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Rhyan Breen, the newest member of the Wilson County Board of Education, calls himself a convert.
Breen, a parent of two children in Wilson County Schools, was sworn in Dec. 19 as the board’s newest member.
Breen’s son started at Wilson Preparatory Academy but was removed so he and his younger sister could attend Wilson County Schools.
“We weren’t pleased with the quality of education or the quality of the administration or the response of the administration we were getting at a charter school, so we came back to Wilson County Schools for the purpose of there being a more responsive administrative structure,” Breen said.
Wilson County Schools is grappling with a steady decrease in enrollment as more parents chose charter schools, private schools and home schools for their children.
Breen said Wilson County Schools has got to “restore faith” in the community.
“I think that there is an optics issue more than anything,” Breen said. “I think more than anything, that there is some pervasive fear for parents that their kids aren’t going to get the best because they don’t want their kids to have what every other child can have. They want their child to have more, and they think that by putting their kids in the public school system, they are not doing the best that they can for the kids.”
Rising from the bottom
In 2015-16, Wilson County Schools was considered a low-performing school district, but that is not the case anymore.
On Dec. 21, State Superintendent Mark Johnson sent out a notice spotlighting and commending state schools that had achieved academic gains made by students and educators, and Wilson County Schools was recognized.
In the last two years, Wilson County Schools has charted the state’s highest increase in proficiency.
Gains made last year has improved Wilson County Schools’ ranking statewide from 89th to 59th among 115 school districts.
In the 2017-18 school year, 18 of the 25 schools, or 72 percent, in the district earned an A,B or C letter performance grade on proficiency and growth, which is an improvement from the 2016-17 school year when 56 percent of Wilson County’s public schools received A, B or C letter grades.
Yet, five elementary schools and two middle schools had D performance grades in 2017-18. That is an improvement over 2016-17, when two elementary schools and one middle school had F performance grades.
Overall, Wilson County Schools has made notable improvements at the elementary, middle and high school level in nearly all subject areas.
Those gains have coincided, though, with the continued trend of declining enrollment.
“As we have seen an uptick in our performance, we are hoping that we are going to reinvigorate the population to come back to the schools,” said Wilson County Board of Education Chairwoman Christine Fitch. “We would like to see that student population come back, return to previous levels, grow as the community grows and as the population in the county grows. If any left because of poor performance, and we accept and understand that our performance had not been the best, but now that we are on the uptick with our performance and we are seeing the progress made, we are hoping that some that might have left because of performance data will see fit to come back.” Fitch points to Lane Mills, who has been superintendent since the summer of 2016, with helping lead the effort to improve the school district.
“I rate him very highly,” Fitch said. “He has come in. He has evaluated. He has evaluated budget. He has evaluated programs. He has evaluated performance. He has evaluated the personnel. He has made shifts in placements. We have looked at programs. We have altered some programs.”
Fitch said that “any entity goes through its ups and downs.”
“When I first came on the board, we had a student performance rate that was maybe in the 50th percentile,” Fitch said. “We worked hard. We set goals. We changed programs. We implemented programs. We removed programs. We focused on reading, getting our students at or above grade level by the second grade.”
The district changed because of mandates from the state and federal government.
“So we have seen Wilson County Schools moved from a low-performing to a very high-performing (district) in the past,” Fitch said. “We have seen the decline that has occurred, and now we are on the upswing again. So historically, we are not where we have not been before. But there are highs and lows in anything, and we never have the same population.
“Our population is constantly changing, so you have to look at a whole bunch of factors and not just one factor in saying that the performance was not good. We’re not denying that the performance wasn’t where we wanted it to be. And even if we get up and our performance is 90 percent, we know that we still have a ways to go. It is an ever-moving target, and we are working to try to do what is best for our students.”
TAKING ALL COMERS
As a traditional public school district, Wilson County Schools has the responsibility to take any child in the county who needs an education.
“We don’t have a choice. We have to take whoever comes to our doors,” Fitch said. “We get the best that mom, dad and grandmother, or whoever is raising those children, provide to us, and then we have to take whatever they have given us and try to bring them all along.”
Wilson County Schools has 13 elementary and two middle schools that are Title I schools, a distinction tied to a federally supported program that gives assistance to educationally and economically disadvantaged children. One purpose is to help ensure that these needy students “receive an equitable, high-quality, well-rounded education and meet the school system’s challenging academic standards.”
Eligible students receive instructional activities and support services that are over and above other students at regular schools.
According the U.S. Census Bureau, some 18.1 percent of the population in Wilson County is living in poverty. The median household income in 2017 dollars for years 2013-17 was $42,095, and the per-capita income in the past 12 months for the same period was $23,383. As of Oct. 1, 2018, the unemployment rate in Wilson County was 5.3 percent, which is down from a high of 14.9 percent in June 2011.
