Johnston County’s Teacher of the Year attended a March 3 school board candidates’ forum because she wanted to know who could be making decisions on her behalf after the November election.
“As a teacher, I know I must be informed about this election, and I want to set a good example for my students,” said Cynthia Hutchings, who teaches ninth grade English and the Theory of Knowledge at Smithfield-Selma High School. “I want to lead by example.”
Hutchings said she was looking for a candidate who would build relationships with the schools the board governs. “I want someone willing to go to the people who are actually affected by the decisions they make,” she said. “Someone who will care enough to get involved and do what is best for our students and teachers.”
Cathy Bunn of Four Oaks retired from the Johnston County schools in 2010 after 35 years as a counselor. Her daughter attended schools here and went on to graduate from Brown University. Bunn was disappointed she didn’t hear more from candidates about fostering parent involvement in Smithfield-Selma schools.
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“I didn’t hear anyone suggest solutions to decrease the negativity about Smithfield-Selma schools,” she said. “Small things have been done, which are improvements, but it needs to be a focus.”
For major meetings, Bunn said, other school systems provide transportation, meals and child care so parents can be involved in their children’s education.
“The system needs to find a way to get parents involved in a positive manner or we will remain at the status quo,” she said.
10 candidates, 4 seats
On March 15, eight of the 10 school board candidates will advance to the General Election in November, when voters will choose four schools leaders. Incumbents Peggy Smith and Mike Wooten are defending their seats, while school board members Keith Branch and Donna White are giving up their spots to run for higher office. On Tuesday, voters can cast ballots for up to four of the 10 candidates.
Eight of the 10 took part in the forum. Joining Smith were Teresa Grant, Jeffrey Jennings, Chip Swartz, Todd Sutton, Crystal Roberts, Summer Hamrick and Ronald Johnson. They fielded questions prepared by the forum’s sponsor, the Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce, which did not allow questions from the audience.
While some questions focused on board transparency and accountability, the candidates’ qualifications and how they would collaborate with stakeholders if elected, others turned directly to Smithfield-Selma schools.
When asked how they would address low performance on standardized tests, most candidates agreed that test scores are not a good indicator of school quality. They went on to highlight achievements in Smithfield-Selma schools.
“I’d tell them how great the Smithfield-Selma schools are,” Sutton said, referring to employers who might be wary of locating in Smithfield or Selma because of test scores.
“In the Selma Elementary School right now,” Sutton said, “they have a dual-language program which has, in the past couple years, tripled the scores of a non-dual-language student ... It’s only a matter of time before those test scores relate to the hard work these kids are putting in.”
Sutton also mentioned the computer-coding program at South Smithfield Elementary School.
“We have a lot of programs that we’re implementing to increase these test scores,” he said. “But don’t judge the book by the cover.”
Roberts said the county should share “the stories behind the test scores.”
“We have what it takes to address all of our children’s needs,” she said, adding that the school system needs to be transparent about things “that look as if they are negative.”
Hamrick said constantly changing testing programs are part of the picture.
“My oldest daughter actually has test anxiety and never has done well on a test,” Hamrick said. “She has gone through the schools to try to get extra help, and she has done a phenomenal job this year with her test grades. It depends on the student; there’s a story behind it.”
Johnson said the school system needs to show the resources provided to struggling Smithfield-Selma schools and the strategies in place to improve.
“Everyone goes through a struggle,” he said. “It’s about how you get up and recover from that struggle that’s important.”
Grant touted the alliance between Johnston Community College and Smithfield-Selma High School for vocational education.
“We also have a new principal at Triple S,” she said. “He’s made some changes; we haven’t had time to see the good things those changes will bring about, but in time, we will see that.”
Smith said the school system needs to do a better job distinguishing “perception versus reality.”
The state bases a school’s letter grade on proficiency on year-end tests and on student growth in testing performance.
“The formula for the grading is 80 percent proficiency, 20 percent growth,” Smith said. “Were that formula 50-50, Johnston County would not have a school in the district below a C. Growth at these schools is tremendous. ... We have labeled schools and not labeled the correct way.”
Smith and Grant praised the International Baccalaureate program at SSS.
“Look at the scholarships that come out of Triple S,” Grant said. “This is not a school to be ashamed of. It’s an area to be very, very proud of.”
Jennings said he wanted to bring the public into the schools to show “all the wonderful things” about the schools.
“We know there are things to take care of,” he said. “We know there are great things happening. We’ve got to show it off.”
“The moniker ‘low-performing schools’ is somewhat misleading,” Swartz said. “Changes by the legislature defining low-performing schools made it easier to fall into that category.”
Swartz said he would focus on the new programming and funding in place for Smithfield-Selma schools. “The schools have made great strides in response to that,” he said.
A perception problem
When it came to improving not just the performance but reputation of Smithfield-Selma schools, candidates mostly agreed that perception was the problem.
Roberts said the media do not paint the full picture of Johnston schools.
“The press can’t give you the entire story,” she said, adding that the county should “understand what it is that people need to know” and that board members should “be aware and have the facts.”
Hamrick noted that she has volunteered at Selma Middle School. “Those are some very, very smart children,” she said. “I don’t think those test scores represent those children in any way.”
Johnson, a former school resource officer, said underperformance in Smithfield-Selma schools stemmed from “a tremendous amount of problems.” But academic programs, including some he started or helped facilitate, have begun to make a difference, he said.
“The school only gets them for seven hours a day,” Johnston said. “You can’t fix problems in seven hours a day. It takes a community and it takes a home and it takes a joint effort to help these kids ... It’s going to take all of us; it’s not the teachers, it’s not any one entity. It’s us, everyone.”
Grant called for more collaboration among teachers, administrators and parents “so we understand the needs of the school.”
“Education is not one-size-fits-all; every school is different,” she said.
Collaboration was a theme, with Smith picking up from Grant and Johnson to continue the focus on bringing the community together with the schools to combat negative perceptions.
“When you come together as a whole group and you put your positives here and your ways to address areas of need here, you can chip that away ... and make progress,” Smith said. “Let’s remember that Triple S has always been a high-performing school. It’s just performing differently in growth versus proficiency.”
Jennings said all Johnston schools could benefit from greater parent involvement and accountability.
“We’ve got to be partners on this,” he said. “Part of that is accountability to the community. We put a lot of pressure on our teachers; we hold them accountable for so much. We’ve also got to turn around and hold our families and our parents accountable for their students’ success. It’s not a babysitting service.”
Swartz acknowledged that SSS High has a perception problem “among some.”
“It’s a mindset that needs to be changed,” he said, “and the way to change it is” through parent and community involvement, along with after-school programs, strong leadership and a focused effort by the board of education to track progress at all schools.
Everyone has great ideas that could benefit Smithfield-Selma schools, Sutton said. “It starts with the community, the parents, the churches,” he said. “Everyone involved, we’re all in this together. It didn’t happen by itself.”
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett