Operation Education Improvement

Students, teachers, administrators discuss education funding, initiatives in Alamance County

In the past few years, the amount of federal, state and local money put toward funding education in various school systems across the country has decreased. The Alamance-Burlington School System, the local school system that surrounds Elon University, is no different. Federal and state budget cuts for ABSS for the 2012-2013 school year equals about $5.4 million overall, and this number affects teaching conditions, supplies in the classroom, technologies accessed and other items that directly affect a child’s education.

Elon faculty opinions

Elon University President Leo Lambert said the university works with ABSS to improve education and believes there are multiple benefits to this relationship. However, he also believes there are things that could be improved in the school system.

“My perceptions are that in an ideal world, I would want the faculty and staff of Elon University to live in Alamance County and have their families and children involved in the ABSS school district,” he said. “But I see more and more of our families choosing not to live here. They’re choosing to live in Orange County, attend Chapel Hill schools. I don’t fault anyone for the choices they’re making, but I just don’t believe that Alamance County aspires to have a world-class school district — and it should.”

Faculty and staff members at Elon who have children in the school system have their own opinions about not only the education provided at various schools in Alamance County, but also the services and facilities that children receive. Associate professor of English at Elon Paula Rosinski has two children, one of whom is in school at Elon Elementary. Jake, 6, is in the first grade.

“We intentionally bought a house in the Elon Elementary district, because we liked the idea of living, working and sending our children to school in the same district,” she said. “We wanted to be a part of supporting education, at all different levels, in our community.”

Rosinski emphasized the leadership at Elon Elementary is strong and that Principal Jack Davern is working hard to improve education at the school. One of the main successes, she said, is the SPLASH program, which is a Spanish immersion class.

The problem, Rosinski said, is that the school is underfunded, and the district needs to think about the amount of tax money that goes toward funding education.

“The district needs to seriously consider this issue, because Elon Elementary is working hard to educate, our children well, but the school is underfunded,” she said. “That is a shame and it is an embarrassment. Parents have to donate basic supplies, like toilet paper, tissue, Band Aids, cleaning supplies, paper, crayons — how sad is that? The Parent Teacher Organization also raises money to pay for the art teacher’s salary. So yes, while I’m happy with my son’s education and I know the teachers and principal and parents are working hard to give our children a good education, the district needs to invest more in supporting the school.”

Chris Leupold, associate professor of psychology, agreed, and said that although there are great teachers and that his children have had a good experience so far, the overall school system is “weak.” This is partly partly because it is so poorly funded, he said.

“There are things that I wish we had — more languages, more resources for specials,” Leupold said. “But in terms of pure education, my kids have had great teachers and have been appropriately challenged. I am also very happy with the Spanish immersion program, which is an incredibly progressive thing for ABSS.”

Superintendent’s proposed budget and goals

In North Carolina, 37 percent of the overall state budget goes toward funding K-12 public schools. Although this sounds like a significant part of the N.C. state budget, many school districts have had to cut their individual budgets, which include both state and federal money.

ABSS has a total of 36 schools and is the second largest employer in Alamance County, according to the superintendent’s 2012-2013 proposed budget. Not only are budget cuts affecting 2,619 ABSS employees, but the school system is the workplace to more than 22,000 diverse students. Those students and teachers are dependent on federal, state and local money to help create new education initiatives and opportunities, but major federal and state budget cuts — about $5.4 million for this next year combined, according to the state budget — have prompted ABSS to make some major alterations to its budget, according to ABSS Superintendent Lillie Cox.

“We are going to build our budget on what we need to spend, not what we have to spend,” Cox said, referring to what she calls zero-based budgeting. “This way, we will

have a more accurate picture of what we need to operate as a school system. We are trying to find some funds and save some money. I’m still going to have to cut positions, but hopefully this will make the major cuts of $5.4 million a little more manageable.”

Information compiled by Kate Riley
Graph by Paige Gregory

These cuts affect numerous aspects of the school system, including teaching and other staff positions, classroom supplies, per student spending and other changes that students might not be able to see directly, Cox said. She pointed out that some of the changes include things like less custodians per school or the grass of a school not being cut as often — not always things that children might be able to name, but things that can impact child’s school experience. There are more classroom-related items that might affect a public school experience, like more children in a classroom, which leads to less one-on-one attention. This also might mean a teacher that isn’t trained in a certain reading program, Cox said, and these items vary across the state.

“What I think that people need to understand is that you can’t just make money up,” she said. “It’s going to take us years to get back to where we were, to improve the quality of teaching.”

One of the ways that Cox says ABSS is trying to “get back” to the way things were is through the Common Core curriculum. North Carolina adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative in 2010, which were “developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators and experts, to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce,” according to the Common Core Standards website. The program offers a common curriculum across North Carolina that standardizes what is taught in each grade.

According to Cox, this program has enhanced student learning despite budget cuts, even if students have to transfer schools, because each teacher will have similar curriculums. This program also defines the skills and knowledge that students should gain during their K-12 years; some of this includes the alignment with college and work expectations, rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills and building upon strengths and lessons of current state standards, according to the Common Core website.

Along with the continuation of the Common Core curriculum, one of the school system’s big initiatives is an investment of technology. Four million dollars in the 2012-2013 proposed budget are allocated to investments in technology. Although these new initiatives are occurring, Cox said, ABSS still has a lot of work to do to fully understand and use the new items the best it can.

“We put a SMART Board, laptop, overhead projector and a document camera in every classroom grades 6-12,” she said. “I could see how appreciative the teachers are. It helps with lesson plans and let’s children get up and do things on the SMART Board. We are nowhere near where we need to be as far as its use.”

