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Deep Dive: At roundtable, teachers candidly tell NHCS' Turnaround Task Force what they need to succeed

Presentations at the NHCS Turnaround Task Force meeting on September 27, 2023.
Rachel Keith
Presentations at the NHCS Turnaround Task Force meeting on September 27, 2023.

Late last month, the New Hanover County Schools Turnaround Task Force met for the fourth time — this time, to hear from about a dozen teachers about what kind of support they need to do their jobs.

The task force was formed earlier this year to help address the challenges at New Hanover County schools that are struggling with student proficiency, behavior issues, and staffing — issues that have proven to be densely interwoven. Most of these are Title I schools, which serve students from low-income families.

At the outset of the meeting, the task force's mental health subcommittee presented data from last year’s test scores. Scott Whisnant, former director of government affairs at NHRMC, was joined by former School Board Member and current Director of Development at Coastal Horizons Elizabeth Redenbaugh, and Board Member and task force leader Stephanie Walker for the presentation.

Because of last year’s improved test results, the district moved from having 12 low-performing schools to seven; however, wide racial disparities on these end-of-year assessments remain.

“When we talk about celebrating improving schools, there should be a comma after that, but there's still a long way to go,” Whisnant said.

For example, Whisnant reported to the task force members that Black students don’t come within 40 percentage points of White students on any grade level test in 2023, according to data from schooldigger.com. And last year, those students didn't come within 45 points. [*You can view this data at the end of this report.]

EOG proficiency scores between Black and White students in NHCS
Scott Whisnant
Mental Health Subcommittee/schooldigger.com
EOG proficiency scores between Black and White students in NHCS

Whisnant said, that at the current improvement rate, the district will close this gap in 18 to 25 years.

“Which is another way of saying the gap’s too large; we've got to fix it, which is why we have to take some measures to get into these schools and try to fix the underlying issues these kids are facing,” Whisnant said.

Speaking to the debate on whether to move away from the neighborhood school model, Whisnant said, “We didn't want to go here, but we're going to have to; we've got to have better social-economic balance in our schools. Again, teachers and staff uniformly volunteer this when you talk about it.”

Recent data from Cropper GIS, the company that the district contracts with to inform its redistricting efforts, did show over-enrollment in majority White schools, and under-enrollment in majority Black schools.

In addition to reconsidering the way in which the district makes school assignments to help improve the achievement gap, Whisnant said in talking with about a dozen teachers for the subcommittee’s work — part of the way to fix this is to create smaller class sizes.

According to him, the teachers said they wanted 10 students per class because handling those who have, for example, 4+ ACES (adverse childhood experiences), will tend to “fire on one another” if one of them is in a mental health crisis.

Chief Academic Officer Dr. Patrice Faison pushed back on this recommendation saying, “10 as a class size is, what we say in education, kind of [where it] gets dangerous, because you feel more like you're tutoring. So, that's not normally a suggestion.”

Whisnant responded that in his interviews with these teachers, it’s either the class size of 10 or “get more adults in the room.”

Whisnant said in some of these schools, teachers say they spend more time on classroom management than on curriculum, and that additional behavioral support specialists would help — at least one per grade level.

The committee also recommended more training and professional development in behavior management and being trauma-informed, but that this should happen over the summer when staff is less busy with the day-to-day operations of the school. (*You can view the mental health subcommittee’s findings at the end of this report.)

More staff: EC, ESL, counselors, mental health therapists, TAs

Cynthia Laliberty of Wrightsboro Elementary spoke at the roundtable event. She surveyed her staff and brought the results to share with the task force members.

“So building more exceptional children (EC) staff, we have a large EC population at our school who require a lot of one-on-one and small group support that when one large behavior does happen, it takes away from a lot of the other students who are in the room, and we just don't have enough people to be able to properly address those needs. That's happening more and more often,” Laliberty said.

And the Wrightsboro’s staff second concern, according to Laliberty, “We have a very high English as a Second Language (ESL) population, but having more ESL staff in our schools, having some parent liaisons who can come in and help us translate for the purpose of calling parents and having that contact be a true contact,” she said.

What Laliberty means is not just sending an email to those Spanish-speaking parents to see if they understood the school’s communication, but for those liaisons to be on the school campus full-time to translate for students and their families.

Most of the district’s schools share these parent liaisons, which has been a point of frustration for some principals, too.

Caroline Smithson teaches pre-K at Blair Elementary. She said it’s hard when a student is being overly disruptive, and she can’t get immediate support.

