Highlight reel: celebrating singular honors, key innovations

Before we get so far into summer that it’s already the new school year, let’s look back on a few of the singular honors and important innovations that made 2014-2015 an outstanding year for LCPS. Here are five that leap to mind, presented in no particular order:

coolschoolA Very Cool School. Yeah, well, we know WITN’s How Cool Is Your School contest was all in good fun and judging was 100 percent subjective, but there’s no reason we can’t say that South Lenoir High School kicked butt and took names and was proclaimed by news anchor Heather King and meteorologist Jim Howard, the duo that gets us up and going weekday mornings on WITN News at Sunrise, as The Coolest School in Eastern North Carolina.

Like we say around here, winners celebrate and losers recuperate. As winners, South Lenoir celebrated to the music of Echosmith, the hit band that stopped off in Deep Run on its way from Los Angeles to Paris to play a lively show in an energy-filled Munn Gym in November. If Heather and Jim, WITN and contest cosponsor Bob 93.3 set out to make some friends, the plan worked. If Echosmith set out to win some fans, well … the Class of 2015 was still talking about the concert on Graduation Day.

But here’s the real reason to celebrate: South Lenoir High School beat out three larger Eastern North Carolina high schools for the title of COOLEST because school spirit and community support aren’t something the folks in and around Deep Run gin up for a contest. It’s always there and has been there, a renowned part of school life, for generations. This past year’s students, bearers of a tradition impressed upon them by South Lenoir alumni who happen to be their parents and grandparents, just put that pride on display for a regional TV audience. It was cool, all right, but really no contest.

DSC_0374Apple for the Teacher. The ConnectEd grants that Apple awarded for the first time last fall went to 114 schools in the nation. That’s one-tenth of 1 percent of all of America’s public schools. When your school has a piece of that one-tenth of a percent, you’ve got a piece of something big. So it is with Rochelle Middle School.

Thanks to ConnectEd, Rochelle stands to be the most technologically advanced school in a school district that is itself leading the move to wired classrooms. All middle-school and high-school students in the district will receive iPads next year and Rochelle will be an important part of iLCPS, our digital learning initiative, but its direct connection to Apple promises it will also be more. The grant award will be tailored by Apple to Rochelle’s particular needs, but will include iPads for all students and teachers, MacBooks for teachers and an Apple TV for every classroom. Apple is also providing software and educational content based on specific classroom needs, along with ongoing professional development for Rochelle teachers and administrators.

It’s hard to put a dollar value on Apple’s gift to Rochelle. The package is that big and it includes a lot of inside-the-wall stuff to support schoolwide high-speed connectivity. Apple has pledged $100 million to its national effort, so we can extrapolate that the Rochelle project is worth a fat six-figure sum. But in terms of how the technology and support will raise the visibility of Kinston’s middle school, will level the playing field for students who might not otherwise have access to the best technology and will further the aims of the digital learning initiative to which LCPS is committed, the Apple grant is absolutely priceless.

Chalk up another big win for a Lenoir County public school.

contentnea-savannah-k-8STEM in bloom. If you know anything at all about modern-day education, about what today’s manufacturers are looking for in employees or one area where the U.S. needs to catch up to the rest of the industrialized world, you know something about STEM, the emphasis on the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math. Naturally, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction has been encouraging a STEM focus in public schools for the past several years, and last fall DPI and the State Board of Education created a kind of honor roll of schools that have shown STEM growth. For the first time ever, the state recognized a dozen schools for creating and sustaining STEM programs of learning. One of the 12 was Contentnea-Savannah K-8 School.

In earning that honor, CSS scored high in 11 areas that evaluators considered important traits of STEM-centered schools, including project-based learning, a network of off-campus STEM partners and individualized professional development. CSS has programs and partnerships that speak to those requirements, most notably a mentoring relationship with Spirit AeroSystems, the international aeronautics manufacturer whose Kinston plant has taken CSS under its wing.

Engineers there form the heart of a middle-school mentoring program and Spirit has donated to the school a specially-created fuselage section that serves as a visual link between what CSS math students study and what Spirit engineers do. It’s a lot easier for a middle-school student to cultivate dreams of being an engineer if she actually knows and can talk to an engineer.

That’s a point that is key to CSS’s STEM ambitions. As with about half of the 12 schools recognized last year, CSS sits in a rural area; even fewer of those schools outside urban centers, where high-tech industry and universities tend to congregate, match the student body profile at CSS — that is, a general population of students instead of the more homogenous student bodies at early colleges, magnet schools or technology academies. A STEM school that can teach students to think is one thing, but a STEM school that can encourage students to dream big dreams is worthy of recognition.

Paths to Prosperity. LCPS began the school year byIMG_0107
bringing college-level instruction to high school campuses; it ended the year by rolling out structured courses of study that will give students the opportunity to get a big head start on a college degree while still in high school. It’s all part of LCPS’s effort to accelerate the pace of study, help students set career goals and see that all students graduate with a plan in mind — to go to college, to join the workforce or go into the military.

Our close association with Lenoir Community College and LCC’s willingness to make instructors and, in some cases, space available to our students has changed the way high school looks and works in Lenoir County.

The expanded Career and College Promise program put LCC instructors in all three traditional high schools teaching both academic subjects like expository writing and pre-calculus algebra and technical skills like welding and machining. The academic classes offer transferable college credits and the technical classes lead to certification that enhances job prospects.

Career Pathways, which was introduced last spring in time for students to register for next fall’s classes, furthers the same aims but in a more long-term, detailed fashion. Students who’ve identified a potential occupation can make substantial progress toward certification or earning a degree in that field before graduating from high school. Essentially, we’ve taken the early college model and made it available on all high school campuses.

A detailed plan of study allows students to complete their core high school courses early and move into college-level work tailored to a specific career pathway or to a general education pathway that leads to a college degree. Completing college work in high school not only gives students a head start on a career but also saves money on college tuition.

Hundreds of students have already qualified for admission into the Career Pathways program and will be tracking along a course of study in 14 different areas, from nursing to networking technology to sustainable agriculture. A diligent ninth grader who follows his pathway during his four years in high school will graduate with a diploma and all but a handful of credits needed for an associate degree.

At the same time these programs boost students’ career prospects, they are boosting their confidence as they step out into the wider world.

northwestgirliLCPS. We don’t know what we can say about our digital learning initiative that you can’t read elsewhere on this blog. This past year, when we distributed iPads to 4,300 K-5 students, was a tremendous success. The level of engagement by students and teachers exceeded expectations and we’ve made some headway on the program’s real goal: to change the way teachers teach and students learn.

The advantages that technology brings to the classroom — opportunities for individualized instruction and project-based learning and a chance to make learning fun — showed themselves early on.

So we’re doing it again next year with the rest of our student population. This fall, all middle school and high school students will receive iPads. Already their teachers are getting professional development that will help them adapt their teaching styles and course work to the iPad as the principle learning tool. Even more than in the elementary grades, use of these digital devices will align instruction with the way young people acquire information and learn today.

With all of our 9,200 students equipped with iPads and engaged in digital learning, few school districts in the state will be as fully involved in this forward-looking strategy as LCPS. Certainly, we don’t mind standing out from the crowd for the right reasons, but mostly we know there’s no future in standing around doing nothing when the world is changing at warp speed. When virtually every aspect of society and business and communication has been altered by — and has had to adapt to — the increasing reliance on technology, why should anyone expect public education to keep doing what it’s been doing simply because it’s been doing it?

Instead, education — if it adheres to its mission of preparing young people for the future — should be out front and embracing change. During an eventful 2014-2015 school year, that’s the course LCPS has set.