Cox said that one of the main reasons that this is a problem is a lack of professional development within the school system. Professional development “helps teachers to increase their expertise in their fields and assists them in improving their teaching methods,” according to the Annenberg Learner website, an organization devoted to teacher professional development. These programs enhance the abilities and qualities of teachers overall but because of funding issues, have been cut. ABSS is trying to make up for this loss in various ways, Cox pointed out, but it does affect the quality of education for students in the classroom.

In the classroom

Though budgets have a great impact on a school system as a whole, direct teacher-student interaction is what produces certain test scores and graduation rates. In End-of-Grade tests specifically, the school system aims to improve. In the 2010-2011 school year, 65.1 percent of students grades 3-8 scored at or above a Level III on their reading EOGs and EOCs, or End-of-Course tests. The lowest a student can receive in N.C. on an EOG is a one, the highest is a four and to pass, a child must receive a three or above. ABSS hopes to increase those scores by an average of 6.5 points, from 65.1 percent to 71.6 percent for the 2012-2013 school year, eventually having a 100 percent passing rate in the public schools system.

Information compiled by Kate Riley
Graph by Paige Gregory

One of the problems (and solutions) for these test scores comes simply from teacher and student interaction, and how material is taught, said Western Alamance High School English teacher Stephen Stiegel.

“It’s not supposed to be the mere memorization of facts,” he said. “We have to think about what it really means to be educated. People can memorize long strings of things, but they really need to know what questions to ask. It’s scary how little critical thought there is.”

Stiegel then pointed out that ABSS can’t really do anything about it specifically, but the emphasis needs to be more on how teachers teach in the classroom. Principals monitor teacher progress and initiatives, Cox said. She said that ABSS works closely with principals to instruct them how to best coach teachers to make them better which, in turn, helps education for children overall.

“We have to teach children how to think, not just how to learn,” she said.

It’s this idea that could help improve test scores and overall education.

“In middle school, it would have been great to have more hands-on learning,” said high school senior Deann Bradsher. “I think that the teachers could have put more effort into their students to help them understand the concepts. But high school has been much better. Most of the teachers will work with you and help you. They didn’t really push you in middle school, but now they do.”

Bradsher and freshman Melina Meza, both students at Graham High School, believe that the difference in primary and secondary education is significant, in terms of teacher quality and helpfulness.

“When I was in elementary school, teachers really didn’t help me as much,” Meza said. “In math classes, I still have trouble with basic multiplication sometimes. It’s hard for me, but I can do it now. In middle school, you can pretty much get away with anything. When you get to high school, it’s hard and the teachers push you more.”

Photo courtesy of MCT Campus

One of the major problems in how teachers present information to their students is that they do not trust new initiatives, Stiegel said. These include things like the Common Core. He emphasized how it’s not going to just fix everything automatically — teachers have to take the time to learn new information and how to present it in order for it to be effective. This attends to the lack of professional development and the effect that it truly has on teachers and students.

David Cooper, dean of the school of education at Elon, says that there is no magic solution to fixing overall education standards and that it really needs to be a community-wide effort, as there is evidence that school reform alone is not sufficient.

“We have to do a better job at recruiting highly qualified teachers,” he said. “We need those new teachers coming in more and more but they’re coming in less and less. First-year teachers are among the lowest performing teachers, and half of them leave within five years.”

Cox realizes this as well. She said that are a number of things that could be done to improve overall education standards, as well as education directly in the classroom. She also said she realizes that ABSS has flaws and that she, along with her administration, is trying to improve them.

“I am constantly pushing for innovation and new ideas, but not just to be new and different,” she said. “It’s because sometimes I feel like the rest of the world is moving past Alamance County and innovation is easier to implement in other school systems. But it’s really important that our children here can compete with children across the state and across the country. We have to help this community understand that we have to teach our children in a different way, and that’s a major challenge for me.”

Initiatives

It’s not just the individual schools and school systems that can aid in pushing new initiatives and improving education standards in the classroom. Elon University has a great number of outreach programs that cater to the public school system in Alamance County.

Cooper realizes how vital a partnership between the university and the local community is — it’s mutually beneficial, he said.

“More than three-fourths of teacher candidates do some sort of student teaching or other practical work,” Cooper said. “It prepares student teachers in partnership with the teachers in public schools in research activities.”

One of the most widely known of these programs is the Elon Academy, a “college access and success program for academically promising high school students in Alamance County with a financial need and/or no family history of college,” according to the Elon Academy website. Ninety-eight percent of students who complete this program are enrolled in college.

Many Elon students act at mentors to students who are enrolled in the academy, whether college access team mentors (CAT mentors), Elon Academy Ambassadors or other tutors/academic coaches. These scholars have become experts in college planning and skills and are spreading that message further, said John Pickett, Elon Academy assistant director of scholar support.

He said that though the Elon Academy is strong in its initiatives, but is also a small program. It’s going to take a push from a lot of students and faculty to create a solid, lasting relationship with the public school system and its students.

“What has to happen is that there has to be a real commitment as a whole,” Pickett said. “I try to go to an elementary school once a week to each lunch with students. It should be a university-wide initiative to go to local schools and volunteer. But it should be inspired, not mandatory. It’s a small thing you can do.”

Pickett emphasized the importance of getting off Elon’s campus and going into the community, into the public schools as a student at Elon.

“Alamance County is full of diversity,” he said. “This could connect students with our neighbors. You are living here, but you may not know about the diversity or have been exposed to it. Our number one initiative is supporting the students, but this is a real opportunity for Elon students is to use it as a vehicle to experience diversity.”

Information compiled by Kate Riley
Graph by Paige Gregory

Information compiled by Kate Riley
Graph by Paige Gregory

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