“And sometimes you might not get a response, you might not get the help you need, or you might not have somebody who is trained in how to respond appropriately. So, absolutely, bringing more people in, I think that's a huge factor. And then, again, how do we keep people; people are leaving left and right. People are considering it,” Smithson said.

The reasons staff are leaving are multi-faceted, but Smithson said they do need to have enough staff to take on students with ACEs and these disruptive behaviors.

That’s why some of these teachers say they need additional mental health therapists and counselors.

Lynda Cox teaches at Myrtle Grove.

“We had a counselor cut this year; we went from three to two. So that has had a huge impact on people having to deal with issues that they're not equipped to deal with. We've had to turn kids away because there's just not enough time in the day for our counselors to service them. So just having more mental health services within the school that these kids can reach out to. Our one-and-a-half mental health therapists are at full capacity,” she said

Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Julie Varnam asked her if it was a “true” waitlist as parents have to consent for services, and Cox responded yes, the school does their due diligence with this.

Leslie Wilder, a county supervisor for some of the licensed clinical health therapists in the schools, said last year, they did have waitlists at some of the district’s schools. And while New Hanover County does provide this service, and the district does have more staff when compared to surrounding counties, teachers maintain it’s still not enough.

And it’s not just additional translators, counselors, and therapists — teachers spoke about the importance of teacher assistants (TAs), too.

Christey Bryan of Snipes Elementary said at her school, “The fifth grade doesn't have a teacher assistant. Our first grade is losing one, and we're not getting that position back.”

And this position made a world of difference to Bryan.

“I taught kindergarten for two years at Snipes, and having a one-on-one assistant with me, we moved mountains. I had a group; she had a group, everybody else was independent[ly] working on what they needed, and we rotated,” she said.  

The consequences of not having enough staff

Laliberty of Wrightsboro said she’s seen consistent teacher turnover firsthand.

“This is my sixth year, and in all six years, we have not had a fourth-grade team that has made it through the entire school year. So this year, we have somebody who is leaving in two weeks. And last year, we had somebody leave in April. When they left last April, we had to split up the class, so we ended the year with 28 children in our classes, which was hard to even fit them in our room,” she said.

Sarah Stepanski of the International School at Gregory said it’s important to have “qualified humans in the building, which you would think would be an automatic, but it's not always. We lost people from last year; we achieved great growth last year, and we had to cut positions because of money. So how are we going to do better next year with fewer people?” Stepanski asked.  

At the July board meeting, Kim O’Briant, professional development supervisor for the school system, talked about the district having more teachers who are coming in with specialized licenses, meaning these employees do not have the standard teaching license, and that they have to do more training for these employees who didn’t necessarily get degrees in teaching.

Christy Howe, who was Southeastern Teacher of the Year in 2019, and who currently works at Forest Hills Elementary, said her teachers feel “spread thin, they're asked to wear more hats, so they're not just in charge of providing instruction for their classrooms; they're also navigating special duties and committees and all these other things.”

But she said, “All the teachers I work with love what they do, and they want to do all the things, but it is really hard to do all the things well. And so making sure that there are those supports with mental health and such so that teachers can focus on the things that they do.”

Instances like these can contribute to teachers becoming overwhelmed. Robert Motley of the Career Readiness Academy at Mosley got emotional when he spoke about the pressure teachers are under, especially ones at lower-performing schools.

“Sometimes you're like, what else do you want me to do? Like you're throwing up scores that our schools suck. And then what else you can do? You can’t be a parent and a disciplinarian,” he said.

In terms of scores, Motley noted that while Mosley students are growing, some of them still struggle with proficiency.

New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust has said publicly he wants the staff to focus on growth, which he believes will ultimately pave the way to proficiency. But Motley’s sentiments echo a larger issue for teachers: feeling like they are responsible for all of the child’s well-being and academic achievement when they are just one part of their life.

Budget and Resources

At Holly Shelter, a school that made significant growth last year, some of the highest gains for Title 1 schools in the state, Courtney Hill, a teacher there, said she still struggles still having enough school supplies for her students.

“So folders, pencils, just like general school supplies because we have a lot of kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who don't have access to those resources, so a lot of us are pulling out our own money and buying resources for those students,” Hill said.

Whisnant, Redenbaugh, and Walker were surprised at this. Whisnant even said that when he worked for the hospital they would throw away folders by the “truckload.”

Eric Bigsby who teaches at College Park Elementary also talked about this resource issue, like not getting some of the software programs he wanted to use for instruction — ones that were non-renewed like Flocaburlary. Bigsby added he didn’t like the reading program that was selected for his school.

