Reinventing school: updating our improvement effort

Don’t start here. Go to the top of the page and click on The Vision; read that and then come back.

Back already? What you read was a high-attitude view of what we hope LCPS will look like in the not-too-distant future. While it’s a vision, it isn’t a dream. A more specific picture of the changes already afoot can be found on our website (www.lenoir.k12.nc.us) under the School Board tab. The seven goals listed there set standards for such things as reading proficiency and kindergarten readiness and raise expectations for how much students need to learn and how soon they need to learn it.

At the risk of over-simplifying the complicated process of imparting knowledge, a reinvented LCPS will bring children into the public school system ready to learn; keep them engaged throughout their school careers with hands-on, real-world instruction; give them the opportunity to do college-level work before graduation; and send them out into the world with a pretty clear idea of what they want to do with their lives.

That’s the end we should keep in mind. What the beginning of that transformation looks like is this: upwards to 80 people from throughout Lenoir County sharing ideas, studying data and seeking advice as members of the School System Improvement Task Force or as adjunct members of the task force’s six subcommittees. The task force’s job is to make recommendations for improvement — you may read that as change — to the Lenoir County Board of Education. The school board will use the recommendations to set a direction for change. Then it will be up to LCPS administrators to make change happen.

The process is now in the early stage. The task force formed in mid-February. It’s comprised of people from throughout Lenoir County with different backgrounds and varied relationships to LCPS — parents and business people as well as educators — so they bring a variety of opinions and concerns to the table. They are being asked to do something difficult and they take that job very seriously. It’s no surprise then that they are moving deliberately.

They are moving, however. Already, the school board has approved one recommendation and the subcommittees are preparing several others to send in that direction. Here’s a brief recap of some of the actions and ideas under discussion:

  • Technology: Earlier this month, the school board — acting on a recommendation from this subcommittee — essentially gave the green light for changing the way LCPS students are taught. Next school year, provided the state doesn’t pull a fast one on funding, all K-5 students in the system will receive iPads and a three-year transition to digital learning will begin. By the end of that time, all LCPS students will have iPads and their teachers will have iPads and laptops — as well as the training needed to incorporate technology into teaching. The training begins this summer. Moving to computerized instruction is so important to achieving other educational goals — keeping students engaged, letting them learn at their own pace, teaching them real-world skills — that it is almost impossible to overstate the value of this change.
  • Kindergarten Readiness: The problem is most children entering kindergarten in Lenoir County are not ready to go to school. At the beginning of this school year, 69 percent of the 758 in-coming kindergarteners were below proficiency levels. This subcommittee is discussing a three-tier approach to ensure our youngest students are prepared: a summer “jump start” program for children identified as needing help, creation of transitional kindergarten classes at all elementary schools and — long-term — forming a community task force to improve child access to resources that will get them ready for school. These days, kindergarten is a lot more than coloring and cutting with Captain Kangaroo scissors. Kindergarteners get a foundation for learning that, if lacking, could soon put them behind for good.
  • School Choice: You may be more familiar with this subcommittee’s work because of the survey sent out in April. It drew more than 1,800 responses — not bad as surveys go, but not great either, considering there are about 45,000 people in the county 18 or older and considering the survey sought opinions on far-reaching changes in a school system that more than 90 percent of school-age children in the county attend. Part of the process of preparing students for prosperous careers is helping them identify some potential career choices. That’s more effectively done if schools acquire a measure of specialization — the career academies and theme schools described in The Vision, for instance. There are a lot of options here; the survey will help determine which options parents prefer. The subcommittee is still crunching the numbers, analyzing the results and reading the hundreds of comments.
  • Middle School: This task force has a couple of tough issues on its plates — how to get more students into and successfully through the critical Math I course earlier, which sets them up to take more advanced math in high school, and how to eliminate the achievement gap that befalls most students between grades 5 and 6. The math question is so complex the task force plans to call in reinforcements in the form of an advisory committee comprised of K-12 math teachers. One answer to the achievement gap issue is to reconfigure grades to save rising sixth graders the pain of changing schools at the same time almost everything else in and about themselves is changing. Of course, this response gives rise to the possibility of K-8 schools, an idea that has caused a lot of heartburn in the recent past. The subcommittee has not come down for K-8, but rather has suggested a range of options, from K-8 to K-6 to self-contained sixth grades regardless of where they’re housed.
  • Read by Second Grade: The N.C. General Assembly has mandated that public schools produce proficient readers by the end of the third grade. LCPS’s goal is that children be able to read well by the end of the second grade. Accomplishing this is not only going to take a lot of work in the schools — staffing elementary schools with reading intervention specialists is one of the ideas this subcommittee is considering — but a lot of work in the community, as well. Reading needs to be recognized as a critical skill and books, as an important commodity. A full-on summer reading program and parent workshops — other ideas discussed by the subcommittee — could further those aims.
  • High School: Our high schools already offer some specialized programs — early college, IB and AP tracks, the engineering-oriented Project Lead the Way — but (surprise!) too many parents, and consequently too many students, are unaware of these opportunities. This task force ultimately wants to recommend ways to accelerate the pace of learning in high schools and get more students more college credits before they graduate. Right now, though, it is grappling with marketing issues and ways of ensuring parents get the memo.

There’s a lesson here. Public schools reflect the interests, aspirations and involvement of their communities. Improving public schools has to be a community effort. Already, the School System Improvement Task Force has recruited volunteers and solicited opinion from the community. We recognize the value of broad-based participation in dealing with the challenges LCPS faces. We would hope that Kinston and Lenoir County recognize that our challenges are also theirs.