Searching for answers

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 6, 2007

WINDSOR – As it is so often, it’s not the questions that are tough; it’s the answers.

In what can best be described as a “country store” setting where grown men gather to ponder the world’s problems, members of the Bertie County Board of Education were joined by several Bertie County school administrators as they sat down face-to-face here Monday afternoon with top-ranking North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) officials.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the future of Bertie County Public Schools, particularly Bertie High School where low proficiency test scores are cause for concern.

Making the trip to Windsor was Dr. June Atkinson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, who was joined by two of her colleagues, State Board of Education member Kathy Taft and board liaison Marvin Pittman.

At the meeting’s outset, Bertie school officials painted a picture of the challenges faced by the rural district.

Bertie Schools Interim Superintendent Dr. Michael Priddy said the system faced three major hurdles n declining student enrollment, location (making it hard to attract and retain quality teachers) and expectations from the community.

“As you are well aware, we’re now in the process of preparing our 2007-08 budget,” Dr. Priddy said. “We’re looking at it line item by line item, making every attempt to direct more money into our classrooms, especially at the high school.”

Bertie Board of Education members Alton Parker, Gloria Lee, Michael Bracy and Melinda Eure each addressed the pitfalls facing the local system.

“We cannot fund the programs other school systems offer because Medicaid takes so much from our county’s budget,” Parker said. “We have the personnel in place to get the job done, but we are handcuffed without the funds it takes to run the programs that will prepare our students for the next level of education.”

Lee agreed with Parker, saying the potential was there to grow academically.

“We need a jumpstart so we can reach higher,” Lee noted. “Perhaps we should look for educational partners here in our community to help us increase productivity in our classrooms.”

Bracy saw the problems from a different aspect, even going as far as to point a finger of blame at the Bertie School Board.

“A lot of the trouble we’re in starts right here with the board,” he said. “Yes, there are different groups in the county that are pulling against each other, but it starts at the top with us.”

As the parent of two children enrolled in Bertie Public Schools, Eure said she has noticed a change in the system.

“I can see some improvement, especially at the high school, but we’re not where we need to be,” Eure said.

Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb was also invited to share his thoughts. He echoed Parker’s comments of how Medicaid drained the county’s coffers, money that could be put into education.

“We have no control over Medicaid,” Lamb said in reference to the $2.5 million the county pays as its share of the program. “When it comes to funding, the (Bertie) commissioners are as innovative as they can be. They are studying ways to increase the county’s share of the school budget by 10 percent over last year, which was also a year where we gave the schools a 10 percent increase.”

Dr. Atkinson stressed that she wanted to help move Bertie from a county of challenges to a county of triumph. She said the number one objective was earning community support.

“Do you have a list of achievement goals and how do you plan to engage the community to help you support those objectives,” Dr. Atkinson asked.

Bertie Schools administrator Carol Atkins answered by saying the local system was in the first of a five-year strategic plan, one that community stakeholders participated in the planning process.

“Each of the goals we set were stretched over the five-year period, but each needs funding to achieve the goal,” Atkins said.

Judging from the reaction he received from Bertie citizens during his fact-finding tour, Pittman said the climate in the local community has changed since the strategic plan was put into place. He suggested revisiting the plan and gain additional input from the community.

Dr. Atkinson turned her attention to Bertie High School, inquiring about academic progress and student achievement.

Those questions were fielded by Bertie High principal Sharon Bond. She said the school faced many challenges concerning teaching and learning. However, she said a state assistance team now in place at Bertie High has been very helpful.

Addressing the Bertie test scores (less than 50 percent proficiency) in the area of mathematics, Dr. Atkinson said the local system faced challenges to increase those scores.

“What plans do you have in place to increase the math scores,” the State Superintendent asked.

Dr. Priddy answered, saying he receives mixed answers when posing that question to the Bertie staff.

“If our third graders do not learn their multiplication tables, they can’t expect to perform well on a sixth grade EOG (End of Grade) test,” he stressed.

“I encourage you as a board and as administrators to oversee a plan that will improve math scores among your students,” Dr. Atkinson said.

Pittman said students scoring below 50 percent on proficiency tests should have a personalized education plan that follows them from grade to grade.

“So many students are ill-prepared to enter high school,” Pittman noted. “You need to take a closer look before passing these students off (to the next grade). It’s all about recognizing the problems early on and intervening.”

Parker chimed in on that thought by saying, “We pass along the problems from the elementary level, to the middle school and then to the high school and then blame the high school for all our problems. We need to recognize and address the problems early. We have to do a better job in identifying the children that are in need of help. We can’t afford to lose one child.”

Dr. Atkinson closed the two-hour meeting by asking the Bertie educators if they had certain goals.

“Do you want to see math and reading achievements at the third grade level; do you want to increase the high school graduation rate; what do you want your students to accomplish,” she asked.

Dr. Atkinson said the best answer would come not from the adults, but from the children.

“Let your students do the work,” Dr. Atkinson noted. “They want a better education. Start with them, let them listen to your partners and stakeholders within the local community and then come back to you with ideas on how they can become better students.”