Freeze warning: there’s agreement in Lenoir County

Since opinions are like noses — everybody has one — you’d figure that putting about 60 people in a room to find answers to complex problems would yield about 60 different solutions. That’s why the work of the School System Improvement Task Force to this point — as it takes a summer break four months after its first meeting — has been so gratifying. You might even say surprising.

Sure, there are differences of opinion and a few sore subjects, but there’s also a remarkable consensus on the big issues, those initiatives that will reshape LCPS, that will give our youngest students a running start at an excellent educationCommunity Survey Presentation and will give our graduates a running start at a productive, meaningful life. When you mix in the sense of agreement within the community at large, as gleaned from a survey commissioned by the task force, and the agreement among different populations identified in that survey, well the whole thing gets a little otherworldly, as if the answers were just sitting there, waiting for the questions to be asked.

It hasn’t been that easy or that obvious, of course, but there does seem to be a well-marked path down which circumstances — i.e., the 21st century — are ushering LCPS’s progress. Here are a few of the steps that everyone involved in the school improvement process agrees are important for LCPS to take:

To develop career pathways in LCPS high schools. This approach is an all-in version of the career-focused curricula already active in our three traditional high schools. Even without having a detailed picture of the pathways, the curriculum standards at their core and the high school career academies where they would be taught, the task force and a majority of the nearly 1,700 Lenoir County residents who took the survey agree this is the kind of improvement needed to better align the education LCPS students receive with the career opportunities awaiting young adults.

The High School Subcommittee of the task force suggested six career specific pathways: public safety, health sciences, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), cultural arts/fine arts, business/industry and agriculture/food/natural resources. The top five choices of survey respondents were: STEM, medical sciences, business management/administration/finance, art/music and media/technology. Does anybody else hear an echo?

Suggestions and survey responses won’t dictate LCPS’s future in this area, but together they do constitute a starting point for the research and review required to develop career academies. A primary goal of our improvement process is to ensure that students have a plan for life after graduation and the skills they need to execute their plan. Meeting that goal will involve some specific foundational changes — for instance, bringing digital learning to every grade and giving all LCPS students the opportunity to complete two years of college work while in high school — but as basic is providing students with a strong background in a career area that interests them.

To develop career exploration programs in middle school. The elements of a sound education accumulate, block upon block; so before high school students focus on a career area, they have to find one that excites them. That’s what exploration is all about — getting an introduction to a range of possible careers, opening eyes to possibilities not previously considered and perhaps not previously known.

Is middle school too early to decide what you want to do with your life? Probably, but that’s not the point. In a career lab or similar programs, students will discover options. They will begin to think about the value of choosing a career, rather than letting a career choose them. As they move into high school, they may begin to narrow their choices, settle on a program and become acquainted with the realities of the job market.

The realities are these, as task force members and most of our survey-takers apparently know: Manufacturing jobs, the kind that a kid with a high school diploma and a strong back could turn into a good living, are disappearing. In their place are relatively low-wage service jobs. Acquiring, or even competing for, jobs that provide a higher rate of pay and a higher rate of satisfaction means more schooling, at a two-year or four-year college or through the job-specific training you get in the military. People who still think you can just luck into a good vocation these days probably also spend a lot of money on lottery tickets.

To add pre-school classes. When about 11 percent of survey respondents said additional pre-school classes should be a priority for LCPS — the third highest total — they echoed the thinking of the task force, which early on recognized the barriers facing students who get off to a slow start. Too many children are entering LCPS kindergarten classes not prepared to do the work. Bolstering pre-K is the obvious answer. With it comes the obvious problem — money. The solution could be obvious, too: asking parents who can if they’re willing to pay for pre-K education.

Even though the task force won’t meet as a group again until August, its subcommittees continue their work and initiatives already under way continue to gather steam. The 1:1 technology program is taking shape, teachers are learning the finer points of digital learning in summer classes and two recommendations from the subcommittee focused on reading proficiency are headed to the school board. One affirms the 1:1 initiative as “an integral part of reading instruction.” The other recommends the creation of a Parent Outreach Committee for Literacy to encourage parental involvement in our campaign to ensure students read well by the end of the second grade.

Parents should be involved, right? So should everyone else in the county. Education is a community effort. Thanks to those 1,700 members of our community who made the effort and completed our survey. You’ve been a big help.