuses. And added that she wanted the task force to do something about the concentration of students with high ACEs in certain schools. It can burn out some staff.

“Because [teachers, staff] can [transfer] to Ogden and Porters Neck, they can freely move like that. And we lose teachers all the time for those types of things because they're like, ‘I'm done. I'm done. I can't do this anymore,’ and there isn't any carrot dangling, other than the culture we try to develop in the school,” Steinhilber said.

Support for Spanish-speaking students and their families

Another stark finding for task force members was the level of support needed for its Spanish-speaking students and their families.

For example, these are some of the statistics the principals gave about their Hispanic populations last school year: Sunset Park (50%), Wrightsboro (40%), College Park (35%), Blair (29%), Castle Hayne (25%), International School at Gregory (22%), and Myrtle Grove (18%).

During the larger group discussions, principals talked about having more ‘welcoming centers’ for these families to help them get acclimated.

At one point during the meeting, Hilda De Leon, principal of the International School at Gregory, suggested that her school could host this center.

And when these parents and students have this support, it makes all the difference. Last year, the district had six bilingual parent liaisons. Their job, according to the school system’s website, is to “ensure parents have adequate access to information, services and the support they need to make sure their child achieves academic and social success in school.”

Williston has its own dedicated liaison; the other five liaisons have an average of eight schools they worked with last year.

“When those families come in and they're expecting a struggle, and someone greets them, you can just see them relax, realize that someone can speak to them," Furr said.

Calvert speaks to the issue of sharing this position with other schools.

“We do have a liaison. She's a part-time liaison, so she's there 29 and a half hours a week. No more. Yeah, so that can sometimes be a challenge. Approximately 35% of the [College Park] population are coming from all different countries, mostly Central and South America," she said.

Calvert said some of her staff do speak Spanish but they need more support. Aaron Livengood of Blair Elementary said while the district and his school do provide school instructions in both English and Spanish, it’s still a struggle for his school to provide one-on-one support for these children and their families.

“When parents come into the main office, we struggle just to be able to communicate just basic information. All I can tell you is there's a language barrier. There's not enough people in the schools that can help with the language,” Livengood said.

This speaks to the need, as Calvert and Lewis mentioned, to recruit a more diverse staff to help support this student population.

Adding bus stops so parents and guardians can visit schools

Principals like Lewis of Holly Shelter and Cyndy Bliss of Myrtle Grove Middle School said they want more accessible public transportation to their schools.

Lewis said that 14 elementary schools feed into his school, and said some families say they don’t feel a tie to the school. Not having easily accessible transportation contributes to this problem, he said.

“We have families that come to us that are really challenged with a way to get to us. [...] We’re asking for a bus stop right on our campus if possible,” Lewis said.

Lewis added that this will also help with Castle Hayne Elementary as they share a campus. He said if this goes in, this will help families be more engaged.

Bliss said that for parents who want to come to Holly Shelter, they have to do a transfer at the closest Walmart, and then microtransit drops them off at the school.

Brianna D’Itri, the mobility manager for Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority, said they do provide service to Myrtle Grove via microtransit (RideMICRO), a new pilot program, which is an on-demand service through virtual stops (a bus stop without a pole and a sign, think Uber or Lift stops).

But D’Itri notes that Wave Transit is a recipient of the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s 2024 Mobility for Everyone, Everyone grant program, which will provide funds to expand service into Castle Hayne, meaning Holly Shelter Middle and Castle Hayne Elementary will be “virtual stops once that program enhancement is completed.”

D’Itri said that Wave Transit also supported another grant application that NHCS submitted, which would give more funds to Holly Shelter, which is “one of the schools with transit access concerns.”

Wave Transit serves New Hanover County with a budget of around $11 million but will face a “financial cliff” within the next few years, dropping the budget to $7 million. New Hanover County's contribution to the transit system is under $900,000 this year, compared to the City of Wilmington’s $1.7 million. Many of the schools underserved by transit are in the unincorporated county, and more areas may drop off the map when that fiscal cliff requires reduced service.

Increasing community support, social-emotional learning (SEL), organizations like Communities in Schools (CIS)/PTAs

Principals like Lewis, Steinhilber, and Calvert all talked about the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) for their students. They said SEL strategies set the groundwork for academic learning. That SEL preps their attention for reading and math.

“It’s about how to stay focused because trauma has an impact on your ability to focus, and that is a huge issue for this generation of kids,” Steinhilber said.

She added that Alderman now has 90-minute instructional blocks for reading and math. “That's a long time for kids who are five to 11 years old to retain all that information.”

Steve Buchanan is the principal of Freeman Elementary. He said his school needs a stronger PTA.

“My wife is the principal of Ogden Elementary School. They do a ‘fun run’ and raise $75,000. And, I currently have $480 in my discretionary budget,” Buchanan said.

Other schools that have families with higher incomes mean that parents and PTAs give more financial support and gifts to the teachers and staff.

“Like Christmas presents, I can't buy presents. You can't do that sort of thing, but a PTA can, and so I haven't got there yet like I don't know what to do because they deserve something; we’re looking at our local churches to maybe fill that gap,” Buchanan said.

De Leon cited the positive impact that the organization 100 Black Men has had on Black male students at Gregory.

They “talk to them about their own lives, and how they were able to overcome certain hardships, but every Wednesday they talked about something different, and they asked, ‘how are you doing?’” De Leon said.

Another organization,Communities in Schools of the Cape Fear (CIS)has been integral to students at Wrightsboro Elementary. This support staff connects with students in a special way.

“I don't know how to describe it, but it can make such a world of difference. It helped support me, and what I needed to do to support that student and get them back on track. And we did it together,” Michelle Faison, principal of Wrightsboro, said.

Public awareness about the “good things”

The principals at the roundtable said they wanted to ensure that the community understands that there are some really positive things going on in their schools. These should be shared and celebrated, they said.

Bliss said, “Wouldn't it be nice for a parent to just be able to go, ‘I just got to tell you that my kid came home and said this about their teacher today,’ or ‘this was really, really good.’”

She asked if the district could look into a ‘positive comment portal,’ so that parents and community members could leave uplifting messages.

Mosley principal Charlie Broadfoot pitched the idea that across the district they should host a ‘Career Day’ where community members come to the schools.

“I mean, how many actual classrooms do we have in our county? Thousands. Well, think about thousands of people coming in for an hour. We would do it for sure because we believe in our schools and what those people would see, and the conversations they'd have with our kids,” Broadfoot said.

After three official meetings of the NHCS Turnaround Task Force, Manning said to Walker, “I really hope something comes from this [the task force].

She responded, “We’re working on it.”

Further reading on the NHCS task force’s work

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