After 42 years in public education, closing out this school year was an emotional experience. Upon visiting a few schools on the final day, it hit me pretty hard when I realized this was my last time. You see, since I announced I would be retiring at the end of July, my perspective seems to be changing. I am much more sentimental than expected. I suppose this is what happens when we find ourselves on the verge of a new normal.
Now that a few weeks have passed since our academic year ended, I have had time to reflect on the highs and lows of the 2015-16 school year. We have enjoyed many victories over the past 10 months, but we have some very real challenges ahead.
We saw tremendous production in our classrooms again this year. The test scores, dropout rates, SAT/ACT results and other measurables continue to occupy their place among the best in the state. Much more importantly though, when visiting schools and classrooms, I saw widespread evidence of the work we have been doing to improve instruction.
Dr. Magda Parvey, our Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services, and her team, have spent countless hours over the past five years elevating our instructional skill sets, particularly in lesson planning, curriculum alignment and the application of assessment data. They have worked hard to instill an equity lens through all facets of instruction. These changes were not immediately noticeable, but just a few short years later we are seeing the fruits in every one of our schools. These skills are the foundation of quality teaching, and our staff has embraced the challenge of implementation.
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We have also made great strides in our preparation for the launch of Project ADVANCE, our groundbreaking strategic compensation model that ties teacher pay to professional development. It is unlike any other in North Carolina, and eventually could become the model for how teachers are paid throughout the state. We have been in touch with legislators, as well as the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Our plan has been very well received and will be watched closely as we move into implementation this year as a state pilot.
As pleased as I am to share this with you, I must also mention the instructional hurdles that we expect to see soon.
Public education in North Carolina is clearly under attack. Despite the recent bump in teacher salaries (that could have been issued last year, but was stalled until an election year), our state lawmakers continually fail to meet the needs of our schools. State funding is woefully low. This puts an unfair burden on our County Commissioners to make up the difference from local tax dollars. Fortunately, our Orange County Board of Commissioners, as well as our entire community, have been very gracious in seeing to it that our schools are amply funded. While their gracious “we are all in this together” approach continues to be tremendously appreciated, they should not be put in this position by our state.
I feel very good about all that has been accomplished this year, and in the five years I have been here. However, there is still so much to do. We have significant challenges ahead.
In addition to my departure, Dr. Parvey is moving back to New York to be closer to her family. This is a tremendous loss for our school district. Her efforts in aligning curriculum and improving instruction have produced substantial results. Maintaining that momentum will be paramount. Leadership transition is always a vulnerable time for an organization. I trust our Board of Education, along with Interim Superintendent Jim Causby, will guide the district through this season of change.
Another big challenge lies in the implementation of our equity plan. While we are pleased that all of our subgroups have made progress, and that all of our subgroups outperform those of other school districts throughout our state, we struggle with a gap that began the day we integrated our schools, and still confounds us decades later. As I reflect on recent events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas, I am more convinced than ever as a school district we need to examine more than test scores to adequately address issues of race and equity. The entire community needs to lock arms and work together to create school and community cultures that work for the benefit of all children.
Finally, we have a school bond referendum coming to the public for approval on Nov. 8. If this bond passes, we will use the funds – approximately $70 million – for two projects. Roughly $50 million will be spent reconstructing Chapel Hill High School. We will create a state-of-the-art learning space, compliant with all disability codes, and save millions of dollars on maintenance and energy costs.
We will use the other $20 million to create a world-class pre-kindergarten center on the Lincoln Center campus. By doing so, we will consolidate the existing Pre-K classes to a unified site, thereby offering better and more efficient wrap-around services as well as freeing up capacity at each of the elementary schools. It’s good for kids, and it makes great financial sense. The capacity created at each of our elementary schools will push out the need for a new elementary school (which would cost approximately $30 million to $35 million) many years into the future. We will also reconstruct our very successful alternative high school, Phoenix Academy. The capacity of this school will more than double. By building a second story for administrative offices, the price per square foot is significantly reduced. We believe this is the good stewardship of public funds demanded by, and owed to, our community. My thanks go out to Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese for leading this important initiative.
These are big challenges indeed, but our staff is properly equipped to navigate this organization to even greater heights.
I want to end by thanking the students, staff, parents and our entire community for the tremendous opportunity given to me five years ago, and for all the support shown to me and my family during our stay. It truly was an honor to serve as your superintendent.