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A look NHCS's Endowment requests, past and present

New Hanover Community Endowment logo.
New Hanover Community Endowment
New Hanover Community Endowment logo.

Last month, New Hanover County Schools submitted a nearly $9-million grant application to the New Hanover Community Endowment, hoping to boost literacy rates and support pre-K classrooms. WHQR took a closer look at the grant — and at some of NHCS's past grant requests, including one major funded grant and three grants that didn't receive funding.

Editor’s Note: This article previously reported raw third-grade reading passing rates. It has since been updated to include only the percentage that passed the test.

Supporting education is one of the pillars of the New Hanover Community Endowment, established by the $1.3 billion sale of the county-owned hospital to Novant Health. The asset purchase agreement (APA) outlines the Endowment's responsibility and provides examples of educational projects that can be funded.

The APA states that Endowment funds should supplement government agencies but not replace them. The agreement lists education supplemental focus items such as universal pre-K, broadband connectivity, modern technology, teaching fellows programs, scholarship access, and school facilities.

New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust discussed working on an application to the Endowment during an April 17 budget meeting. According to Foust, the grant would support 26 “literacy coaches.”

However, according to documents reviewed by WHQR, the grant application was actually submitted that day. The application requests funding for literacy coaches – and for support for Pre-K classes.

NHCS has not been forthcoming about the application. WHQR initially filed a public records request for a copy of the application several days later, on April 22, but the district has not provided it to date. It’s worth noting that even if that application had still been a draft, it would not be exempt from public records requests.

The $8.7 million over three years will include one literacy coach at every elementary school (25), one literacy coach for the district’s preschool centers, and two preschool teachers and two preschool teacher assistants.

Currently, the New Hanover County Commission is sustaining the amount slated for pre-K classrooms, which means the district will have to cut two, from 12 down to 10. The funding won’t go as far due to cost increases, primarily from state-mandated salaries and benefits.

The district said it would like to reduce spending in other areas so that these positions can continue beyond the grant's life. According to its application, that would allow them time to “ensure that our state legislature and Department of Public Instruction can recognize the need for these critical positions and create a state funding formula for [them].”

A district spokesperson told WHQR that the district is now calling the “coaches” literacy “facilitators” instead. Technically, these will not be student-facing positions but people who will work alongside the school's literacy teachers.

The district cited the most significant barrier to providing this resource as the “loss of staffing due to the constraints of the 2024-2025 school budget.”

According to the application, the grant program's goal is for third graders to achieve a 90% passing rate on end-of-year literacy tests.

These facilitators will instruct teachers on implementing the “science of reading” strategies.

To illustrate the importance of this issue, district cited that “more than half of all students (63 percent) who did not graduate from high school on time were not reading proficiently by third grade.” 

Some education advocates, including Turnaround Taskforce member Scott Whisnant, have asked why the grant spreads the facilitators equally across the district since reading proficiency varies considerably between schools.

For example, schools such as Ogden, Masonboro, and Wrightsville Beach Elementary achieve an 84% proficiency rate on these tests. In contrast, schools like Freeman, Forest Hills, and Snipes are only 24% proficient.

Scott Whisnant's data from schooldigger.com on 3rd grade passing rates on reading.
Scott Whisnant
Scott Whisnant's data from schooldigger.com on 3rd grade passing rates on reading.

Whisnant wrote to WHQR, "The larger schools the district are referencing have small populations within them that are at risk of not reading by third grade. The high-poverty schools, while close to others in overall size, absolutely swamp them in terms of students who are in jeopardy of not passing this reading test."

The district declined interviews to discuss the April Endowment application and several other grants submitted in September 2023. However, staff answered some of WHQR’s questions through a district spokesperson and, in some cases, provided statements from upper administrators.

Asked why the grant didn’t seek to concentrate facilitators in higher-need schools, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Patrice Faison wrote in part, “While we acknowledge the varying challenges among schools and our lack of a 100% pass rate, our commitment remains unwavering: to deliver exceptional instruction in a safe and positive learning environment for every student at every school. We also acknowledge that teachers enter schools with diverse levels of expertise. Therefore, this position enables us to ensure equitable opportunities for professional growth and excellence for every teacher across our district, regardless of the school they serve.”

Regarding concentrating resources where needed, the district responded that having one at each school makes sense because some lower-performing ones have smaller student and staff populations. The district said Title I schools also have additional funding for staffing, and principals decide where to concentrate those resources.

Whisnant said, "Social science studies have shown that when one segment of our population is lifted, we all benefit. Conversely, when one segment is allowed to fail, we all suffer. The resources should be allocated in such a way as to have an impact where it is needed the most."

Dr. Lam Pham of NC State University’s College of Education has found in his research on low-performing schools that, generally, “if you focus on the number of schools that you have the capacity to support, that leads to more substantive and meaningful results than trying to spread your resources too thin and address every single one. [...] I recommend using your resources on a targeted number of schools based on what you think you could support.”

Progress on the Endowment Health Collaborative - NHCS received $1.6 million

NHCS submitted four applications during the last Endowment grant cycle, but only one was selected. It was part of a healthcare talent collaboration between the district, UNCW, CFCC, and the Greater Wilmington Chamber Foundation.

