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Judge’s order hits close to home

It could have been us.

On March 16, Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. sent a notice of hearing and order to the Halifax County Public Schools accusing the school district of committing “academic genocide.” The April 29 hearing will focus on who should be in charge of the Halifax County Public Schools.

Judge Manning sent a letter to North Carolina State Board of Education Chairman William Harrison and Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. June St. Clair Atkinson informing them of the hearing. He said it would “focus on what measures the State of North Carolina intends to take to remedy the constitutional violation of Halifax County Public Schools failing to provide children with the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.”

At least one local school district has taken Judge Manning’s step seriously.

“I think Judge Manning gave a very simple, well-done assessment of student achievement in North Carolina,” said Bertie County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Chip Zullinger. “There is not a whiffs difference between us, Halifax, Hertford, Weldon, Northampton or Warren counties. He could have just as easily applied it to any one of us.”

In a 28-page document, Judge Manning laid out the failures of Halifax County Schools in the areas of reading and math. He also instructed the state board to keep in mind that despite any political pressure, it was their duty to provide education to the children.

“I am sure there will be great whining and wailing from the adults, but never forget that the adults are the ones responsible for Halifax County Public Schools reaching this situation of academic collapse in classroom instruction and the concurrent violations of those children’s right to the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education that are occurring everyday in the Halifax County Public Schools,” Judge Manning wrote.

Dr. Zullinger said that was indeed a reminder.

“Another place he was dead on and I’m sure we all know this, but he gave us a reminder: if the kids aren’t learning, it’s the adults fault,” he said. “We, as an organization, have to take responsibility to make sure kids can read and do math. We can’t pass the buck. The state is paying us an awful lot of money to make sure the kids learn.”

The Superintendent said he and the Bertie County Board of Education have taken the notice of hearing seriously, even though it wasn’t directed at Bertie County.

“We just finished up a board retreat and the focus was around Judge Manning’s order as it pertained to Halifax,” Dr. Zullinger said. “Our central administration met last week to talk about the implications for us and the things we have to get into place between now and next year to make a dramatic difference.

“It has created a lot of renewed focus and effort on our part to make sure we are doing the right things for kids,” he continued. “Our board is deadly serious about it. We have a board that believes they can make a difference. They want to bear that responsibility and not have anyone act to take it away. We want to do things that would make him (Manning) not need to act.”

The main concern for Dr. Zullinger and the Bertie County board is the elementary school focus.

According to 2007-08 test data, Halifax County’s schools are not significantly different than Bertie, Hertford or Northampton in testing.

Halifax’s school had an overall average ranging from 32.1 percent proficient at Dawson Elementary School to 50 percent proficient at Hollister Elementary School. That compared to a range of 36.8 proficient at West Bertie Elementary School in Bertie County to 50.5 proficient at Aulander Elementary.

The range in Hertford County was slightly smaller – 41 percent proficient at Ahoskie Elementary School to 44.3 percent at Bearfield Primary.

In Northampton County Schools the range was from 36.3 percent proficient at Rich Square W.S. Creecy Elementary all the way to a regional high of 64.5 percent at Central Elementary.

Individual school scores in reading and math fluctuated in the region. The lowest math score was 25 percent proficient in the third grade at Dawson Elementary School (Halifax County) through a high of 82.8 percent proficient at Central Elementary School (Northampton County) in fourth grade.

The reading scores ranged from a low of 12.8 percent proficient at Pittman Elementary School in Halifax County in the fifth grade to a high of 65.5 percent at Central Elementary School (fourth grade) in Northampton County.

While the test data does show Halifax County at the bottom, the entire region could face similar mandates by Judge Manning if steps aren’t taken, according to Dr. Zullinger.

“Ever since that order came down, we have been working on it,” Dr. Zullinger stated. “It was copied to all of us. We have had a lot of discussions and we will have a lot more.”

He said the district had taken seriously the mandates handed down by Judge Manning concerning high school achievement in the past several years.

“A lot of the high school initiatives, we have moved aggressively on,” Dr. Zullinger said. “We haven’t completed them, but we have done a lot of what he wanted to see at the high school level. The latest order is going to cause serious focus on accountability on our elementary levels.”

In Bertie County, that focus will be on several areas. One of those is the proper use of test data.

“Our system in the past has not been organized around data,” Dr. Zullinger said. “We’re building new systems to help us see where kids are and to help teachers anticipate where the students in their incoming classrooms are.

“We can tell our teachers the scores of their kids and where they may be deficient,” he added. “We couldn’t do that a month ago.”

The superintendent said Bertie County will also refocus on teaching the North Carolina Standard Course of Study.

“Judging from our test scores, it is not obious that we are teaching what the state says we have to,” Dr. Zullinger insisted. “That will be a renewed focus.”

He said that having 80 percent of Bertie County youngsters in preschool is a big step, but the school district would have to learn what having that high number in preschool would mean.

“Right now we have to look at accountability in our pre-K, kindergarten, first grade and second grade classrooms,” he said. “We don’t really get test results until the third grade, but we need to know if we’re on target long before that.”

Dr. Zullinger said he, his administrative team, principals and teachers would be working with the school board to make sure the Bertie County Schools didn’t end up in the same situation as Halifax County.