“The whole goal is to teach the kids, but if we can't do that, because [it’s like], hey, go run the NASCAR 500 or Daytona in a 73’ Volkswagen van, you might finish; you won’t win. I mean, the tools we were given weren't good enough to assist in what we're doing. If money were no option, and we had the autonomy in our own classroom to have those choices to what we knew would teach our kids best,” Bigsby said.

His comments were also in response to Varnam asking him if he scaffolds or differentiates the materials for his students who are gifted, on-level, or behind. He said he does that, but maintained he’s not getting the right kind of resources to do that more effectively. More so, he said he doesn’t have access to the instructional materials that would engage some of his students who are struggling academically.

And sometimes, a major issue is even the cleanliness of their school building.

Alicia Montanaro works at Freeman.

“Our building looks like crap, we ask our children to come to school every day and learn in an environment where the paint is peeling off the walls, the floors look dirty; there are cockroaches in lights. There are cockroaches on the floor. And no one wants to learn like that,” she said. [Note: WHQR has not independently verified Montanaro's claims.]

Underlying these concerns about resources like school supplies, curriculum materials, and facilities is the budget for the school system.

Matt Sullivan works at Williston Middle School. He said that political leaders in the state aren’t doing enough to monetarily support teachers and staff in public schools.

“Do you really want to fix it? Because we're voting for people who say they're going to fix it. And for being in the state and close to 17 years, bringing my whole family down here, nothing's changed,” Sullivan said.

While the teachers did get an increase in this year’s state budget, it still doesn’t account for inflation or the cost of living.

On average, legislators gave teachers a 4% raise. Beginning teachers went from a starting salary of $37,000 to $39,000; for the top pay scale, they raised it from $54,000 to $55,110. State leaders also didn’t reinstate Master’s pay.

Related: NC budget to expand private school vouchers and strip power from State Board of Education

At Snipes Elementary, the budget issue is top of mind for Bryan.

“I can barely support myself and my fiance, and it's just the two of us, and we don't have kids yet. And, we're getting married in November [...]. And I can't afford groceries or gas or pay my mortgage. I mean, I don't want to quit teaching. I love my kids. I love my job. I love my school. I've been there for nine years. But if I can't support myself…” she said.

Leadership, recruiting future teachers

Sullivan also spoke about district leaders getting shuffled for this school year. He said he really liked his former principal, Christopher Madden, but now he’s at Hoggard High. He said Madden helped build a good school culture.

“Let's change the narrative, change the culture, and that man who hired me is no longer there, so now we got a whole rebuild. And I'm carrying the baton in the right direction, but that's the problem. I mean, it starts at the top, we need the resources, and these schools are the ones that shouldn't be cut at all,” Sullivan said.

Another concerning issue is the recruitment of new teachers.

Lynda Cox of Myrtle Grove talked about her recent student teacher who said she wasn’t going to pursue the career.

“Not because of anything I did, or anything the kids did, she was just like, ‘I really don't think I want to do this,’” Cox said.

Varnam said shortly after that, “We hear that over and over and over, even if we can get student teachers to work alongside our best of the best, who then say, ‘I'm not doing it.’”  

Key takeaways and what’s next…

After the task force members listened to these 11 teachers, they discussed their takeaways. Whisnant said he was shocked to learn about the loss of positions in the district’s schools.

“I did not realize that there were that many personnel and other cuts. I know there's reality behind that. But that was alarming. Some of the schools made great progress last year, and it's question whether you can duplicate that now given those cuts,” he said.

Foust interrupted Whisnant to clarify that those position cuts were because federal Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds had been exhausted.

Note: WHQR put in a records request to determine which positions were cut at these schools, and from what fund they came out of, but the district has yet to fill those records.

Whisnant said, “The teachers didn't make that distinction,” implying that they were more focused on the reality of the position losses.

Another takeaway came from Board Chair Pete Wildeboer who said that there needs to be more people in the classroom supporting students like “teacher assistants (TAs),” He added his table, which included Foust, Natalie English of the Chamber of Commerce, and New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple, discussed the importance of universal preK.

Zapple also highlighted the need to expand preK in the district — and to hire more staff to help Spanish-speaking students.

Wildeboer also said that the district should be “supporting our teachers, empowering them to continue to be leaders in the classroom, but also outside the classroom.”

Board Member Stephanie Walker remarked, “We've got work to do, and I think supporting our staff is probably the most important thing that we do.”

The next task force meeting is scheduled for January 10 — when members will hear from district parents.

[Disclosure notice: Commissioner Rob Zapple is a member of the WHQR Board of Directors, which is not involved in editorial decisions in the newsroom.]

Prior Reporting 

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