New Johnston County Schools Superintendent Ross Renfrow found his first weeks on the job consumed by a former superintendent’s pension and a mold issue at a high school field house. With his “Kitchen Conversations” series, the conversation is turning to the future.
Renfrow and his central office staff scheduled eight meetings at the county’s eight high schools, arranging attendees by their feeder schools. So far, meetings have been held at Clayton High, Corinth Holders and Smithfield-Selma, with others scheduled for after spring break. The school system invited parent groups, but the meetings so far have drawn mostly teachers and school staff.
Drawing on the kind of talks families have around kitchen tables over meals and homework, Renfrow said the meetings are informal conversations between “stakeholders,” namely teachers parents and administrators. He said he plans to use what he learns from the meetings to help shape his priorities for the first three months of his administration and to help address systemic issues and continue successes.
“A quality education for each student is what we’re all about,” Renfrow said.
At Corinth Holders, the county’s newest high school, located near recent developments and open space, the conversation included plans for growth and overcrowding. The school system grows each year by a school’s worth of students, but it doesn’t build a school per year. Trailers are commonplace on school grounds across the county, including Corinth Holders.
“This school is six years old and has mobile units,” Corinth Holders and Archer Lodge parent Greg Parrish said. “You should be able to see an area and predict growth a little bit better than that.”
Those at the Corinth meeting also raised concerns about school funding, specifically classroom spending, teacher supplements and hiring more specialized teachers. A group of Corinth Holders Elementary teachers, advisers and parents said teachers are put in a position to choose between spending out of their pocket for school supplies or having a less successful classroom. The solution, some said, was lobbying the state for more school spending.
“The loudest group usually gets the most money,” advisory board member Amanda Keyes said.
Renfrow addressed teacher supplements at the end of the meeting, saying early budget discussions include a local bump for Johnston teachers. He cautioned, though, that a little doesn’t necessarily go a long way.
“A 1 percent increase would cost $1.9 million,” Renfrow said.
The school system earned praise for its strides in technology, in putting laptops in classrooms and pushing teachers to use smart boards. Parents also appreciated an over-the-shoulder program that allows them to check up on their children’s assignments and performance.
“I get emails saying what big assignments are coming up,” Parrish said. “I can go in and see their assignments and say, ‘Why haven’t you done this?’ ”
Croom was credited for spending time in schools and responding to emails. Some at the meeting hope Renfrow will stop by their campuses often during his tenure.
“You could send [Croom] an email and get a response, not right away, but usually in a couple hours,” Keyes said.
Keyes also pointed out the lack of minority leadership in the schools.
“I’d like to see more minorities involved,” she said. “Test scores will go up and there will be less troubled children.”
At the end of the meeting Renfrow got the question he seemed to have been waiting for: What’s your mission statement? He smiled and looked around, promised to be simple and succinct, but laid out a dense five-minute philosophy of where he plans to take Johnston schools. Then said he wants a bridge between home and school.
“It’s more important than ever before for the schools to team with the home,” Renfrow said. “This needs to be much more than just checking homework each night – a true partnership.”
Renfrow said parents have more choices in life today than ever before, particularly in where to send their children to school. He said public education was still the best option for students but that he wanted his system to lead and interact with home-school and charter families too.
“I want this to be a hub of education that will continue to grow as Johnston County needs it to,” Renfrow said. “We want the next generation to come back from college and take us to the next level.”
He added that he and his children are products of Johnston County schools and that he’s invested in the district’s success.
“I do not want Johnston County school to be perceived as a failure on my watch,” Renfrow said.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson