Johnston County

Johnston superintendent sits down with students

Johnston County Schools Superintendent Ross Renfrow, right, speaks to the Student Advisory Council, made up of representatives from each county high school.
Johnston County Schools Superintendent Ross Renfrow, right, speaks to the Student Advisory Council, made up of representatives from each county high school. abennett@newsobserver.com

The demands placed on high school students are many.

Not only must they maintain a high grade point average, they need to take part in extracurricular activities – sports, band, clubs, community service. And while doing that, some work part-time jobs, either for spending money or to help their families.

All of those demands create the need for flexible school schedules, and Johnston offers those, high school students told Superintendent Ross Renfrow last week. But those same students also saw room for improvement.

In a sit-down with Renfrow, 16 students told the superintendent that high school is a balancing act: Students need to perform well in the classroom while making themselves attractive to colleges or employers.

The students – some headed to college, some to the work force, others to the military – praised the “smart lunch” that some Johnston high schools offer. It’s essentially a free period to use as students see fit – study hall or extra help from teachers or time to work on club matters.

But not all of the students who met with Renfrow have access to smart lunch. Some attend schools that have never offered it; some at are schools that did away with the free period because students abused it.

Amanda Sledge of West Johnston High said students at her school miss having what they called “power lunch.”

“People weren’t making wise choices,” Sledge said, explaining why West Johnston ended the practice. “But a lot of us miss that.”

JoJo Richardson of North Johnston High said his school’s cafeteria is too small for smart lunch.

Renfrow said it might be possible to use classrooms instead. “We have to be creative to find solutions,” he said.

Madison King of Princeton High said the 20-minute smart lunch at her school was too brief to be of much use to active clubs, and Renfrow agreed.

“Clubs are a very important – a tremendously important part of the high school experience,” he said.

Smithfield-Selma Senior High representatives said they lack the smart lunch praised by other students, but “staff is trying to work with us to give us somewhat freedom,” Chandler Lasater said.

Principal turnover

The students gave generally high marks to their principals, though they wished for less turnover in the office.

Takira Robinson of Clayton High said she was pleased with her school’s new principal. “We have a personal relationship with him, and we see him every day,” she said of Bennett Jones. “He’s checking in on us, giving us motivation. That makes a big difference in the school.”

Mike McCray, also of Clayton, said Jones “is always willing to help” and has an open-door policy.

Reagan Howell of Smithfield-Selma High appreciated her principal’s commitment to making SSS a better school. “His passion really has other people trying to work harder,” she said.

“We don’t have a lot of student involvement in clubs and sports right now,” Howell added, “but I think he’s pushing to get staff and teachers involved in that.”

Samara Gibson of Corinth Holders said her school “longs for that great principal relationship … that motivates students to do better and work harder.”

While leadership changes can throw a school into confusion for a time, Renfrow encouraged students to give new principals a chance. “Change is hard on us all,” he said. “The thing is to give folks a chance. Everyone has different recipes for success.”

Renfrow said if students have concerns, they should be able to speak to their principals.

“It’s the job of students to challenge the process,” he said. “But there’s a right way to do that. What is your solution to the problem? Principals have an open-door policy. ... I promise if you talk to him, he will listen and take steps to address it.”

Some students asked about senior pranks, banned at many schools after dangerous or messy conditions put an undue strain on staff.

”We could figure out what was doable,” Renfrow said, encouraging students to involve their principals. “There can be a spirit of collaboration. We want to minimize instruction time lost and cleanup. Safety has to come first. But we can talk about what can be done in good taste.”

School board member Peggy Smith, who attended the meeting, said she understood why students want to take part in pranks. “You want to do something fun that you can be remembered for,” she said. “That’s understandable. I think we can talk about how to do that in a safe way as long as we keep our principals informed.”

Helping each other

Students said they wanted to see more done to help students with learning and social disabilities.

“It breaks my heart to see the bullying,” said Sledge, the West Johnston student. “I wish we could have some kind of buddy system.”

Cleveland High’s Kendall Lamm said helping disabled students doesn’t require a great deal of time or effort.

“We have a teacher who just lets them know that ‘I’m here for you if you need anything,’ and I’ve seen some of them just come into her classroom and sit for four or five minutes,” Lamm said. “During our power lunch, we have some students who go pick one of them up and walk around with them or eat lunch together. ... It doesn’t take much; it doesn’t take a lot of effort to make a difference.”

Renfrow said he liked the idea of a buddy system. “We’re all teammates,” he said. “We need to treat everyone with kindness and compassion. Students helping students connect is critical.”

More classes, less crowding

One call Renfrow heard was for wider course offerings. Clayton High students, for example, want more foreign language classes. North Johnston students want more Advanced Placement courses.

“I want to expand these classes into every school,” Renfrow said. “With technology now, we need to do a better job of offering you classes without ever leaving your home school. We could video broadcast. ... As technology continues to improve, we need to break down these barriers.”

McCray, the Clayton High student, said he has moved often because he’s the son of a U.S. service member. Credits earned at one high school don’t always count at another, he said.

“I’ve lost credits, and it makes it difficult to move forward,” he said.

Renfrow agreed. “We’ve got to break down those barriers,” he said.

Overcrowding at fast-growing schools like Clayton High makes it hard to get one-on-one time with teachers, the students said. They complained too about teacher turnover because it can leave students, seniors especially, with ill-equipped substitutes.

“I know that seniors are really concerned about their final GPAs,” said Lamm, the Cleveland High School.

Chesney Stine of Johnston County’s Middle College High School said the loss of a guidance counselor sent older students “into kind of a panic with college applications coming up.”

Faith McNeill, who attends the new Career and Technical Leadership Academy housed at Clayton High, said small class sizes had allowed her and her classmates to have teachers’ full attention,

Renfrow blamed state lawmakers for high student-teacher ratios in many classrooms. He said Johnston has just seven more teaching positions than it did 10 years ago, though it’s student population has grown by nearly 10,000 students.

Renfrow said he valued the students’ input. “Your perception of what goes on in your schools is reality to me,” he told the students. “If you want to know what’s going on in a school, ask the students – they know.”

Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett

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