New Hanover County schools are beginning to see post-pandemic signs of progress in the second academic year since returning to in-person learning for all students.
We responded to the challenge of lost learning time by implementing programs to accelerate student learning and recover from the shortcomings of remote learning, and we made increasing support a priority in our lowest-performing schools.
Turning around our lowest-performing schools has educational and economic benefits for every community, particularly low-income areas. The number of low-performing schools nearly doubled statewide in the first year following school closures in March 2020. New Hanover County schools were not immune from the pandemic learning loss, with 12 of our 45 schools labeled low-performing when state assessments were announced last fall.
When deciding on a strategy for turning around these schools, I recognized the hard truth; we must strengthen instruction in every classroom to give the students who need the most support a chance to succeed at the highest levels.
I recognized that something needed to change, and with my administrative team, we got to work.
We made our lowest-performing schools our priority, and we’re treating them as such. New Hanover County Schools has invested significantly in school leadership, professional development, support for teachers and engaging with community partners in our
lowest-performing schools as part of a research-based school improvement strategy to meet the needs of the whole child.
If we are committed to improving student achievement and developing a sense of belonging for all students, we must wrap support around the schools in our most disadvantaged communities.
We dedicated more funding and resources to our low-performing schools and assigning an experienced former high-performing principal to work with and support school leaders in each of them – the elementary schools of Alderman, College Park, Freeman, Forest Hills, Snipes, Gregory International, Blair, Holly Shelter, Myrtle Grove, Mosley and Wrightsboro; as well as Williston Middle School.
I’ve led conversations with educators in our priority schools on increasing the level of rigor in courses and using data to improve instruction and meet state standards. We must hold our students accountable to the grade level standards. We also robustly support both new and experienced teachers by reducing paperwork and protecting planning time, and giving them increased training and backing from content-area experts.
Because turning around struggling schools also requires engaging and partnering with families, we created a “scope and sequencing guide” to help parents follow their students’ lessons and support them academically at home.
NHCS recently ranked among the top-25 school districts nationally for new National Board Certified Teachers, the gold standard in quality for educators. North Carolina grants those who achieved National Board Certification a 12% salary supplement.
Budgets reflect priorities, and I am grateful for the levels of support the Board of Education and County Commissioners have provided over the last two years. The school district invests more than $11,000 per pupil in most schools, which is similar to the statewide average. But we invest significantly more funding and resources per pupil in our lowest-achieving schools to improve teaching and learning.
Our schools have responded by creating more student-centered learning climates, and the change is evident. I was teaching in one of our priority schools and observed students questioning and explaining what they had learned. I also saw a student noticeably upset about a forgotten homework assignment. They needed to make up the work, but student ownership and accountability are signs we want to see. Students who learn from their mistakes, make corrections, and move forward will go far in business and life.
NHCS has utilized federal funding and programs to provide additional support for first-generation college-bound students. We also work with local partners to provide in-school and after-school tutoring for students in priority schools.
Most importantly, outstanding teaching and learning are possible in every school and neighborhood. That’s why I am in the business of ensuring every community’s schools have the support needed to prepare all students to graduate high school ready for college and the workplace. When we succeed, we will see the return on our investments in a stronger workforce and communities.
Charles Foust is the superintendent of New Hanover County Schools.
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