When more than a dozen Johnston County business owners sat down last week with North Carolina’s lieutenant governor, education dominated the conversation.
The business owners were graphic artists, marketers, innkeepers and computer technicians, but they were also parents who could see value, business or otherwise, in a better educated community.
The Greater Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce played host to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest at its offices on Outlet Center Drive. The meeting site was just a few miles away from what’s currently the state’s biggest economic-development story, CSX’s controversial plan to build a cargo-container terminal on farmland north of Selma. The CSX debacle might have contributed to filling up the chamber’s meeting room with people eager to hear more from the state, but the topic came up just once.
“I can’t imagine what’s on your all’s minds out here in Smithfield and Selma,” Forest said, to laughter.
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For nearly 90 minutes Forest fielded questions from business owners and community leaders, who focused their attention on education, especially central Johnston County’s struggling schools. North Carolina’s A-F grading system for schools came under fire for burying positive education efforts and for creating a perception of failure for those taking only an online glance at Selma and Smithfield.
Susanne Pote has a son at Selma Middle School, where she said he’s exposed to educational opportunities like learning Mandarin Chinese. The state, though, has stamped a D on Selma Middle’s report card for two years running, and Pote wondered whether education bureaucrats were missing the successes she’s seeing.
“Not all F schools are created equal,” Forest said. “It’s good that you recognize all the good things going on in your school.”
School board candidate Crystal Roberts, a chamber leader, asked Forest if there were more nuanced ways of evaluating schools besides the A-F scale.
“I’m wondering why, or if, recording it differently may help,” Roberts said. “For these schools that are doing some things well, why are wee throwing them under the bus with the recording system?”
Forest said he was initially against the A-F grading system, preferring instead a 100-point scale or arrows pointing up or down. Any grading system, though, is dependent on how the state communicates it to the community, Forest said. He added that the business community could help support the schools by offering internships or setting up programs in classrooms.
“There are a lot of great education stories out there,” Forest said. “We need to be rallying around all forms of education, build good will in your community.”
One consequence of the A-F scale is the speed with which people can pass judgment. An A school is much better than a D school, and Selma Mayor Cheryl Oliver worries that prospective homebuyers bypass her town based on a Google search. (The schools are readily available online.)
“One of the things that really hurts us is often as families are looking to relocate in the area, every real estate website has those grades, and they’re the only thing they see,” Oliver said.
Forest said lawmakers could always make tweaks to the grading system, and he acknowledged it was unfortunate how the grades, especially low ones, might be all some residents know about some schools. He defended the system’s intent, though, arguing a poor performing school wasn’t something that could be excused away.
“I’m very passionate about there not being any F or D schools,” Forest said. “I want all of our schools to be A schools. And maybe we could cook the books a bit and make F schools look like D schools and D schools look like C schools. And until those schools improve, there may be some real estate consequences, but there could be even more severe, long-term consequences if the students in a community are not learning what they need to learn.”
Beyond the A-F discussion, chamber president Rick Childrey drew attention to the role of economic segregation in schools, where poor schools struggle compared to schools in wealthier communities.
“It’s a complex issue, and there’s no one answer that we’ve found,” Forest said. “But schools with wealthier students seem to do good and poorer schools not so good. There are many reasons for that, so many cultural dynamics. It’s a challenge when some students have never been read to at home and start out behind many other students. For that, it’s important to improve early childhood education. Another problem is how do you get good teachers to move into and stay in some of these communities. … It’s such a complex issue, and if there was a solution, we would have solved it long ago.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdjackson