Superintendent Q&A: looking ahead to the 2018-2019 school year

At the request of The Free Press, LCPS Superintendent Brent Williams responded to several questions about the school district and the upcoming school year. This Q&A was published in the newspaper’s “Make the Grade 2018” section that was part of the Sunday, August 12, edition.

Give us a few sentences explaining who you are and what you are about.

Brent Williams, Superintendent of Lenoir County Public Schools

I have loved every minute of teaching and leading others in service to young people throughout each stage of my 26 years as an educator.  I developed a strong interest in teaching and learning at an early age. Growing up in the home of a teacher and principal, I had the opportunity to witness the powerful positive impact that an educator can have on the lives of others.  From an early age in my father’s classroom, in the principals office, and even at community gatherings and other events, I could see that great teachers truly do change lives in wonderful ways every day. I admired my father’s selfless but awe-inspiring contributions to making our collective future better by helping individual children to develop greater levels of academic and social confidence through rigorous but engaging instruction within a context of continuous growth and a lifelong love for learning.  In choosing a career path, I was certain that I could have no greater professional ambition in life than to follow this great example and to serve others by teaching and, in doing so, to change our future in positive ways by impacting the lives of our students today.  My professional journey has, indeed, allowed me to contribute a better tomorrow by leading our teachers, administrators, and other staff members in doing all that we can every day— whatever it takes— to help the young people that we are so blessed to serve in our schools to grow and to realize their full potential.

Q: What’s new in the school system that someone might not know about if they didn’t have kids in the system?

Some people might not be aware of all of our recent student achievement increases and other across-the-board improvements LCPS has shown including decreasing the dropout rate, increasing the 4 year graduation rate, realizing significant disciplinary reductions, increasing community partnerships, dramatically increasing the number of winning grant proposals written by our teachers and other staff members, and graduating students who earned a record number of academic scholarship dollars. I am very excited about the unfailing determination and tireless efforts of our outstanding students, teachers, administrators, and other staff members.  I believe that we have the best school system family in North Carolina and beyond. Their hard work and dedicated, visionary leadership in the process of comprehensive school system improvement have combined to create all of the positive steps forward that LCPS has been able to demonstrate and the rapid pace at which our school system is becoming a leader among those in eastern North Carolina.

Over the last three years, our district has exited “low performing” status and has moved forward steadily. LCPS has been recognized as being “a model of successful comprehensive school system turnaround” by AdvancED, the national accreditation body for school systems. Our testing results over the last three years have demonstrated significant improvements.  We are becoming a leading school district in our region and across North Carolina in the areas of digital learning, career pathways for all students, and innovative STEM programs. Over the last three years, our principals, assistant principals, teachers, counselors, social workers, nurses, parents, and students have worked together to cut our dropout rate by over 43 percent.  We are working hard to do whatever it takes to keep our young people in school and on a productive path toward graduation and a successful transition to college or the workplace. Our four-year graduation rate currently stands at the highest rate ever recorded for this school system.  We have dramatically increased the number of classroom mini-grant proposals created and submitted by LCPS teachers. During each of the last two years, our teachers have created and submitted more than double the number submitted by LCPS during the previous year.  The results have been impressive. During the 2017 – 2018 school year, 91 of our teachers wrote winning mini-grant proposals to secure additional classroom funding for instruction— an all-time high number for our school district.  We actually surpassed 120 mini-grants funded for the 2017-2018 school year.  Over the last two years, we also have increased the number of district-level grants created and submitted by nearly 8 times the average number submitted each year over the previous 15 years.  This effort devoted to grant writing resulted in LCPS receiving 9 district level grants over the last two years for 3.1 million dollars in additional funding for our schools for initiatives like STEM labs in all of our middle schools, innovative summer camps, robotics instructional equipment, farm-to-table instructional materials, aquaculture programs, outdoor classrooms, hydroponics labs, and teacher-administrator development academies.  We have an outstanding partnership with LCC— one that allows students to graduate with a high school diploma, a full two-year degree, and the option of starting at a four-year college or university as a junior or even as a senior immediately after high school— at no cost to their parents.

