School choice: valuing public education

If there was anything eye-popping in the three-story series on home schools, private schools and public schools that The Free Press concluded last week, it may have been the way LCPS absolutely dominates the school choice landscape. According to 2010 census figures, more than 95 percent of Lenoir County’s K-8 students attend public schools and more than 93 percent of high-school-age students are enrolled with LCPS. Those figures are high by state standards — 20th among North Carolina’s 100 counties for K-8 and 49th for high school.

So what’s the draw? Why, when there are so many more options open to parents and students, when the cabal controlling the state legislature seems to be pushing state’s residents away from public school to private and charter schools, is LCPS able to post such dominant numbers?

Sheila Harrison, the mom The Free Press interviewed for the series’ final installment (http://tinyurl.com/og5tta9), did an excellent job explaining the value of public schools obvious to parents like her. Or almost like her. She has more experience with LCPS that most, having helped all six of her children move along the same path — from La Grange Elementary to Frink Middle to North Lenoir High School.

That’s the same path Mrs. Harrison followed through school. We take pride in the fact that many of our parents want to see their children follow in their footsteps in this way. To us, that says a lot about the teachers at those schools, the personal closeness that continuity brings and the connection of our schools to their communities.

Tradition only counts for so much, though. The real value of public school for Mrs. Harrison’s children resided in the fullness of the experience — from the academics that prepared them for careers to the real-world lessons learned in extracurricular activities like drama and athletics.

Or the real-world lessons learned in classrooms where a) everyone doesn’t look the same, b) where everyone isn’t cut from the same cloth and c) where everyone doesn’t think the same way.

Student bodies in public schools mirror their communities because we take all comers. There are no barriers to attendance. That’s what “public” means, that’s what the state envisioned when it established public schools and (regardless of what some legislators think) that’s what tax levies are intended to support. The open-door nature of a public school system largely defines it and, while it does present some challenges, it makes the public school experience richer and more fully prepares our students for life after graduation.

It worked for the Harrison siblings. Of the five who have graduated, three daughters are nurses after two received degrees from ECU and the third from UNC (their mom’s been a nurse at Lenoir Memorial Hospital for 30 years), a fourth daughter is studying architecture at NCSU’s School of Design and the oldest son has earned an associate’s degree with plans to go into law enforcement.

The oldest of the Harrison children entered public school in 1992. The youngest is a high school junior, 22 years later. It’s fair to say the way the youngest is going to school differs radically from the way the eldest did.

As it has in virtually every aspect of American life, technology has altered instruction, not only in how lessons are delivered, but also in what the lessons are. With information at students’ fingertips, our schools now don’t emphasize imparting it as much as they do putting that information to use. That philosophy plays heavily into iLCPS, our digital learning initiative rolling out this month.

It is also at the core of one of LCPS’s key goals: to graduate students who have a plan about what comes next. In high school, we’re doing that by giving students at head start on college. For several years now Lenoir County Early College High School has given its students the opportunity to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associates degree from Lenoir Community College. We’ve also provided online courses for college credit at all three traditional high schools. This year, though, the three traditional schools are also offering classes for college credit taught on site by LCC instructors.

That’s college credit without the cost of college.

We expect to expand that on-site program next school year, just as we expect to put iPads into the hands of more students, just as we expect to expand our career exploration opportunities into middle school and develop clear academic pathways for high school students interested in specific careers.

In short, LCPS is increasing the variety and value of its programs. This school system recognizes that parents and students have more choices in education these days. LCPS acknowledges the right of parents and students to make those choices, and LCPS is determined to be the school system of choice.