Johnston County Schools Superintendent Ross Renfrow heard an earful Tuesday from Smithfield Councilman Perry Harris.
Speaking to business leaders, Renfrow said Smithfield and Selma schools are better than their annual state report card suggests. And the superintendent said he would send central office administrators into struggling schools to help principals and teachers improve student performance.
Harris would have none of it.
“This is the same type of verbiage we’ve heard for years, and we’ve seen no results,” Harris said after Renfrow opened the floor to questions. “The No. 1 deterrent to growth in Smithfield are our schools.”
Harris laid much of the blame at the feet of the school system, saying it had “allowed white flight from Smithfield-Selma schools for years,” and he was dismissive of dispatching central office bureaucrats into struggling schools.
“It’s not going to be fixed by this,” Harris said.
Renfrow stood his ground. “I completely disagree,” he said.
But Harris wouldn’t relent. He said Johnston schools don’t do enough in promoting career and technical training for students who don’t plan to attend a four-year university.
“Our kids don’t come back here,” Harris added.
And poor schools hurt economic development, he said. “We can get a corporation to come here,” he said. “But the leaders aren’t going to stay here. They’re going to go to Wake County, and they’re going to put their kids in Wake County schools.”
Harris also said the schools are leaving black and Latino students behind. “And the minorities – what are you doing for them?” he asked.
Others in the audience of 30 or so people defended Renfrow, saying the schools alone weren’t to blame for low academic achievement.
“We put too much pressure on the school system,” said Gracie Chamblee, a substitute teacher in the county’s schools. “The responsibility falls to the parents. It starts at home.”
That’s a nice thought, Harris said, but community leaders can only do so much to influence parenting. What they can do, he said, is influence how the Johnston Board of Education runs the county’s schools.
Dwight Morris, chairman of the Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce, wondered if Johnston was doing enough to lure young people back after they graduate from college.
“You can’t level everything as a success or failure of the school system,” Morris said, adding that the county’s elected leaders need to be held accountable too for not investing in infrastructure.
“That’s why they don’t come back,” he said of young people. “There’s nothing to come back to.”
In Johnston, Smithfield and Selma schools are the lowest performers on state-mandated tests. But Renfrow said the state puts too much emphasis on test scores and not enough emphasis on how much progress students make from the start of the school year to the end.
The report cards issued by the state are based 80 percent on test scores and 20 percent on academic growth from the start of the school year to the end. By that measure, most Smithfield and Selma schools earn a D or an F on the state report card.
But reverse those percentages, Renfrow said, and Smithfield-Selma schools earn more C’s and B’s than failing grades.
“If I had my way, it’d be 100 percent growth,” he said, suggesting that schools should test students at the start and end of every year to measure how much progress they make.
For the 2014-15 school year, Selma Elementary earned a D on its state report card. But Selma students also exceeded the state’s expectations for academic growth.
“Selma Elementary is the antithesis of a low-performing school,” Renfrow said, giving a chunk of the credit to principal Suzanne Mitchell. Educators “from all over travel to ask her about and try emulate” the Selma Elementary culture, he said.
Renfrow said Johnston schools might issue their own report cards, giving more weight to academic growth over the course of the school year.
Turning to school improvement, Johnston schools will use a “service-delivery model of support,” Renfrow said, assigning central office administrators to teams and dispatching those teams to schools as additional resources.
“They’ll serve principals and teachers on a daily basis,” Renfrow said, pointing to a lineup of photos for one of the teams. “We need to help our students and our schools that are struggling. This will provide resources and help them improve.”
Lloyd Barnes, a member of the audience, said none of the people in the photos looked like him, a black man, and he doubted a team made up entirely of whites could relate to the classroom struggles of black children.
“It’s about trust,” Barnes said.
Whatever the approach, if Johnston County’s lowest-performing schools don’t improve, the state could take them over. Renfrow said he couldn’t tolerate that.
“We have to improve our schools if for no other reason than I would be embarrassed ... for the state to come in and take over,” he said.
Renfrow said he was committed to making Johnston schools the best they can be.
“No one will approach this position with the passion I have for students in Johnston County,” he said.
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett
No money for new field house
The Johnston County school system has razed the field house at Smithfield-Selma High School.
But the school system has no money to replace it, Superintendent Ross Renfrow told Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce members on Tuesday.
Even if the schools had excess dollars for capital projects, other building needs might come before a field house at SSS, Renfrow said, while acknowledging the need for a field house there.
“There needs to be a field house on the campus at SSS High School,” he said.