Our district already has become a leader among school systems in our area for our digital learning efforts, particularly for the instructional emphasis that our teachers and administrators have placed on not merely “integrating” handheld digital devices into existing plans for instruction but, instead, on using these devices as valuable digital tools to support and to help drive forward effective instruction in our classrooms.  We have been invited to present innovative initiatives or practices from LCPS at seven different state-level conferences during the 2017 – 2018 school year.  We also were honored by an invitation to make an eighth presentation of innovative practices and programming—  STEM summer programming— to an education subcommittee of the North Carolina General Assembly in April.

Our Board of Education was has been honored for their leadership and strategic planning efforts in the process of comprehensive school system improvement.  The LCPS Board of Education was named “North Carolina School Board of the Year for 2017-2018” by the North Carolina School Boards Association at their annual conference in Greensboro.

Q: What are some of the things you and your staff are doing to overcome challenges you might have?

We are working very hard every day to move forward, to build upon our strengths, to address fully our needs for improvement, and to continue to succeed.  We have achieved a great deal and have demonstrated significant improvements over the last three years by designing and implementing a full range of instructional reform efforts. In addition, we have worked hard to bring about improvements in other areas such as increasing funding for instruction by seeking more grants and creating more educational opportunities for our students by engaging in more partnerships with colleges and universities and with the business community. We want our district to realize its full potential as a school system and to be the school system of choice by providing strong, engaging, and effective learning opportunities for all as we prepare all students to be successful not only in college and beyond, but also in life as healthy, successful, productive, and contributing citizens.

Q: What’s coming down the educational pipeline from the state of the feds that our local residents, parents, and students might want to know about?

I believe that the concept of “change” will continue to be one of the most important things happening in public education during 2018 – 2019.  Certainly, we all realize that change is constant characteristic in most things. Over the last few years, we have seen more change in education and at a more rapid pace that many people might have thought possible.  Online educational opportunities have changed the educational landscape by providing seemingly limitless options and opportunities to students.  Digital devices allow students to engage in classes actually taught across the school district or even in other parts of the world. Online learning and traditional-face-to-face course offerings, combined with learning partnerships like the outstanding one that LCPS has with LCC, also have helped to provide many more options for students by establishing clear high-school-to-college-or-work pathways for students.  This constantly evolving change continues to provide an exciting array of new options and some re-conceptualized traditional opportunities for our students.

Q: What do you say to people when you hear comments about there not being enough vocational training opportunities now compared to what there used to be 30 or 40 years ago?

I usually invite them to visit our schools and to witness firsthand the outstanding Career and Technical Education programs that we have in Lenoir County Public Schools.  Our CTE students and teachers recently have earned state and national recognition for their efforts across the CTE curricular spectrum areas from Business Education to Health Sciences, from Animal Science, Agriculture Mechanics and Horticulture to Construction Technology, and from Family and Consumer Science to Automotive Technology and Machining Technology.  We continue to expand our parnterships with LCC thereby facilitating an even greater and formerly unpredented range of vocational opportunities for our students.  I believe that all visitors to the CTE programs on our middle and high school campuses will be impressed with what they see.

Q: What do you love most about your job?

I believe that we have the best school system family anywhere. I love having the opportunity to work with such wonderful staff members, students, parents, and other community stakeholders. I would like to express my sincere appreciation to our students, parents, teachers, administrators, other staff members, our community partners, and our entire overall Lenoir County community for all of the strong and consistent support that you have given to me and to our LCPS family.  Leading this school system truly is a blessing that I love and appreciate even more each day.

Q: How are schools preparing students to be good future employees?

