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Superintendent to lawmakers: ‘Don’t be strangers’

This week’s State Board of Education meeting was only Republican Superintendent Mark Johnson’s second meeting since winning the election over Democrat June Atkinson in November. While he hasn’t talked often in his first two meetings, he had two opportunities Wednesday and Thursday to give general remarks — first to lawmakers at the legislative breakfast on Wednesday, and then again during the Superintendent’s report to the Board on Thursday. 

At the legislative breakfast, Johnson briefly greeting legislators, telling them that he has been meeting with General Assembly leadership and leaders of the education committees, and that he is ultimately trying to meet with every single member of the General Assembly. 

“Please, seriously, don’t be strangers. This is a summer when we need to be big and we need to be bold. And one of the key things that I hope to bring to our work here is a sense of urgency,” he said. “And I hope we bring that sense of urgency over in the General Assembly and in the Governor’s office as well, because every year that goes by that we don’t take these big, bold actions is another year that we are letting down students and letting down teachers.” 

See his full comments in the video below. 

At the State Board meeting Thursday, Johnson talked about what he has been doing since he started his new role, and he also discussed his planned listening tour. 

“It has been a full month of listening. I have been listening to lawmakers in Raleigh, and we have been sharing priorities for the upcoming long session. I have been listening to teachers, to school staff, and to superintendents, who are excited about having an authentic relationship and someone who will respond to their needs,” he said. “I have been listening to the staff right here in the Department of Public Instruction and taking into consideration their views and suggestions for operational and organizational changes that could help the department run more efficiently. I have been listening to constituents. I had the pleasure of students emailing me and just asking if they could stop by and meet the state Superintendent. To their surprise, it was just that easy to meet the state Superintendent.”

He announced that today is the first stop on his statewide listening tour. He is in Winston-Salem visiting Glenn High School, a school that has increased its school performance grade by one letter over the past few years, he said. Glenn High School had a C on the most recently released 2015-16 School Performance Grades. Before becoming Superintendent, Johnson was a board member on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education.

Johnson said he will also be meeting with business leaders in the area, as well as visiting the Innovation Quarter in Winston-Salem. Press is not invited to join him on his school tour, though he will be available to media afterwards. 

As to his future plans, he said they won’t be solidified until he’s had a chance to listen to more constituents. 

“I will have priorities over the summer, but first I will listen,” he said. “And I will hear and I will take in what teachers, principals, and superintendents need from us.” 

Watch his full remarks, including a complete statement on all stops he’s making in Winston-Salem, below. 

Other State Board news

The rest of Wednesday and Thursday’s State Board meeting was jam-packed with updates on topics ranging from the Kestrel Heights Public Charter School controversy (the vote to close the high school was delayed) to an overview of the updated Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) draft plan, to a proposed statewide mental health policy.

Here’s what you missed.

Kestrel Heights delayed vote

Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) chair Alex Quigley presented his board’s recommendations to close Kestrel Heights after the Durham charter school reported that 40 percent of its graduates, a total of 160 students, received diplomas without the correct number of graduation credits. The school would be a K-8 school and could not seek grade expansion for three years, Quigley said. 

The State Board’s discussion and vote was delayed due to a motion from Board member Becky Taylor, who chairs the Board’s charter schools committee, to take up the item at the Board’s March meeting. Taylor said the Board has received information and needs more time for thorough review of all the facts. 

“It’s just a matter of due diligence,” Taylor said. “When we’re making a huge decision, we want to make sure that we consider all information, no matter where it’s coming from — either from the CSAB, from letters from our stakeholders, individuals from the school.”

ESSA update

The statewide plan required by federal legislation and due to the U.S. Department of Education in September is slowly coming together. 

The chief academic and digital learning officer at DPI, Maria Pitre-Martin, gave a heavily condensed summary of six sections of the draft, and Director of Accountability Services Tammy Howard focused on just one: accountability. The full update can be found in the video below.

How new performance indicators and a new accountability system will affect the current A-F model is still to be determined. Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Durham, said he expects the topic to be debated this legislative session. 

Howard said the Testing and Growth Advisory Council is meeting February 16 to continue the discussion on accountability. One detail the council will address is double-testing in the eighth grade — which is when eighth graders who are enrolled in Math 1 have to take both the Math 1 End of Course (EOC) exam and the eighth grade Math End of Grade (EOG) exam. 

“We’ve had feedback for several years from educators and parents who are very concerned that these students have to take two assessments in their eighth grade year,” Howard said. “With ESSA, the state has the opportunity to discontinue that practice.” 

If the accountability system had required eighth graders in Math 1 to only take the EOC in 2015-16, Howard said 22 schools’ performance letter grades would have dropped.

“I think it is interesting to see that it’s not a large number of schools,” Howard said.

Read further on what a new accountability system could look like here.

