SMITHFIELD — The shadow of the N.C. General Assembly loomed large over Tuesday’s school board meeting in Johnston County. Superintendent Ed Croom said pending legislation would affect the district’s funding, school calendar, curriculum and its authority to manage its own buildings.
Several bills would redirect state funding to digital learning. One would require the county to spend a portion of its lottery proceeds on technology. Johnston receives about $5 million annually from the lottery.
“That will really be a hardship on the commissioners, who’ve been using that money to pay the debt service on our buildings,” Croom said. “That money is crucial for us to maintain our buildings.”
The emphasis on digital learning would extend to teacher training. On Tuesday, both houses passed a bill that would require teachers to undergo training in digital technology every year. The bill went to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk for his signature.
Elsewhere, the district is still fighting to allow West Smithfield and South Smithfield elementary schools to keep their nontraditional calendars. Those schools currently employ a shorter summer vacation but more breaks during the year for remediation.
Legislation passed last year would bar that schedule going forward, but N.C. Rep. J.H. Langdon, who represents Johnston County, introduced a bill earlier this month that would allow both schools to keep their nontraditional calendars. The bill has passed the House, and the schools’ chief operating officer, Robin Little, said she’s waiting to see what happens in the Senate.
The district needs to have a backup plan in case the Johnston legislation fails, Little said.
The nontraditional calendar at the two Smithfield schools is popular with parents and teachers, Little said, because without an extended summer break, fewer kids forget what they learned during the year.
Many Johnstonn classrooms spend a significant part of the year rehashing old material, Little said. “The longer the summer is, the more (teachers) have to play catchup,” she said.
Staffers have put together an alternative calendar that follows current law, but Croom said he wants to consult with parents and teachers before putting it to the board for a vote.
“It’s not going to be a whole lot different than it is today, but I would not be comfortable with passing this without input from all the community stakeholders,” he said.
Croom said he expects the state to implement a school rating system – similar to the “A” through “F” grading system in Florida – in the next couple of years. He’s hoping the General Assembly will give schools time to prepare for the change. Also, lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow counties to build and own schools.
School board Chairman Larry Strickland said the district is working closely with local lawmakers on the various legislation. “It’s a moving target –a very fast-moving target – and all of us, as members, are in constant contact with them to keep up,” he said.
Students can graduate earlier
Also this week, the school board agreed to allow students to graduate as early as the end of their junior year.
The district previously allowed students who had completed graduation requirements to get their diploma as early as the first semester of their senior year.
Croom said the policy was holding back about 100 students who wanted to move on more quickly. Most of those students are in alternative programs – some of them as old as 19 – and are looking to get their diplomas as quickly as possible.
“Without a change in it, these kids that have fulfilled all of the graduation requirements would have to come back for another year,” he said.
Social workers bear heavy workload
Etta Marett, the district’s lead social worker, talked about the role of the 12 social workers working in Johnston schools.
Social workers conduct home visits with troubled students, help enforce attendance and connect needy families with social services.
Marrett said the need for their services has risen in recent years. The district is currently helping 226 homeless students. Social workers have also found more families in need of help and more students with behavioral problems. “They all look to social workers for assistance,” she said.
The current ratio of social workers to students is low – about one per 2,800 students. That’s well below the 1-to-1,700 ratio in Wake County and the 1-to-800 ratio recommended by the U.S. Department of Education.
Croom said he’d like to see the ratio improve over the next few years. “We’ve got to find a way to increase (social workers) and nurses as well,” he said. “It’s finding a way to get it done that’s a problem.”