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On April 28-30, 2019, philanthropists, policymakers, educators, and community leaders joined together in Greensboro at the Proximity Hotel to learn about and discuss the work being done and the work to be done to orient North Carolina’s students, educators, and leaders towards readiness and attainment. For the next two weeks, EducationNC will be sharing content from Bridge.

The leaders of different educational systems in North Carolina, state legislators, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest all spoke at EducationNC’s April Bridge convening on the importance of readiness and attainment and barriers within North Carolina education systems. 

System leaders talk barriers to readiness and attainment

Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, NC Community College System President Peter Hans, State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis, and NC Independent Colleges and Universities President Hope Williams shared the different ways their systems are working to support students throughout their educational journeys. 

Johnson led the conversation with the importance of family support, early childhood development, and education before kindergarten. Though the state looks at third-grade reading proficiency as an important marker, he said we often put that responsibility solely on teachers in kindergarten through third grade.

“We have students coming into kindergarten who have already experienced five to six years of their life,” Johnson said. “And we’re asking kindergarten through third grade teachers to catch them up in those five to six years in that span of K-3 with the summers off and the summer brain drain that comes with it. So third grade reading achievement is extremely important, but as we all know here, it doesn’t just happen in kindergarten to third grade. It starts much earlier too.”

Davis echoed this sentiment.

“Too many of our students are coming to us unprepared and we spend 13 years with them playing catch up, and that’s not a winning formula,” Davis said.

While there are many programs that deal with attainment in high school — like dual enrollment, Cooperative Innovative High Schools, and AP courses that give students a head start in college — Davis said more investment is needed in children’s first years of life.

“If you could think of ways that our state could marshal its energy and commit to delivering to Mark’s teachers students in kindergarten ready to learn, his teachers will take care of them, and they’ll graduate, and they’ll be ready to go work in your businesses.” 

Bridge attendees discussed other barriers across K-12 education in small groups and shared out some of those points: support for working mothers, food insecurity and other health issues, and finances to fund universal pre-K. 

Davis explained how universal kindergarten, though still not required in state law, was established after small pockets of communities across the state developed programs, spread information, and eventually demanded the state do something about it. 

“But it started in small communities and cities and towns across North Carolina, and eventually it became apparent that the only way to provide kindergarten for North Carolinians was it had to be a state program,” Davis said. “And what was said then? ‘Oh gosh, it’s expensive. I don’t know how we’re going to do it.’ It’s the same things that are being said today about pre-kindergarten.”

A system was set up to send students to school in groups based on alphabetical order of their last names. Before long, Davis said parents were demanding kindergarten for all. He also said there are many local communities and counties finding innovative ways to start universal pre-K systems. 

“The same path that got us to having universal kindergarten can get us to having universal pre-K.”

The discussion’s second leg was around barriers to attainment in the higher education world. Hans said one crucial need is more short-term workforce education programs for adults who need help switching careers, learning new skills, or advancing in their careers. 

“Chances, opportunities for re-skilling and up-skilling that can occur in weeks and months, not necessarily years,” Hans said. “Everything we know about the economy and technology and society suggests to us that education is likely to be shorter in duration and more regularly occurring throughout people’s lives. Community colleges, that’s where we intersect with all sectors of education.”

Williams shared that colleges and universities, both public and private, are working to help students feel welcome, provide supports along the way, and meet all types of students — nontraditional ages included — where they are. 

Williams said a significant portion of degrees are attained from the private colleges and universities across the state.

“Independent colleges and universities award 92% of physician assistant degrees in this state, 55% of the pharmacy degrees, one in four baccalaureate, one in three graduate/professional in general,” Williams said. “We are a significant player in this attainment piece which is why we’ve been so involved in the myFutureNC piece because we know it’s so critical. But we know that even if we have the programs, we need the help for the students in figuring out how to help them be successful when we’re there.” 

Watch the entire discussion below.

Sen. Lowe and former Sen. Lee talk education in today’s politics

Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, and former Sen. Michael Lee, a Republican who represented New Hanover County, discussed education and the political process — structural issues, important conversations, and missing voices — at Bridge. 

“I think that, all in all, Democrats and Republicans actually agree on a lot more than we disagree on,” Lee said, pointing to the structure of education governance and its fragmentation.

Lowe, explaining his background as a child who was bused across town to go to school in a wealthier part of town, said different people need to be at the table to make sound education decisions, and students with different backgrounds need to be educated in the same classroom. 

“I think that we have to find a way, number one, to listen to each other and to find a clear way to bring all of the folks to the table — poor folks, rich folks, in between folks. You’ve got to find ways to bring all of those folks to the table and just look at what’s best for the folks that need to be educated in this case.”

Lee added that divisions between urban and rural parts of the state continue to create issues for statewide policy. He also said educational finance reform needs to be studied and that transparency at different levels of the educational system needs to be improved. 

“Once we have transparency, then we can talk about adequacy,” Lee said. “That’s what’s important to a lot of different folks.”

For Lee and Lowe’s full discussion, watch the video below. 

Forest talks school choice, creativity within system

Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest joined Bridge to share his educational philosophy and different initiatives throughout the state. 

Forest and his wife became homeschoolers when the oldest of their four children was on track to enter a school with poor student outcomes. 

“We were getting ready to put our oldest son into kindergarten, and he was getting ready to go to a school in Gaston County that was ranked dead last in the state of North Carolina,” Forest said. “We started looking around for private schools, for church schools, for whatever we could find, and nothing seemed to fit. And we had some crazy friends that homeschooled and we were like, ‘Well, maybe we could try that for kindergarten and it won’t be so bad.'”

They have now homeschooled all of their children through their educational journeys. Forest said it gives them valuable one-on-one time with their children and allows them to teach the content and curriculum they choose.

“Because of that experience, I’ve been a fan of school choice,” he said. “I’ve been a fan of parents having this ability to choose excellent education for their kids, whatever form, whatever style that happens to be, and I think that’s good because if our focus is on the students, then we’re not doing so much to try to protect a system … a system that’s kind of antiquated sometimes.”

Forest said the current system does not allow for innovation. Forest gave examples on how he has implemented high-speed broadband access in every classroom in the state and how he is working on introducing computer science and financial literacy in schools.  

“We need to be more flexible,” he said. “We need to be more nimble. We need to be more creative about how we do that within our system today.”

Watch Forest’s entire remarks below. 

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.