PEMBROKE — The Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County during a retreat Saturday took a hard look at the local system, discussing a range of things, from curriculum, to dress codes, to teacher and principal attendance, to transfers and even safety.
And a new board member was not reticent to say work needs to be done.
“When you look at our data, we are like the Titanic and we need to throw our kids some lifesavers,” said Brian Freeman, who joined the board last month.
The six-hour retreat, which began at 8 a.m. and included lunch, updated veteran board members on the system, and served as a training session for new members.
There was no mention of school consolidation or the need for new schools, which has dominated headlines in recent months.
The retreat included presentations from each assistant superintendent, followed questions from the board. Elizabeth Younce, assistant superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, said students are falling short of proficiency goals.
“Our core instruction has to reach about 80 percent of our students. If we aren’t reaching 80 percent, we aren’t working hard enough,” Younce said.
During the 2014-2015 school year, Robeson County students scored an average of 41.2 in math and 44.3 in reading, both under the state average of 44.1 and 45.1 respectively.
In the same year, 38 of the county’s 42 schools scored a C or below on an overall performance grade given by the North Carolina Department of Instruction.
Younce worked for DPI before accepting a position at the local system in February. While employed at the state level, Younce worked in educational curriculum support, school improvement and professional development.
Following her presentation, Freeman suggested that the schools be organized into tiers with the lower tier being low-performing schools, and the upper tier being high-performing schools. That way, resources like money and specialized educational materials and employees could be allocated to struggling schools.
Tommy Lowry, superintendent, said that meetings with principals will be more on the topic of curriculum.
“This is not something we are taking lightly,” he said. “We are very concerned about the curriculum at our schools.”
Thomas Benson III, the newly hired assistant superintendent of Human Resources, addressed the teacher shortage. He said his experience as a principal at Westover High School in Fayetteville could assist him in the recruitment and retention of teachers in Robeson County. He said some teachers would avoid Westover High School because of the school’s reputation.
“When we look at trying to recruit these teachers, yes we can recruit 62 teachers, but if we don’t keep them happy, we’ll be in the same situation next year,” he said.
The previous assistant superintendent of Human Resources, Stephen Gaskins, suggested that vacancies in the Public Schools of Robeson County are high because the county can’t offer supplements that are competitive with neighboring counties.
For example, Scotland County offers a $1,500 sign-on bonus for high-need areas like special education, math and science, and Hoke County offers a $500 relocation bonus.
Freeman, who lives in Robeson County but teaches in Cumberland County, said he made the drive out of the county just to double his supplement.
“If we want to be competitive with Cumberland and Hoke County, we’ve got to give a supplement increase,” he said.
Shanita Wooten, assistant superintendent of Administration and Technology, told the board that during the school year that begins on Aug. 29, there will be 1,600 students who transfer to a school out of their district.
Board member Dwayne Smith suggested a fee for each student hoping to transfer in an attempt to raise more money for the system. He said it may deter some transfers and prevent crowding at some desired schools.
“We’re making everything too easy,” Smith said. “People don’t like change, but they also don’t like sacrifices.”
Grady Hunt, the board’s attorney, said he would lok into the legality of charging a fee for students to transfer schools.
The board also discussed the system’s dress code, with Smith questioning if it was being aggressively enforced.
The dress code prohibits wearing clothes with indecent or obscene messages; wearing sleeveless shirts or dresses; “sagging” pants, shorts or skirts; and wearing clothes of an insufficient length.
Board Chairman Loistine DeFreece said schools have become lax in enforcement.
“Girls are worse than the guys now,” said Randy Lawson. “How does a male teacher approach a female student? The first thing they’ll say is sexual harassment.”
Lawson suggested that female teachers address female students who may be wearing inappropriate clothing.
Lowry said that schools must be consistent, meaning some teachers can’t let violations slide. He said teachers should stand at their classroom doors and enforce the dress code.
The Public Schools of Robeson County currently employs 23 school resources officers — one for each high school and a few at middle schools.
Board member Craig Lowry said he believes every school in the county should have its own resource officer to protect them from people who come onto the campus. DeFreece said that every school that doesn’t have a resource officer should have proper security equipment.
Some schools feature doors with buzzers. The door remains locked unless the front office “buzzes” the visitor in. P
According to Wooten, every principal is given money that could be used to purchase security equipment. The buzzers are affordable, according to Superintendent Lowry.
Board member Wilkins-Chavis said she is concerned about teacher attendance, saying some miss more than 50 days every year.
The board floated the idea of having attendance awards for teachers or allowing individual schools to provide incentives for perfect attendance.
Several board members, including Lawson, Steve Martin and Charles Bullard, said they had heard complaints from parents who can never seem to get a meeting with their principal.
“If a principal has to step off campus, even if it’s to go get a bag of chips at the gas station, they are supposed to call the assistant superintendent assigned to their school,” Superintendent Lowry said. “Attendance is a part of your evaluation, and if it becomes a problem, I would say you are insubordinate.”
The board will have its regular meeting Tuesday.
Gabrielle Isaac can be reached at 910-816-1989 or on Twitter @news_gabbie.