Some 23.2 percent of the population is 18 or younger.
According to KidsCount.org, Wilson County had 6,705 children living in poverty in 2016, which was 38 percent of the children in the county, well above the state average of 21.7 percent that year. That is down from a high of 7,426 or 39.2 percent in 2014.
In 2007, the county had 4,773 children below the poverty line, which is 25 percent of the county’s children.
“There are a lot of moving parts and issues at play, and all of it comes down to the bottom line called finances and how we can best meet the needs of the students that we have in our charge,” Fitch said.
SPARKING A RETURN
At the Dec. 19 Wilson County Board of Education meeting, Steve Ellis, a special assistant to the superintendent, told the board of an initiative starting this year to allow the nearly 800 home-schooled students to access Wilson County Schools’ online curriculum.
“We will hopefully have conversations with home school students to see if they want to access courses from Wilson County,” Ellis said. “We will have a sign-up hopefully in the next month or so to see how many home students we can enroll, and our goal is to get them to at least enroll in two courses for them to become a Wilson County Schools student in hopes to bring some of those students back into the system.”
Board member Beverly Boyette was impressed with the initiative, which was modeled after a program at Mount Airy City Schools.
“This is the future, and I am very glad to see us moving in this direction to include and get some of those home school students hopefully back in our system at least in some courses,” Boyette said.
Mills said this is not an isolated initiative among school systems.
“You are seeing more and more of it pop up,” Mills said. “It is something that we could use as a way to increase enrollment to provide some services to out community.”
“I know a lot of times when students attend home school, they don’t have enough credits to actually receive their degree, so that is a choice right there,” said board member Debora Powell. “I am glad that you are offering courses that they are able to do that.”
MAKING THE CASE
Fitch said Wilson County parents have the choice to put their children in school wherever they see fit.
If she could address parents directly, Fitch said she would tell them WCS is working to make their children “the most productive and best-trained students” the school system is able to provide.
Breen said it’s his belief that Wilson County Schools is giving children their best shot for success further down the road.
Wilson County Schools has not necessarily deemphasized a college education or the college prep track, Breen said, but has placed additional emphasis on getting more students career-ready.
“There is an emphasis on getting the next generation of child ready to enter the workforce and ready to succeed,” Breen said.
Breen said charter schools or private schools might not necessarily be able to provide that level of preparedness.
“When you look at having to meet all of those needs, it is difficult, but it’s the task that we are about in trying to make sure that they can become productive citizens in Wilson County, in the state of North Carolina, in the United States or wherever in the world they happen to be,” Fitch said. “When you look at the products that we have produced, we have students who have gone on to do good things in their chosen arena whether it is in the world of work or whether it is an educational setting or whether it is in the military.”
Bill Myers, whose 40-year career in education gave him experience in segregated schools and integrated schools, said public schools can make a comeback.
“I am a believer; if you do something right, right wins,” Myers said. “That’s my belief, that you keep on doing things right. The change might not come as early as you want it, but I see change coming down the road if you keep being progressive doing things right, looking out for the child that’s there and providing the best opportunities for the children who are there, making sure they are achieving, that they are taken care of and they are safe, and they are fed and everything is done right.”
“I believe that’s going to win,” Myers said. “That might not come this year. I think you have to be patient with it to make it happen. But in the meantime, you are getting fought because they are going to build another charter school over here. The money follows the child right down the line, so you are taking money away. I just believe in rightness, that you keep doing it right. I protect this kid. I teach this kid. I provide for this kid. I do all these things. Pretty soon, the word gets out there, ‘Hey, these guys aren’t too bad. I need to send them back over there.’”
Mills said he realize parents have choices on where to send their children for an education.
“We certainly want public school to be the choice,” Mills said.
Cassandra Coghill of Wilson has a fifth-grade son who attends Wilson Christian Academy with the help of the N.C. Opportunity Scholarship.
“I am grateful for the scholarship and I am very happy with my son’s private school. As a single mom, I would not be able to afford to send my son to private school. Even with the scholarship’s help, I pay $1,000 out of my pocket for the school year,” Coghill said. “I make that sacrifice because this is the environment I want my child to learn in.”
Coghill said because of the large class sizes in public schools, her child was not able to focus and learn.
“Because of his learning style, the curriculum and the way it was taught made it difficult for him,” Coghill said. “The private school class sizes are much smaller. Their classrooms average 20-22 students per classroom. He feels better prepared for his tests and assessments. The public school atmosphere and culture doesn’t promote my family morals and values. The private school does.”
Breen said he believes that once parents start to realize what Wilson County Schools is offering, they will be more likely to bring their children back once they have that restoration of faith in the county school system at large.
“It might be slow and steady, but we are going to try to get these parents and their kids back,” Breen said. “I think it’s an optics issue more than anything.”