Our daily efforts to provide the best and most effective educational opportunities for our students all happen within the context of a larger community of employers and potential careers. In order to truly prepare of students for the future, we have embraced the need not only to do all that we can to educate our students within our school buildings, but also to embrace the concept of education as a spectrum from traditional face-to-face instruction in our classrooms to online instructional delivery and a full range of blended learning and job shadowing opportunities made possible through innovative partnerships. Partnerships simply are vital to our success.  Our first and most important partnership is with the parents of our students.  We work closely to achieve the common goal of doing everything that we can every day to help all of our students to experience success in school and beyond. We have an outstanding relationship with Lenoir Community College.  Dr. Rusty Hunt and his team are wonderful educational partners in our combined mission of providing additional academic options to our students while personalizing and streamlining for each student the process of moving from high school coursework to undergraduate coursework and even straight to graduate study.  I am proud to say that LCC and LCPS currently have one of the most significant and successful school system-community college partnerships in North Carolina.  We also have worked very hard to strengthen existing partnerships with the business community and to build a framework of new partnerships as we move forward.  We appreciate all of our partners in the Kinston-Lenoir County Chamber of Commerce and all others in the business community.  We simply could not do all that we do for the young people we serve without our partnerships with the wide range of local business and corporate sponsors who continue to invest their time and resources in the process of educating our students.  From hosting and producing Manufacturing Day and job shadowing activities to sponsoring LCPS Science Olympiad and raising money to fund mini-grants for teachers, our business partnerships contribute significantly to our efforts to improve and to move forward.  We also have worked to build upon our existing partnerships with local colleges and universities and to build new ones like our two new partnerships with N.C. State University and our proposed new partnership with N.C. A&T State University.  Through these united efforts, we are making a great deal of progress in achieving the goal of preparing all students for college and the workplace.

Q: What should students and parents look forward to this year?

There are many things that students and parents can look forward to for the upcoming school year.  We will begin the new school year with a different and more innovative school system calendar— one that will allow us to end the first semester before the Christmas break.  This will allow our high school students to complete classes from the first semester and to take exams before Christmas thereby eliminating the long-standing problem of so many dual-enrollement students having to “begin” second semester classes at LCC at the beginning of January while still working to complete the first semester at their LCPS high school— semesters that formerly concluded at the end of January.  The new calendar is similar to previous calendars in many other ways.  It does, however, allow for a full two weeks of teacher workdays in August before the first day for students.  This will allow for more substantial and sustained professional development during that time as opposed to the previous one-day or half-day professional development format days traditionally spread throughout the school year.  Students and parents also can look forward to our new Coding curriculum that will be implemented this year in our middle and high schools and, hopefully, in all of our schools K-12 next year.  LCPS was one of 15 school districts in North Carolina selected to receive the prestigious Coding grant from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and the Office of the State Superintendent.  The grant proposal represented our implementation plan for the 2018 – 2019 school year in all LCPS middle and high schools.  The curriculum will be delivered through traditional face-to-face instruction in our middle school STEM labs and through an online format in our high schools.  In addition to the new Coding curriculum, many of our teachers in all of our schools will be using the innovative grant-funded instructional programming and projects made possible by the historically high number of teachers who took the initiative last year to seek additional funding for this year by writing and submitting grants. We look forward to the 2018 – 2019 school year being our best school year ever!

Q: How can parents get more involved in their student’s school?

We appreciate very much the strong partnerships that we have with the parents of our students.  Certainly, we always are interested in strengthening these existing partnerships and working to build new ones.  We encourage all parents to engage in any of the many available opportunities for them to become more involved in the process of teaching learning. Throughout the year, our teachers will communicate frequently and consistently with parents about the progress that students are making in our classrooms. We invite parents to participate actively in a strong positive two-way communication framework between home and school, including both online formats and traditonal calls and written correspondence.  We also encourage all parents to join the PTA organizations and booster club groups in their student advocacy and support efforts.  We appreciate the efforts of all of our parent volunteers.  Together, we will continue to make a significant positive difference in the lives of our students.

Q: What is your favorite day of the school year?

It is difficult to choose just one as a “favorite” day.  I will share, however, that I always have believed that there is something truly magical about the first day of school.  The “first-day” atmosphere on each school campus usually is rich with eager anticipation of the new school year with a perceivable level of seemingly endless excitement about advancing to a new grade level, meeting new teachers and additional friends, beginning new classes and coursework, learning from new experiences in class and around campus, and everything else involved in starting a “new” school year.  We will have a wonderful first day of the 2018 – 2019 school year!