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Local education in jeopardy

The gauntlet has been laid.

Education administrators in three local counties are busy today in the aftermath of a suggestion made by Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. to deny 44 low-performing high schools across the state from opening their doors for the start of the 2006-07 academic year.

Judge Manning identified the 44 schools, saying the dismal academic performance at these schools cannot continue. Three of

the low-performing high schools on Judge Manning’s list are here in the Roanoke-Chowan area n Bertie High, Hertford County High and Northampton County High School-West.

In a letter dated March 3 sent to Dr. June Atkinson, State Superintendent for the NC Department of Public Instruction, and Howard Lee, Chairman of the State Board of Education, Judge Manning addressed in detail the academic shortcomings at these 44 high schools. He also laid out the hard-hitting consequences if these schools continue to post composite test scores of 55 percent and below.

Local scores are sub-par

Those latest available scores (from the end of the 2004-05 academic year) show Bertie High School very close to that bare minimum threshold. Bertie’s composite score stood at 53.2 percent. It has risen by nearly 10 percent from a 43.0 performance in 2001-02.

Bertie County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart said that while Bertie High’s composite score of 53.2 percent has yet to reach the benchmark of 55 percent, she noted the scores have steadily improved over the past four years.

“While Judge Manning’s letter is certainly not good news, it should not come as a shock to anyone in Bertie County that we need to take drastic measures to improve our high school and we need to do so at a much more accelerated rate than we have done in the past,” Dr. Collins-Hart said.

She stressed that Judge Manning’s letter will serve as a launching pad for success in Bertie County.

“[The letter] can serve as an impetus to create more of a sense of urgency regarding what we must do,” she said. “I also hope this sense of urgency sets into motion a means to help us recruit and retain more of the teachers that are considered highly qualified and thereby help address the teacher shortage in our high school.”

Dr. Collins-Hart concluded by saying, “Maybe Judge Manning’s statements can be the impetus for addressing the lack of adequate facilities in our high school and the lack of adequate financial resources to support the educational programming needed for our high school. Our students deserve this. Rather than fear the threat of the closing of a school, I would rather view this as an opportunity for us to rise to the occasion. There will be no closing of Bertie High School.

Hertford County High has also noted a gradual increase from a dismal 36.1 percent score in 2001-02. The latest data revealed a score of 48.3 percent at HCHS, but yet that is nearly seven full percentage points below the minimum standards.

“This is a letter sent to the state superintendent expressing his (Manning) feelings,” Hertford County Superintendent Dennis Deloatch said. “It is not an order by the court to close schools.

“His findings are only based on one facet, the End of Course test scores. We need to consider a number of factors, not just test scores.”

Deloatch said he and the local school board realized that HCHS students have not met the 55 percent state minimum standard, but Hertford County educators have been working hard to increase the composite test scores.

He added that HCHS principal Larry Cooper, in his first year at the school, is working closely with the LEAAP (Local Education Agency Assistance Program) team, looking at test data and formulating a plan of improvement.

“The (LEAAP) team has been assigned to help all of our schools under the Disadvantaged Student Supplemental Fund, money ordered by Judge Manning,” Deloatch said. “In the first year we received this funding, the high school scores rose 10.3 percent over the previous year.”

Deloatch closed by saying, “We feel confident that because of continuous improvement, Hertford County High School will be open in the fall of 2006.”

NCHS-West students also made strides on their composite scores between 2002 and 2004, increasing from 37.6 percent to 48.1 percent. However, the school went in reverse during 2004-05, slipping to 46.4 percent.

“This is my first year here in Northampton County,” new Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kathi Gibson said. “We are very much aware of our strengths and our weaknesses and we’re working in the areas we know need to be improved.

“What we need is time and resources,” she added.

The superintendent said she and new Northampton-West principal Charles Chestnutt were working to make the necessary changes, but needed help from Manning and not criticism.

“I’d love to see him send us teachers in strategic areas,” Gibson said. “Instead of talking about getting rid of principals, I’d be more amenable to him helping find good teachers.

“I’m not really totally in opposition to his notion of wanting to help,” she added. “If he could help in the right way, it could be a win-win situation for everyone.”

Chestnutt was named principal of West in January.

“His attitude is like mine,” Dr. Gibson said. “He knows what work we have to do and we will do it.”

