Kitchen conversations reveal work to be done

Johnston County Board of Education member Donna White attended the school system’s kitchen conversations wrap-up last week at Selma Elementary School.
Johnston County Board of Education member Donna White attended the school system’s kitchen conversations wrap-up last week at Selma Elementary School.

In a couple of days, Johnston County high school seniors will graduate, and it will feel like summer is finally here. Summer is the two-month catching of the breath built into the school year, at times both a slog and a sprint, that Johnston students, parents and teachers use to regroup and refocus for the next year.

This next year will be Superintendent Ross Renfrow’s first as sole leader of Johnston County Schools, having taken over for retiring Ed Croom in March. Over the past couple of months, Renfrow and his senior leadership team held “kitchen conversation” meetings in each of the county’s eight attendance zones. The superintendent’s aim was to gauge where the school system is and where it wants to be.

“When we had these kitchen conversations a month ago, there was a tremendous outpouring of ideas; it was very creative and innovative,” Renfrow said.

Last week, the school system delivered the results of those meetings to a crowd of around 150 teachers, administrators and parents in the auditorium of Selma Elementary School. The greatest takeaway, it seemed, was that the schools share common concerns but often different realities.

District-wide, the school system said it heard positive feedback about its teachers, its family-like environment, its community-based school philosophy, its communication efforts, use of technology and efforts to personalize education for each student. Those feelings differ somewhat when broken down by individual attendance areas. For example, Clayton, Corinth, Cleveland and Princeton all feel the school system does a good job setting high standards, but Smithfield doesn’t feel that way. Smithfield was the only attendance area to applaud its students as one of the things the schools are getting right.

Renfrow said he was encouraged to hear community support as one of the good things, because he said a sense of community is what will help drive Johnston County’s best students back home.

“Our goal is to take each student and prepare them for success after high school, whether it be college, career or life itself,” Renfrow said. “If a student graduates from a Johnston County school, then they go back and are contributing members of society.”

For the areas that need work, the school system listed teacher retention, growth management, safety and security, personalization, facilities and the roles of bus drivers and teacher assistants. Some items appeared on both the strengths and weaknesses lists, specifically “personalization,” which Renfrow said is a key to seeing that 35,000 students all get a quality education. Personalization, he said, means offering students choices and opportunities to explore their interests.

“That was not the Johnston County Schools that I saw as a student back in the 1970s and ’80s; there was an emphasis on teaching and not learning,” Renfrow said. “This is the future of public education, not just in Johnston County, but across the nation.”

Building issues and the strains of growth are tied together, but Renfrow said Johnston County should see growth as a good thing, though the school system will have to react it.

“I promise you, if you’re not growing, you’re dying,” Renfrow said.

Renfrow told a story about when he was at Corinth Holders High School as principal, in charge of students who had only known the brand new schools of River Dell Elementary School, Archer Lodge Middle School and Corinth Holders. During an away girls’ basketball game in Halifax County, Renfrow said, some parents wouldn’t let their children use the locker room at the school, choosing instead to change down the road in a convenience store.

“We have some of the best facilities of any district in the state,” Renfrow said. “[The state of Halifax schools] is the trend. Johnston County is the exception. ... That’s the kind of disparity that exists across the state, but we have our own disparities here in Johnston County.”

Clayton, Smithfield and Corinth Holders all listed facilities as a concern, but the concerns are likely quite different. While Clayton and Smithfield hope the school system addresses its aging buildings, Corinth wants something done about the trailers behind the high school.

Teacher retention didn’t appear on the radar of every school, but it is one the district is trying to address through its proposed budget. Renfrow asked the county for $1.9 million more in local funding to try to keep Johnston teachers from leaving for Wake County. The exodus of teachers has forced the school system to carry 40 vacancies through the year.

“At some point in time, your student may have been in a classroom with a substitute teacher,” Renfrow said. “And there is no substitute for a highly qualified teacher. Instruction suffers when the teacher is not there during the day.”

Looking to the future, Renfrow said the district would be a technology leader among North Carolina school districts and that he will be a visible advocate for Johnston. The school system will undergo reaccreditation later this year, complete a facilities assessment and hold similar kitchen conversations next spring.

At the end of the meeting last week, a handful of parents asked questions echoing many of the concerns mentioned by the school system and adding a few more. Eric Westbrook said he was worried about teacher compensation, and Michelle Woodard, who has an elementary school student, said teacher websites aren’t regularly updated, making ideas of communication and personalization a challenge. Renfrow said it was something his administration would push for and suggested maybe teacher Twitter accounts could be the best way to get timely information on tests and lessons.

Terry Lee called out the school system for the differences in its buildings from one end of the county to the other.

“You mentioned going to Halifax County and seeing differences, well there are differences in facilities and achievement right here in our own district,” she said. “I’m wondering what your office is going to do to address some of the gaps in achievement within our own district?”

Renfrow said he plans to present the findings of the facilities assessment for all 45 schools by the August board of education meeting. After that he said he would compile a list of the highest-priority projects and work toward getting things fixed.

At the end of the night, he made a pledge that Johnston County would produce highly educated students, no matter which school they come from.

“I do not know what the future holds,” Renfrow said. “But I do know who holds the future. I’ll get things wrong as your superintendent. But I will work hard and do my best to earn the wage I make and put your child in the position to be successful when they leave Johnston County schools.”

Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson


Here’s the schedule of high school commencement exercises in Johnston County:

Clayton – 6:30 p.m. June 10.

Cleveland – 6 p.m. June 10.

Corinth Holders – 6:30 p.m. June 10.

North Johnston – 6 p.m. June 10.

Princeton – 7 p.m. June 10.

Smithfield-Selma – 6 p.m. June 10.

South Campus – 10 a.m. June 8.

South Johnston – 6 p.m. June 10.

West Johnston – 6 p.m. June 10.