Task force report: making progress a project at a time

If the goal is excellence, and especially if that effort involves dramatic change, there is no end to the process of improvement. So when the School System Improvement Task Force reconvened for 2015 on Tuesday night, it did more than pick up where it left off last year. It got a list of new tasks from Dr. Steve Mazingo, LCPS superintendent, and specific direction in a couple of areas that circumstances have made a priority.

The task force’s overall responsibility has not changed. It was formed two years ago to develop a vision for LCPS’s future — which is set out in the seven goals under the “Vision” tab on this web page — and to develop strategies that would align the actual working of the school system to those goals. Ultimately, the Lenoir County Board of Education decides whether to implement those strategies, but the recommendations come from the task force, along with truckloads of information supporting them.

The digital learning initiative we call iLCPS followed this path. It had been discussed by district administrators for two years or more, but the initiative crystallized through the work of the task force’s Technology Committee. The committee came to the school board with a complete plan, including a plan for paying for all those iPads, so when the school board agreed to move ahead with it, iLCPS was off and running. Given the green light in May, the district had by October ordered, processed and begun distributing Apple devices to all our teachers and all our K-5 students — putting iPads in the hands of 4,300 elementary students by early December — while also preparing teachers to use the devices as our primary learning tool. In doing all that, we developed a model for expanding the program to middle schools in 2015-2016 and to the high schools the year after that.

That isn’t happening because LCPS students wanted cool iPads. It happened because the increased use of technology in the classroom aligns with practically all seven of the district’s overarching goals, whether it’s creating proficient readers by the end of second grade or preparing middle schoolers for more complex math classes in high school. Digital learning aligns most of all with our broadest goal: to graduate students who are prepared for college or career … in a world, we might add, where technology rules.

The same could be said for another idea from the task force that you’ll likely see bloom soon — career paths for high school students. Structuring a course of study around a career path of a student’s choosing obviously better prepares that student for success after high school; and, because education is a cumulative enterprise, meeting our other goals prepares the student to step onto a career path.

The High School Committee of the task force, which includes Lenoir Community College administrators, has done a great deal of detailed work developing semester-by-semester plans for a dozen or so career paths, from accounting to computer-aided machining. The task force, as a group, recommended Tuesday the career path plan be presented to the school board.

A strong argument can be made in its favor. Students get a head start toward certification or a degree in an area of employment where workers are needed in eastern North Carolina. By the time they graduate from high school, they will also have accumulated two years of college credits. (See Goal 2: LCPS students will have the opportunity to complete two years of college work while in high school). They leave high school within easy reach of an associate degree and within easier reach of a job that pays above the county median. Did we mention those college credits are accumulated free of charge?

Not all high school students will want to move along one of these designated paths. Some will be undecided about their career interests, others will have their heart set on other careers and others will pursue their aspirations at a university. That’s fine. No one will be forced to fit a mold. What’s important is that all students work toward a goal and that those who pursue a more general course of study take us up on the opportunity to earn free college credits in high school.

Career paths are an excellent idea for our high schools and, with excellent ideas, there’s no time like the present. That’s the thinking of the task force. With the school board’s blessing, this program could be in place by next fall.

Another matter of some urgency before the task force involves Rochelle Middle School — urgent not because the school is in trouble, but because there is momentum for improving the school, burnishing its image and increasing its enrollment.

It was clear from a community meeting held at the school in December that there’s a great deal of interest in restoring Rochelle to prominence as Kinston’s only middle school. Jon Sargeant, chair of the Lenoir County Board of Education, attended that meeting with other board members, heard the expressions of support and last month asked Dr. Mazingo to form a committee to support the work of Rochelle. That committee has been formed from some key members of the task force, including Sargeant, Rochelle’s current principal, Maya Swinson, and a former principal, Nicholas Harvey II.

They will look into issues with which Rochelle has been identified, compare Rochelle data to other middle schools, research student transfer trends and make recommendations for measures “that need to be taken so that Rochelle becomes the school of choice for the Kinston community.” This is a big job and it will take time. That’s true with the work of the task force generally, even for those projects already under way or pretty far along. That’s the way it is with improvement, with progress — it’s a process, not an event.