The Alamance-Burlington School System provides a public school education to students in and around Alamance County, including many children of faculty and staff members of Elon University. However, Elon President Leo Lambert said he has seen a trend of staff members sending their children to surrounding school systems because they’re dissatisfied with education in ABSS.
“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 system,” he said.
Lambert said Elon works with ABSS to improve education and believes there are multiple benefits to this relationship. But he also said he believes there are things that could be improved.
“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.”
The amount of federal, state and local money put toward funding education in various school systems across the country has decreased in the past few years. ABSS is no different. Federal and state budget cuts for ABSS for the 2012-2013 school year totals about $5.4 million overall, and this number affects teaching conditions, supplies in the classroom, available institution technologies and other items that directly impact a child’s education.
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. – Elon University President Leo Lambert
Elon faculty discusses issues in Alamance education
Although Lambert discussed his perception of what faculty members at Elon are doing in terms of their children’s education, this is not always the case. Some professors have chosen to stay in Alamance County with their families but are still not completely satisfied with their children’s education.
Faculty and staff 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. Paula Rosinski, associate professor of English, has two children, one of whom is in school at Elon Elementary. Her 6-year-old son Jake 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 said 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! language immersion program. Splash! classrooms are created to allow students to learn a second language while also working in their core studies.
Rosinski said the county 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.”
Chris Leupold, associate professor of psychology, agreed. He said although there are great teachers and his children have had a good experience so far, he said, the overall school system is “weak.” This is 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, speaking about classes such as art and music. “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.”
ABSS issues and proposed budget
In North Carolina, 37 percent of the overall state budget goes toward funding K-12 public schools. Although this may sound like a significant part of the 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 learning environment to more than 22,000 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 2012-2013 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.”
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 such as fewer 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 a child’s school experience. There are more classroom-related items that might also affect a public school experience, such as more children in a classroom, which leads to less one-on-one attention. This also might mean something like a teacher who isn’t trained in a general curriculum program, but these items vary across the state, Cox said.
“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 Cox said 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 was “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.
Superintendent’s goals and initiatives
According to Cox, the program has enhanced student learning despite budget cuts, even for students who have to transfer schools, because each teacher will have similar curricula. 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 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. The 2012-2013 proposed budget allocates $4 million to investments in technology. Despite these new initiatives, ABSS still has a lot of work to do to fully understand and use the new items the best it can, Cox said.
“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 lets children get up and do things on the SMART Board. We are nowhere near where we need to be as far as its use.”
A main reason for the problems in ABSS education is a lack of professional development within the school system, Cox said. 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: Putting education to the test
Although 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 — students, teachers and administrators agree. 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 North Carolina 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 achieving a 100 percent passing rate in the public school system.
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 and 2012 graduate of Elon’s Master of Education program 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 work in the classroom. Principals monitor teacher progress and initiatives, Cox said, and ABSS works closely with principals to instruct them on how to best coach teachers to make them more effective which, in turn, helps education for children overall.
“We have to teach children how to think, not just how to learn,” Cox 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 Graham 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 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.”
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 such as 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 issue reflects 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, said there is no magic solution to fixing overall education standards and that it really needs to be a community-wide effort. 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 there are a number of things that could be done to improve overall education standards, as well as boost teaching in the classroom. She also said she realizes 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.”
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. – Lillie Cox
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 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 as mentors to students who are enrolled in the academy, whether College Access Team mentors (CAT mentors), Elon Academy Ambassadors or other tutors or 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 although the Elon Academy is strong in its initiatives, it is also a small program. It’s going to take a push from many of students and faculty to create a solid, lasting relationship with the public school system and its students, he said.
“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 eat 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 No. 1 initiative is supporting the students, but this is a real opportunity for Elon students to use it as a vehicle to experience diversity.”