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Lt. Gov. Dan Forest asks State Board to open all schools

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest tried unsuccessfully on Thursday to get the North Carolina State Board of Education to vote on allowing all schools the option of opening for full-time in-person instruction. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has ordered that only elementary schools may do so for the time being. Cooper and Forest are facing off in next month’s election for governor.

Forest’s move came at the very end of the State Board’s three-day meeting this week. During a motion to approve updated guidance from the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) related to how schools operate under COVID-19, Forest asked to make a substitute motion that would have the State Board and the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) work with DHHS to open all schools in the state.

Board member Amy White seconded the motion, but what ensued was several minutes of confusion about what the motion actually was.

Schools were closed by the governor last school year because of COVID-19 and only allowed to reopen this year at partial capacity. In September, Cooper finally said that elementary schools could open in-person full time.

The Board’s attorney was brought in during the meeting and expressed his understanding that the governor has the authority to decide to open schools or not, and the State Board has the authority to dictate guidance on how schools operate after they reopen.

Forest then clarified his views, saying that the Board attorney seemed to be saying that the governor has authority over the State Board when it comes to administering education statewide. Forest said the governor did not, and that this duty fell on the State Board.

He said that the State Board has gone to court when it perceives other elected officials as trying to supersede its authority. That is something the Board did, in fact, do when state Superintendent Mark Johnson was elected and granted new powers by the General Assembly.

“We have schools across this state that want to be able to open safely now,” Forest said, adding: “Why would we as a Board deny any school district this ability?”

Board Chair Eric Davis ultimately told Forest that the motion didn’t really apply to what the Board was discussing.

“The point you’re raising is worthy of debate, but it is beyond the scope of this particular agenda item,” he said.

Forest then withdrew the motion and the Board voted to approve the update to the state’s guidance on dealing with COVID-19 in schools.

Earlier in the meeting, the Board heard about that guidance as well as an update on the spread of COVID-19 from DHHS.

Included were slides on new lab-confirmed cases as well as specific statistics on infections in children.

There have been 24 total COVID-19 clusters in K-12 schools, but a “disproportionate” percentage of them have been in private schools: 46%.

In total, there have been 171 cases associated with all K-12 clusters, and 126 cases associated with the 15 currently active clusters.

Eighty-eight cases are students and 44 are staff. Two clusters account for more than half of the student cases.

See that whole presentation below:

In other news, the State Board of Education heard updates on a new equity office, North Carolina’s statewide attainment goal, its two virtual charter schools, and more during its October strategic planning session and monthly meeting this week.

Here are some other highlights from the State Board.

Equity office

Davis announced during the Board meeting Thursday a proposal by Johnson to create an equity office at DPI that would be under the current Deputy Superintendent of Innovation David Stegall.

This follows on the approval of an equity resolution last month that includes the creation of an equity officer, a role that was the subject of some dispute at a previous board meeting.

Davis asked the State Board to provide input on what they’d like to see and what they would not like to see in an equity office. He said that once the parameters of the office are defined and the office is created, an equity officer will be chosen at a later date and will report to Stegall.

Johnson said during the discussion that he came up with the idea for the equity office after he suggested creating a new role for Bev Emory in which she would head up the department’s work fulfilling the priorities of the long-running Leandro education case. She was formerly the deputy superintendent of district support at DPI.

“I think this is a great step forward in partnership,” Johnson said.

Education corps

The State Board heard details of a new program called the Education Corps on Thursday. Former state Superintendent Mike Ward, who is a volunteer with the Education Corps, asked Board members to imagine a few different scenarios by way of introduction.

He said to imagine a superintendent sending out Wi-Fi hotspots in their district to increase internet access for students. But that superintendent doesn’t have the people needed to actually check with households and make sure everything is working right.

Then he said to imagine a graduate just out of a four-year program in computer science who is having trouble getting the job he or she hoped for and wants to do something to serve the community.

Then he asked the Board members to imagine a program that connects that superintendent with that student: a blend of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, and other service-oriented organizations.

“Capable, competent, caring individuals, trained for service to students, schools, and communities,” Ward said.

He said such people could be deployed as tutors, help families navigate the digital world, help connect students with social-emotional services, and more.

“I’ve been in a bunch of conversations with superintendents these past weeks, and that list I’ve just shared is a mere sample of what they say they need,” he said.

Examples of the types of people that might serve in the corps are recent college or community college graduates, college seniors who could work half-time, retirees, veterans, or military spouses.

Ward then turned it over to John-Paul Smith, program director for Education Corps. Smith is the co-founder and CEO of American Ripples, which Ward described as an organization that “helps communities recruit, train, and deploy young people to work on public service projects.”

Smith said that phase one of the Education Corps is recruitment, training, and deployment of corps members to Tier 1 and 2 areas of the state. Tier 1 counties are the most economically distressed in the state, followed by Tier 2.

