Smithfield: Opinion

How can Johnston improve its schools?

While watching golf last Sunday, a friend asked how Johnston County could improve its schools. We told him the first step was admitting that the schools need improving.

We’re not sure Johnston Superintendent of School Ross Renfrow is willing to admit that. He argues that Johnston County schools perform much better than their state report cards suggest. He titled a recent presentation to Smithfield-Selma business leaders “Perspective is Everything.”

Renfrow thinks the state places too much emphasis on test scores when determining a school’s annual letter grade. He argues that the state should place more emphasis on the progress students make from the start of the school year to the end. By that measure, the superintendent says, Johnston schools would receive much better report cards.

But would they?

A youngster who enters first grade from kindergarten should, on day 1, be ready ready for first grade. As a kindergartner, he or she should have mastered the skills first-graders need. And by the end of first grade, he or she should be ready for second grade.

As best we can tell that has been the expectation of state lawmakers, school boards, principals, teachers, parents and students since the dawn of public schools in North Carolina. But in the 2014-15 school year, no Johnston County school saw all of its students end one grade ready for the next.

Some came close. At the Early College Academy, nearly 91 percent of students were ready for the next grade when the school year ended, but 9 percent weren’t. At the next best school, 76 percent of students were ready for the next grade, but 24 percent were not.

Other Johnston schools fell woefully short that year of preparing their students for the next grad. At Selma Middle, just 31 percent of students ended the school year ready for the next grade. At West Smithfield Elementary, just 34.5 percent did so.

Of the 69 percent of Selma Middle students who finished one year not ready for the next, it’s likely that many still enjoyed significant academic growth over the course of the school year, which is the superintendent’s point.

But while Renfrow might not expect a third-grader at year’s end to be ready for fourth grade, that child’s parents can reasonably have that expectation. Just like the parents of an eighth-grader can expect their child to be ready for high school. Or the parents of a graduating high school senior can expect their son or daughter to be ready for college or the workplace.

And therein is perhaps the disconnect: The school system expects less of students than parents do. In the 2014-15 school year, just 39 percent Selma Elementary students ended one year ready for the next. And yet in the eyes of the state and Johnston’s school system, Selma Elementary exceeded expectations for student academic growth.

So perhaps that’s where school improvement begins: Getting school leaders and parents on the same page in terms of expectations. Until then, Renfrow will argue that the schools are better than their reputation, and folks like Smithfield Councilman Perry Harris will maintain, with ample evidence, just the opposite.