Local alternative teacher preparation program

As a part of the budget the General Assembly passed last session (section 8.27 to be exact), Central Carolina Local Alternative Teacher Preparation (LATP) — a program that trains lateral entry teachers to earn continuing licenses — is in its early stages. 

The Central Carolina LATP is a partnership between Wake County Public Schools and the Central Carolina Regional Education Service Alliance, which represents 18 school districts that are all eligible to participate.

According to the presentation given by Lynne Johnson (watch below), director of teacher effectiveness at DPI, one of the main goals of the program is to “increase district responsibility for growing the teacher pipeline.” The idea is that districts know what their schools need most — and can best train their own teachers. 

The Central Carolina LATP is modeled off the Guilford County Schools Alternative Certification Track, which the request for proposal says graduates teachers who score better in middle school math, Math 1, and Biology than traditionally licensed teachers in the district in EVAAS growth.

The program is targeted at instruction for grades 6-12 and lasts three years with a minimum requirement of 248 hours of study. State law says the program’s content should be “comparable to the quality of instruction required for a traditional teacher preparation program” and requires 150 hours of study. Johnson said the first year focuses on coursework, the second on intensive coaching and mentorship, and the third is customizable to that participant’s needs. 

She said each participant will have a mentor in the school and an instructional coach from the district.

Career and college-ready graduates program

The first year of a state-mandated pilot program that targets students who are behind and provides remediation before graduation has reached 18 schools.

DPI’s Director of K-12 Curriculum and Instruction Tiffany Perkins presented a report on the program’s progress. Her entire presentation is in the video below. Partnerships between schools and both community colleges and UNC system schools were used to make sure gaps in knowledge are being filled.

Perkins said the courses are also customizable to the specific high school and community college in that area. 

Two additional phases of the program will span the next three school years. By the third year — in 2018-19 — Perkins said there should be access to remedial courses in every high school in the state. She said each year the eligibility criteria is planned to narrow. 

State Board vice chair Buddy Collins said he continues to hear from community college instructors who receive students who aren’t prepared. 

“I think all of our graduates are not equal,” Collins said. 

He said he hopes to continue to “redesign 12th grade” to better equip students who are headed to community college. Collins said he wants to focus on “… making sure our 12th grade is working towards a remedial type of approach based on where a student is as we see them as opposed to keeping them in kind of a homogenous track.”

Every student who completes the coursework should be prepared for community college or a UNC system school. If not, the remediation will allow them to “reduce their developmental education footprint when enrolling at their community college,” the report says. 

Board member Gregory Alcorn agreed that the program is vital.

“If this program works well enough, it will put itself out of business,” he said.

Mental health policy

A new statewide school mental health policy, which will be voted on by the State Board in March, aims to ensure all students have access to the resources they need.

This comes after the Board’s commitment last year to the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model, which acknowledges the importance of the school as a hub for both health and education and seeks to provide services to meet each student’s complex needs.

The North Carolina School Mental Health Initiative, which consists of public educators, families, mental health clinicians, advocates, and other stakeholders, surveyed six focus groups to assess the reality of mental health in the state’s schools.

The initiative reports that 19 percent of N.C. students 8-15 years old — compared to 13.1 percent nationwide — have some kind of mental health or substance use disorder. Seventy-five percent of those students won’t receive treatment with the state’s current approach.

“It really is about the fact that we don’t have enough services,” said Bill Hussey, DPI’s director of exceptional children. Watch Hussey’s full presentation on the policy below.

The state’s youth suicide rates have doubled in recent years. EdNC’s Adam Rhew has reported extensively on youth suicide, which is the second leading cause of death for individuals ages 15 to 19. 

The initiative outlines three main recommendations: create a continuum of support and services, make it sustainable, and engage stakeholders. 

And within the actual policy, all public schools are required to practice universal prevention — including the establishment of school mental health teams that have at least one mental health provider from the school and one from the community — early intervention, and treatment, referral, and re-entry.

Legislative Agenda

The Board also heard Thursday from Rachel Beaulieu, legislative and community affairs director for DPI. 

She went over the list of legislative priorities for the State Board, which include: raising teacher pay high enough that North Carolina becomes #1 in the Southeast for teacher salaries, fixing the principal salary schedule, transferring Pre-K to be under the jurisdiction of DPI and increasing the number of slots available, giving local school districts calendar flexibility, revising the school performance grades to at least align with the Every Student Succeeds Act, and fixing the problems created by a provision in the short session budget from last year that capped the student-to teacher-ratio in grades K-3. 

That last was the subject of a bill during the special session in December. That bill went nowhere, but currently there is a bill in the House that would make the requirement less strict. Read about this issue in our legislative preview. 

See the full list of legislative priorities discussed here

Watch the video of the presentation, followed by questions from Board members, below. 

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.

Alex Granados

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