The local trio of schools are not the only northeastern North Carolina entries on Judge Manning’s list. Northwest Halifax (a composite score of 39.0 percent in 2004-05), Southeast Halifax (37.0 percent), Weldon High (57.6 percent after a low of 27 percent four years ago), Warren County (54.8 percent) and Plymouth High School (51.0 percent) also run the risk of not opening for 2006-07.

Leandro n the beginnings

Judge Manning was at the forefront of implementing a 2004 Supreme Court decision that upheld a guarantee written in the North Carolina Constitution that promised every child in the state an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in its public school system.

It all began in May of 1994 where parents, school boards and students from five low-wealth counties filed a lawsuit naming the State Board of Education and the State of North Carolina as defendants. The low-wealth counties said that the State did not provide enough money for them to provide their children with a quality education. The lawsuit became known as Leandro, after a named plaintiff in the case.

While the settlement from Leandro did eventually funnel some money to low-wealth school districts, Judge Manning followed-up to see how those additional funds were aiding those schools through increased test scores. What he found was the cause for his letter last week to state education officials.

In that letter, Judge Manning said his interpretation of Leandro further revealed that every classroom in a state-supported school must be staffed with a competent, certified and well-trained teacher. Furthermore, he said every public school shall be led by a well-trained competent principal with the leadership skills and the ability to hire and retain competent, certified and well-trained teachers.

In a May, 2005 report, Judge Manning said the lowest performing high schools in the state must be fixed and not in the distant future.

“These high schools cannot remain year after year after year with performance composites below 60 percent, or even 70 percent,” he wrote.

As a result, Gov. Mike Easley mandated that “turn-around” teams be sent to the lowest performing schools. Some began to make progress while others showed little or no gain in their composite scores.

Money isn’t at the root of the problem

Judge Manning then performed a study on what taxpayers were spending on the 44 worst performing high schools. Targeting schools with less than 60 percent composite scores during 2004-05, Judge Manning discovered those schools spent a little over $268 million on a combined 44,000 students.

Meanwhile, Judge Manning discovered that the top 44 performing schools in the state spent $254.4 million on their combined 47,500 students during 2004-05.

“It is obvious that money is not the answer to the disparity,” Judge Manning stated in his letter. “All children can learn, but learning is not occurring as it should in these sorry high schools.”

The ‘Blame Game’

The judge then pointed a finger of blame.

“I have come to the conclusion that the major problem with these schools lies within the category of school leadership, not money,” he noted. “The principal of any school is a critical component for the success or failure of that school.”

However, the blame didn’t stop at the principal’s office as Judge Manning added, “The principal also needs leadership and support from the superintendent and central office.”

Judge Manning said it was an undisputed fact that good principals are able to attract and retain good faculty that, in turn, allows the school to succeed. He also pointed out the opposite scenario for ineffective principals.

“There is simply no excuse today for a principal or superintendent to sit still and watch the world go by because they are either too lazy or too set in their ways to change,” Judge Manning wrote.

He continued, “The children who have to attend such schools are being deprived of a basic constitutional right.”

The final straw

Manning said there must be some sort of recourse for these schools that annually fail just to meet the minimum standards.

“There has to be a consequence for continually failing to move a high school upwards in student performance and for failing, after due notice, to seek and embrace change in the high school structure,” he said. “Simply put, this dismal high school academic performance cannot continue.”

The judge said that ineffective principals, “cannot stay on any longer and continue to preside over a high school where no more than 55 percent of the students tested on the EOG (End of Grade) tests perform at or above grade level.”

Judge Manning then laid down the gauntlet by putting the state superintendent and school board on notice.

“In the event the 2005-06 ABC performance composite for any of the 44 priority schools is at 55 percent or below and that particular high school’s performance composite scores for the previous four years are also at 55 percent or below, then that high school will not be allowed to open in the fall of 2006,” he wrote.

However, Judge Manning did leave the door slightly ajar with a few exceptions, including allowing a low-performing school to open with a new management team in place and a valid plan for an instructional redesign at the school with a staff committed to implementing that change. Both those exceptions must be approved by the State Board of Education.

(Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald Staff Writers Thadd White and Patrick Campbell contributed to this story.)