Public school system searches, discovers avenues to help

Jul. 14, 2014 @ 04:13 PM

Vance County Schools will not be dead last in cohort graduation rates another year, according to district administrators.

Superintendent Ronald Gregory said new initiatives are well underway to get students graduating on time. So far, one-on-one coaching and vocational programs have helped.

In May, career and technical education director Willa Clark told the board of education that Vance County students in the program exceeded state goals in reading and math, graduation and secondary school completion.

Across the school system, about 415 seniors graduated and received $2.5 million in scholarships this spring. Graduation cohort rates are expected to be released within the next 30 days.

Gregory said the district should start seeing the results soon of their efforts soon.

“Our graduation rate won’t be in the 60s like it was last year,” he said. “We are looking at a increase of about 9 percent.”

Last year, the district’s rate for students entering ninth grade and graduating after four years was 64.9 percent — a rank of 115 out of 115 school systems in the state. The state average was 82.5 percent.

Vance was 113 of 115 at 68.2 percent in 2013, and 111 of 115 at 68.2 percent in 2012. Its graduation rate has regressed in two of the past six years (59.5 percent in 2007 to 49.3 percent in 2008).

“We were slapped with the graduation rate last year,” Gregory said.

Assistant superintendent Trixie Brooks said they are still finding avenues to help students who are behind.

“We are not relaxing,” she said. “We are spreading our work further.”

She and assistant superintendent Brian Creasman developed the Vance Online Academy for individuals who need to make up classes and missed opportunities, catch up and graduate on time.

She said 30 students — most of them rising seniors — started the program this past week. It will run through Aug. 8.

The district also initiated a new college advisors program at Northern and Southern Vance high schools in the fall.

This program, a partnership with UNC Chapel Hill, provides a state grant to house two full-time college advisors at each school to help students search and apply for colleges and scholarships.

“This is an innovative idea for Vance County,” Gregory said. “Families have not really been involved in the process. We tell kids they have to go to college, but we don’t tell them how to get there.”

The school system reported 206 of its 415 graduates this spring, 49.6 percent, are headed to college.

The school system will also continue its state-mandated summer reading program at Aycock Elementary School.

Gregory said he will continue to rebuild students’ hope that they can succeed, but some obstacles make it harder.

He said the biggest road block next year is keeping students caught up over the summer and retaining quality teachers.

“Our district, for a long time, has been the training ground for teachers,” he said. “We have a lot of teachers that run in every day and ride out every night.”

The district’s attrition rate for teachers, according to Gregory, is about 25 percent.

Part of that problem leads to another — funding.

Gregory said he was concerned with the state’s proposed legislation to use North Carolina Education Lottery funds for teacher pay increases.

“I don’t think the N.C. lottery is a sustainable way to do business,” he said. “It is just a quick fix to make people happy.”

While the district contends with dwindling funds from the state, it is also faced with flat funding from the county.

“We want to educate our children and the community,” Gregory said. “We are doing that on zero right now.”

County commissioners approved less than half of the district’s requested $19 million for next year. The appropriation amounts to about $100,000 more than last year’s.

Vance County ranks 111th for capital outlay funds spent per full time-student and 90th in current expense fund spending out of 115 districts.

“We get about $123 per kid,” Creasman said. “It’s just a drop in the bucket of what they need. That doesn’t even buy the textbooks they need.”

On limited funding, administrators said they would develop more college preparation programs in the coming years.

The district is looking at expanding its career and technical education programs and securing a place for large lecture classes that will resemble the college experience.

Brooks said 70 percent of American children graduate from high school, about 40 percent of them go to college, and 30 percent of those actually return for another year.

“The No. 1 failure rate is amongst the 200 to 300 basic classes,” she said. “Students just can’t handle the transition.”

Gregory said the coming initiatives are important to Vance County — a district of high poverty and crime where students can easily acquire tunnel vision.

“We can’t step the game up unless we step the game up for them,” Gregory said.


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[This story has been edited to reflect the following correction: The summer reading camp at Aycock Elementary School is mandated by the state. The United Way, which does have a partnership with the Vance County Schools during the regular school year, is not involved in the camp.)