Smith plans to have corps members in these communities either virtually or in person by January.

Right now, he said the focus is going to be recruitment. Applications are going out to districts who want to be a part of the Education Corps. They provide information about their needs, and then the Education Corps will recruit individuals who can help fill those needs.

Targeted recruitment should start in November, Smith said.

The office of Gov. Roy Cooper has provided the organization with more than $100,000, and the organization is also seeking grant funds and fundraising with private organizations and foundations, Smith said.

FAFSA completion

Cecilia Holden, the CEO of myFutureNC, gave the State Board an update on the work of the organization Wednesday, emphasizing in particular the importance of Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

MyFutureNC describes itself on its website as “a statewide nonprofit organization focused on educational attainment and is the result of cross-sector collaboration between North Carolina leaders in education, business, and government.”

The organization set a statewide attainment goal that was adopted into law back in 2019. The goal is to get 2 million North Carolinians between ages 25 and 44 to have “high-quality credentials” or postsecondary degrees by 2030.

Holden told the Board that if the state does nothing, it will be short of that goal by about 300,000 people in 10 years.

“What’s most important to highlight here is that based on all the data and research … that we have to focus on the underserved and underrepresented populations in order to achieve our goal,” she said.

Holden explained that FAFSA is important to that goal because completing it is a step towards being able to receive Pell Grants, and North Carolina uses it when it comes to things like state aid and scholarships.

“This is the critical application that must be completed,” she said.

However, only 64% of high school seniors completed a FAFSA in 2019, a percentage she said has likely gone down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the next 10 years, the goal is to increase the FAFSA completion percentage to 80% of high school seniors. Holden said that research shows that completing the FAFSA can lead to educational attainment. Ninety percent of people who did complete it go on to college of some sort, compared to 55% of those who do not complete it.

Holden said it is particularly important for those students who come from backgrounds where college may seem out of reach because of cost. Filling out the FAFSA and seeing what resources are available can show such students that attending college is possible.

See the full presentation below.

Virtual charter schools

The state’s two virtual charter schools are the subject of an annual report to the General Assembly. The State Board heard details of that report during the meeting Wednesday.

The two schools are consistent low performers — both received a D school performance grade and have not meeting growth every year since inception in the 2015-16 school year.

Despite that, this pilot program, which was only supposed to last four years, has been extended by the General Assembly to the 2022-23 school year.

Initially, the enrollment at the two schools was capped at 2,592 students. Neither North Carolina Cyber Academy nor North Carolina Virtual Academy started at that number, but both of have grown since their inception.

The State Board of Education declined, mostly along party lines, to allow the two schools to increase their enrollment beyond the statutory limit in order to meet the increased demand for virtual learning during the pandemic this fall.

However, the General Assembly bypassed the Board and enacted legislation allowing them to do so for one year.

Here are the growth trends for the two schools.

Here are the student performance trends.

The schools were given a glimpse of the report ahead of time, and North Carolina Virtual Academy took the opportunity to respond to the findings. That response is included in the report.

In the response, school representatives say:

Since its inception, NCVA has made significant changes. We have invested in new academic initiatives, instructional and assessment programs, teacher hiring and training, and student support services to improve academic outcomes. Under new leadership, NCVA experienced significant academic and operational improvement in 2019-2020, not reflected in the draft report. We readily admit that our goal is to continue to improve academically; however, we wish to point out successes at the school.”

The response continues, pointing out numerous areas where the school says it is improving. You can find those notes in the appendix of the report.

See detailed data and more in the report and the presentation:

Principal of the Year

2020 Principal of the Year Kisha Clemons closed out this year’s planning session on Thursday with a discussion of her work improving Shuford Elementary in Newton-Conover City Schools.

Much of the planning session focused on issues of equity, and Clemons emphasized the importance of that.

“We must operate through a lens of equity so that we are meeting the needs of all our students,” she said.

Clemons said that equity is a focus of her elementary school, as is a whole child model of education. She said that ensuring that students are healthy and safe, have a personalized experience, and have what they need to be both academically and personally successful in life are important goals of her school.

She showed the State Board of Education the following image to use as an illustration while talking about the transformation of her school.

She said the first photo, the hamster wheel, represents how her teachers and staff were working hard but not getting anywhere when it came to student needs.

She said the second picture shows that “fair is not always equal, and equal is not always equitable.” She said that her school used to operate under a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Students had to adapt to what we were doing rather than vice versa,” she said.

She said that the last image, broken glass, represents the idea of a “deficit mindset.” The conversations at her school focused on what students couldn’t do, rather than the strengths and abilities of students.

The school changed the way it thought about students, moving from a traditional model of teaching that had students sitting in neat row of desks and being quiet as the teacher taught, to a more dynamic approach that favored personalized learning.

“No longer are students adapting to what we’re doing,” she said.

See more about how Clemons transformed Shuford Elementary in her presentation below.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.