There is a reason Newell Clark, the mayor of Lexington, is on the board of directors of EdNC. He is a leader of leaders.
With four years and two terms under his belt, and less than a month before the next election, it might seem surprising to find a mayor spending time visiting public schools. But Clark’s first official action as mayor was to visit the local high school, and each month he joins the superintendent and other local officials as they visit a school in the Lexington City Schools.
“We gotta lead the way,” Clark says, stressing the importance for the students to meet elected officials. Somewhere Clark heard that the students are more likely to graduate if they meet an elected official. And so meet them he does. Whipping out his Sharpie, he makes his rounds in the cafeteria.
The kids celebrate his autograph with reactions ranging from “yes!” to “oh my God!” Each student understands the deal. Clark provides the inspiration, but the students have to do the hard work of making it to graduation. “All you guys going to graduate from high school for me?” Clark asks the students over and over. It is about building relationships, he says, and he wants these students to love this town and love this state.
In Lexington, the school board is not elected. Instead, they are appointed by the city council and the mayor to three-year terms with a two-term limit. The terms are staggered so there are at least two new school board members every year. The city council and the mayor nominate the nine members of the school board, and the nominations are approved with a simple majority vote by the council. Clark says its the council’s most important job. “We want to know what’s going on in our schools,” he says.
Perhaps that governance structure explains why on this day, the mayor, the mayor pro tem, two other councilmen, four school board members, the superintendent, and six senior members of the district’s administration are visiting this school together. They begin by having lunch in the school cafeteria before visiting classrooms.
Yep, that’s Councilman Frank Callicutt after lunch on the floor with a student working on math. Local officials take note.
The Lexington City Schools
In 2015, the Lexington City Schools serve 3,044 students — 1,011 are Hispanic, 918 are black, 778 are white, and 337 are Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander, or two or more races. In 2014, the district’s total per pupil expenditure including child nutrition was $9,628.13 (34th of 115 districts statewide), including $1,912.07 for its local supplement (55th of 115), and $1,573.15 for its federal supplement (15th of 115).
Pickett Elementary School
This is Pickett Elementary School. Built around 1956, the school was renovated a year ago. Superintendent Rick Kriesky says the upgrade was good for the students and the community. “The kids can see that we are investing in them,” he says.
These are some of the 360 students who attend Pickett Elementary School.
The superintendent says this is his most diverse school. Ten years ago, it was also the lowest performing elementary school in the system. Now it is the highest performing, earning a C in the latest round of school grades.
They are smart, they are important, they are loved
School turnaround just doesn’t happen without leadership. Since 2005-06, Principal Gina Spencer has been doing many of the things we see working in charter schools serving students in poverty. She says it comes down to ownership of what’s going on in the building.
Spencer hires teachers that believe the kids can do the work. Her mantra: They are smart, they are important, they are loved. Teacher turnover is low, according to Assistant Superintendent Emy Garrett.
Spencer tells me that setting boundaries and discipline is a priority. She insists on a print-rich environment to increase the vocabulary of her students. Especially in math, teachers require students to stand and deliver when called on using the approach of the Comer School Development Program at Yale University. The professional learning communities (PLCs) for teachers work across grade levels to ensure vertical articulation.
The superintendent attributes the success of this school to relationship building. He says the adults in the school building care beyond the student-teacher relationship, which motivates the students to succeed.
And success means graduation. Each student knows when they are expected to graduate. “Heads up,” says the principal to some of her students, “you gotta be somebody.”
The classroom experience
In Mrs. Alexander’s first-grade class, the students are learning the who, what, when, where, why, and how of reading.
In Mrs. Swift’s fourth-grade class, the local officials learned about how student groupings are used in a classroom to provide differentiated learning opportunities for all of the students.
The government and education
Newell Clark believes that the government should create an environment where business can thrive. “How’s the school system?” he says is the first question potential businesses ask when considering a move to Lexington. He says if we invest in education, the arts, and our quality of life, then economic development will follow.
At the schools he visits, he says he gets to really see what matters. “These kids don’t know if we are Democrats or Republicans.”
When Clark registered to vote at age 18 as a Republican, the official stopped typing and asked, “Does your Grandfather know?” He has never voted straight ticket, and he believes strongly that voters need to understand the issues and the candidates. “We have to find balance going forward,” he says.
Clark grew up in Lexington, where a family business has contributed to the local economy for more than 75 years. He was the first general citizen elected mayor in 35 years.
“Being fiscally conservative does not mean we aren’t going to spend money. It means we need to spend money wisely. Investing in education is critical, but it requires more than money. It requires showing up at these schools. It requires us to inspire our students.”
— Newell Clark, Mayor of Lexington