NHCS has already received $715,000 of the overall grant amount, and their first interim report is due on July 15. The district anticipates that this grant will benefit approximately 2,000 students.

In its first year, the district is implementing the curriculum Paxton Patterson and Pharmacy Tech. They’ll also start to purchase furniture, equipment, and supplies for the program.

The school board recently approved some of this spending. At the board’s March meeting, members approved a zSpace three-year software contract subscription for 120 laptops worth $575,680.

This software allows students to work with 3D images, and teachers can “assign various ‘experiences’ to their students, such as disassembling the heart, identifying its parts, and putting it back together.”

This contract includes $126,176 for field trips and $71,500 for workshop expenses. In April, the members approved another zSpace contract for two of the district’s engineering teachers at Laney and Ashley High Schools, costing $110,368.

This means about $993,952 is currently in this grant’s reserve.

In the September application, NHCS had anticipated $151,092 for staff compensation to run the program, $288,908 for supplies, and $780,000 for capital costs associated with property, vehicles, and equipment. The district said they would also spend $170,000 on field trips and job shadowing and $300,000 for software. When asked who would be receiving the field trip and job shadowing funds, the district did not respond.

2023 NHCS Endowment applications not funded

Three applications from September were not approved, and NHCS lost out on funding the following initiatives: $47.2 million for one-to-one devices like iPads, $5.4 million for hard-to-fill positions, and $350,000 for principal leadership.

The $47.2 million would have continued and “sustained” the district’s one-to-one initiative over four years. This money would have purchased the devices—a bulk of the request worth $34.5 million—fitted classrooms with interactive panels (1,139) and provided student help desks and summer learning opportunities.

In its application, they said, “NHCS remains behind surrounding districts in regards to innovative technology,” but didn’t explain how.

Most of the district’s one-to-one initiative was funded through federal COVID relief funds (ESSER), but the funds ran out before the district could finish the last two years of a five-year project.

They added that “purchasing and managing the costs associated with the initiative remains an ongoing issue,” meaning they needed more funds to purchase additional devices and insurance to repair and replace the district’s devices.

This request would involve hiring 10 area technical coordinators (ATCs) and 15 digital teaching and learning specialists for about $9.6 million. They’d also hire students (up to 64) to work at the Help Desk at four high schools and during the summer (up to 10).

The remaining funds would go toward insurance for the devices ($2 million), work-study for students ($606,350), office expenses ($616,600), and travel and lodging ($40,000).

The grant application also included sending 200 middle school students to NHCS Can Code, a summer camp that teaches coding. It was not clear from the application if the camp would be funded by grant money, or if it would be facilitated by students having the devices. NHCS declined to clarify. Assistant Superintendent Dawn Brinson told WHQR, “There is no connection between the one-to-one plan and NHCS Can Code.”

In response to an application question about providing equity, the district wrote, “The connection with the film industry has allowed students to participate in schooling while on set or stage.”

Later, the district said these devices would help students with temporary or long-term medical needs, those with limited English-speaking abilities, and those from families with a lower economic status.

NHCS also claimed these devices would “heighten student engagement and motivation,” “reduce absenteeism,” and “improve classroom behavior.”

NHCS also didn’t receive a $5.4 million request to support its ‘hard to fill’ jobs, which it defined as math, science, special education, bus drivers, and skilled trades positions. This money would have gone towards compensation, including salary, wages, benefits, and taxes starting January 2024. The district later mentioned that some locations are challenging to staff but didn’t state where those were.

The district cited that in the 2022-2023 school year, 333 teachers either retired, transferred, or left teaching altogether. It also claimed a 14% turnover rate for that year, saying this “requires a huge financial burden to replace those positions.” Recent statistics from NCDPI show it's at 12%for the last school year. The district’s goal is to get this rate down to 10%.

The district told the Endowment in its application that its “ongoing struggle to hire and retain skilled trade laborers directly impacts the classroom and working environments.” They also acknowledged that “new, inexperienced teachers and continued turnover has a direct impact on student achievement and overall school performance.”

NHCS mentioned the cost of living as a barrier for staff, citing the county’s median home price of $399,000. The district also mentioned teacher pay is ranked 36th in the nation.

Another grant worth $350,000 that NHCS didn’t receive was its principal leadership program.

The district claimed it would have been an online master’s program run through Wake Forest University targeted toward teachers who wanted to pursue leadership positions in the district.

In its application, NHCS cited the need for this program because it has had a “15-31% [principal] turnover rate each summer, with 71% of those being retirements over the past two years.” This turnover rate is significantly higher than that of the district’s teachers.

Much of the funding ($310,000) would have supported tuition and application fees for a cohort of 10 employees. Travel and lodging for the grant was estimated at $15,000. NHCS also mentioned partnering with the Ron Clark Academy to receive professional development worth $20,000 for the cohort and select NHCS personnel.

The district declined to comment further on the details. Although the program is listed in the grant application, Faison told WHQR, “Wake Forest University reached out to NHCS. It’s important to uphold proper protocol. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to comment on their behalf.”

To view the district’s September 2023 Endowment applications, click here

WHQR reporting on last grant cycle recipients

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