November summit on education planned

Oct. 05, 2013 @ 05:58 PM

In early August, the Vance County commissioners and Board of Education met together for the first time in at least a decade.

On the day of the joint meeting, the state released the graduation rates for every school system and Vance came in last, 115th of 115, at 64.9 percent. The rates measure students graduating within four years of entering high school.

The bad news set a somber tone for that meeting, but both parties pledged to improve the county school system.

The commissioners and county school officials are meeting again in November. But this time, community stakeholders will be present at the table alongside them.

Tommy Hester, chairman of the commissioners, and Archie Taylor Jr., who is nearing the end of his first year as a commissioner, spearheaded an effort to bring together representatives from Vance-Granville Community College, the Henderson-Vance Chamber of Commerce, charter schools, the Henderson-Vance Economic Development Commission and the Kerr-Tar Regional Council of Governments.

It’s billed as an education summit and takes place on Tuesday, Nov. 12, at Satterwhite Point Glass House.

“Nothing like this has ever been done to show we are united and working together,” Hester said. “We are trying to show that education is a community thing that needs to be worked on.

“Our graduation rate is down in the 60 percent range and we need to look at ways to make it better.”

The graduation rate in 2013 for Southern Vance High School was 72.3 percent and Northern Vance was at 62.3 percent. Both Western Vance and Vance County Early College High School had rates greater than 90 percent.

At Northern Vance, only 56 percent of black students graduated this past year.

Low graduation rates are only part of the problem for Vance County Schools.

“The future of education is moving in the direction where there are going to be more opportunities for education and we need to be on the cutting edge of that,” Hester said.

When the N.C. General Assembly lifted the 100-school cap on charter schools in June 2011, Vance County and neighboring communities saw an influx of charters.

Four groups in Vance County have submitted a letter of intent to the N.C. Office of Charter Schools that says they plan to apply for charter status in December. All four proposed charters would offer high school grades.

If approved, there would be six charters in Vance County in fall 2015.

Economic growth is also closely related to a quality education system.

The latest unemployment figures show Vance County at 11.7 percent, compared to the state rate of 8.7 percent and the 7.3 percent national rate.

Vance County has had double-figure unemployment percentage for 58 straight months. The August unemployment rate is the first decrease since April, when the unemployment rate fell from 12.2 to 11.7.

Hester said improvements in Vance County Schools will promote development in the area.

“Education is a cornerstone in any community for growth and prosperity,” he said. “It helps improve the economy and reduce crime. It’s all tied together.”

Stuart Litvin, EDC director, said businesses take local education into consideration.

“When we talk to industries, education is at least part of the conversation because we try to market the area as being educated and skilled,” Litvin said. “They do their research. They have looked at graduation rates and school population, along with other factors. At the same time, when companies are looking to relocate they want to know about the school system where they will be sending their kids.”

Superintendent Ronald Gregory said the economic landscape of Vance County has shifted greatly from when the area was primarily a mill town and a hub for manufacturing.

Since that time, labor and manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to other parts of the country or the globe, he said. As a result, young people in the county need a solid education and specialized skills in order to become marketable.

“Kids are no longer measured by what they can do in Vance County, its what they can do in the state and the nation,” he said. “I hope we can open the minds and eyes of members in this community to the issues facing education and how we can work together to make it better.”

Taylor said the summit will facilitate a conversation with multiple community stakeholders who share a concern for the local education system.

“One thing we would like to see is what the rest of us can do to help the educators teach our children,” he said.

The stakeholders, like Kerr-Tar director Diane Cox, say they are committed to supporting and improving the education system in Vance County.

“I think what Tommy has done by bringing so many different viewpoints to the table is showing that this is a priority for everybody in the community, not just the school system,” Cox said. “You have a lot of people who are invested and want to support better outcomes for our students.”

Hester plans to set the summit’s agenda after his visit to Iredell County and Mooresville City Schools on Oct. 15.

Seven years ago, Mooresville City Schools saw only 64 percent of its high school students graduate. Seven years later, the graduation rate is 93.4 percent, and more than 95 percent for black students.

“Within our city system, I think our number one ingredient has been a synergy around high expectations for all our students,” said Mooresville City School Superintendent Mark Edwards. “It’s absolutely doable and the key is using formative assessments to know how students are doing during the year.”

The “digital conversion” in Mooresville schools has also contributed to improvements. All students in third through 12th grades receive Apple laptops as a way to eliminate the digital divide and promote children’s interest in learning.

“I am confident that Vance County can take the steps necessary to ensure improvement and success for all its students,” he said.

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