Manning miffed at HCHS progress

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 22, 2006

RALEIGH – Apparently, Hertford County Public Schools have not done enough to please Judge Howard Manning Jr.

On Friday in Wake County Superior Court, Judge Manning said he was satisfied with the progress of all but one of 17 low-performing high schools in the state.

That lone exception is Hertford County High School.

“Someone is going to have to go in there and ride herd starting next week,” Judge Manning said Friday while addressing a reporter with the Raleigh News & Observer.”

Particularly, Judge Manning was displeased over a local decision to hire an elementary school principal as the lead administrator at HCHS. He questioned the leadership experience of that person within a high school environment.

Additionally, the state Department of Public Instruction has said Hertford County Public School leaders do not have an adequate plan for boosting student achievement at the high school.

Ironically, Friday was the same day that Dr. Mary Jo Allen, interim superintendent of Hertford County Public Schools, announced the hiring of Jerry Simmons as principal at HCHS. Simmons, who replaces Larry Cooper, comes to Ahoskie from his position as principal at Rich Square-Creecy Elementary School.

According to the News & Observer, Judge Manning has directed state education leaders to intervene immediately at Hertford County High School.

While she said the Hertford County system welcomes the state assistance, Dr. Allen defended the hiring of Simmons.

“We know our new principal does not bring high school experience to the job, but we feel that the portion of Judge Manning’s plan to offer specialized training for the high school administrators at these low-performing schools will be very beneficial for Mr. Simmons,” she stressed. “He was not hired in time for him to take part in the first round of training. He is included in the next round.”

As far as Manning’s assessment that the HCPS plans for improving student achievement are inadequate, Dr. Allen explained why the judge was of that opinion.

“We knew the plan we were required to submit was not completely finished due to changes within our staff,” she said. “The plan had some shortcomings. With that said, we also knew that the person responsible for leading that effort, and that would be the high school principal, was not in place when the plan was submitted. The principal should be a part of that plan, but the timetable prevented that from happening.”

Dr. Allen said the state assistance team assigned to HCHS will afford the administration and teachers additional opportunities for focused attention over a longer time frame.

“One year is not enough time to turn a high school around,” Dr. Allen said. “To do this the right way you need three to seven years to see results.”

Dr. Allen said she and some of the HCPS staff will be in Raleigh beginning today (Tuesday) to jumpstart the planning process for HCHS.

“I see this as a positive,” she noted. “They will help train our staff better, plus there’s a chance we will be funded by the state for some additional staff members. We can make HCHS a positive place to learn, but it’s not going to happen overnight. I’m optimistic. I see the glass as half full, not half empty.”

In the meantime, Dr. Allen said the school system will continue to ask for community support.

“I hope our citizens will realize that the school administration and the school board cannot do this alone,” she said. “We need the entire community to focus on how to change the high school for the better. We have the ability to change.”

Meanwhile, she and the school board know that Judge Manning will keep Hertford County on his radar screen.

“Judge Manning will come back to the State Board and demand to know what’s going on in Hertford County,” Dr. Allen said. “Hopefully there will be some good news to share.”

In regards to Judge Manning threatening to close low-performing schools, Dr. Allen said that apparently will not be the case in Hertford County.

“The issue of possibly closing Hertford County High School has not been the topic of any discussions I’ve been a part of,” she said. “All that’s being discussed is what we need to do in order to meet, and hopefully exceed, Judge Manning’s mandates.”

As he did last year at the outset of an effort to improve student achievement at what was then 44 low-performing schools statewide, Judge Manning stressed that these schools must hold administrators accountable and increase the percentage of students at or above grade level or face the consequences n the closing of those schools.

In the Roanoke-Chowan area, HCHS, Bertie High and both public high schools in Northampton County (NCHS-East and NCHS-West) were on Judge Manning’s original list of troubled schools.

Then, in March of this year, Judge Manning trimmed the list to 17 schools n ordering them closed if principals were not replaced and specific academic reform measures were not put in place. Over the past four years, each of the 17 schools reported passing rates of less than 55 percent of their respective student bodies.

Bertie High and NCHS-West joined Hertford County High School on Manning’s final list. However, as was the case during Friday’s court proceedings, the judge seemed satisfied with the progress Bertie and NCHS-West were making in regards to administrative and academic improvements.

Supplying “ABC’s of Education” data from the state Department of Public Instruction, Manning pointed out that the HCHS numbers for the 2005-06 school year revealed only 44.4 percent of the student body was at grade level. While that percentage is up from the 36.2 percent reported at the end of the 2001-02 year, it failed to satisfy the judge.

Meanwhile, Bertie’s scores have increased from 44.1 percent in 2001-02 to 48.9 percent (2005-06) while NCHS-West shot from 39.9 percent to 50.2 percent over the same time frame. While neither has reached the 55 percent goal, Judge Manning and state education leaders are apparently pleased with the plans those two schools have to reach that plateau.

In Bertie’s favor, school administrators there have opened a Freshman Academy, one designed to help young students make the transition to the high school level. Also on the table are plans to assist minority students as well as those from low-wealth families.

Judge Manning has been at the forefront of the Leandro case, a long-running dispute between impoverished school districts and the state’s wealthier counties. Twice over the past nine years, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that all public school students in the state must have the same opportunity to receive a sound education, preparing them for college or to become gainfully employed.

In April and May of this year, NCDPI assigned Turnaround Assessment Teams to the schools on Judge Manning’s list. From the data collected during this two-month process, commonly held needs and site specific needs were identified.

&uot;The state is going to have to do more than they are now,&uot; Manning said. &uot;Someone is going to have to go in there and ride herd starting next week.&uot;

A threat is lifted

For the other 16 schools, Friday’s hearing lifted an immediate threat of sanctions that could have led to the removal of principals or even school closings.

&uot;I’m encouraged that Judge Manning had a chance to look at the work we’re planning to do at Hillside and Southern,&uot; said Carl Harris, Durham’s new superintendent. &uot;The academic achievement at both schools will improve, absolutely.&uot;

The steps being taken by Hillside and Southern include: making sure that lessons are in sync with the state’s curriculum, that students’ progress is measured throughout the year before state exams, that more is done to encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning and to get parents and the community involved.

The state’s plan for helping the 17 schools calls for leadership coaches to assist principals for about 36 days during the school year. In addition, the state will provide schools with curriculum specialists who will work to improve instruction, particularly in smaller, rural districts.

But Manning also pressed Pat Ashley, the state’s director of high school improvement, on the schools’ longer-term plans for more comprehensive overhauls.

Gov. Mike Easley has said the schools must adopt a proven model of school reform this year. So far, two or three have done so.

&uot;When are we going to know when these other schools have picked a particular restructuring plan?&uot; Manning asked. &uot;They can’t wait until November or December. … We can’t wait another year.&uot;