State News

Judge: Early education, accountability keys to student achievement

Posted May 4, 2010 4:03 a.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2010 6:51 p.m. EDT

— Better early education and accountability for teachers, principals and schools staff are keys to improving student performance, says a judge charged with ensuring school districts meet minimum state standards.

School officials from Durham, Forsyth and Guilford counties testified Tuesday before Superior Court Judge Howard Manning. He monitors compliance with the Leandro case, a state Supreme Court decision that set minimum standards for a quality education.

Manning ordered those school systems in March to show him their plans to meet the Leandro standards. Citing test scores, he said that thousands of students are being badly served by schools in those counties.

On Tuesday, Manning expressed the most concern about elementary and middle school education. If students fall behind, he said, they have an almost impossible time catching up.

"These children are dead in the water at the time they are in sixth grade. If you didn't get that out of today, you missed it," he said. "The whole thing boils down to you've got to start in kindergarten."

He emphasized that teachers and principals need to be held accountable for low-performing schools.

"We've got all these little children who aren't reading. You've got to clean up the classroom," he said.

"Get rid of the principal. Get rid of the staff. That's what you need to do," he continued.

Manning said he will give the districts time improve student performance and then re-evaluate their test scores. He wants to see if the districts can fix the problems on their own without requiring more state oversight.

Durham Public Schools officials told Manning about an accountability plan the school board adopted last week to raise student achievement.

"We want to put in a model that is sustainable," said Stacey Wilson-Norman, assistant superintendent of Elementary curriculum and instruction. "It holds each person accountable for their performance, for high expectations."

Schools would be ranked into three categories based on performance. Schools in the lowest-performing categories must show improvement within three years or face closure. Teachers and staff might also have to reapply for their jobs in some cases.

The right people and leaders need to be in place to make drastic changes in schools, Wilson-Norman said.

"It could mean we could need to change a few teachers out," she said. "We would look at turnaround when we feel like we don't have the human talent in the building.

Durham County Board of Education Chair Minnie Forte-Brown said that she thinks that incoming Superintendent Eric Becoats will push Durham schools forward.

"We are staying focused on reform," Forte-Brown said. "We selected a new superintendent to come in as our who is transformative."

Manning said he did like some measures Durham schools are taking. He praised the East Durham Children's Initiative, which tries to incorporate the community in academic success at Y.E. Smith Elementary, Neal Middle and Southern High schools.

Y.E. Smith has adopted an extended day to provide 90 more minutes of instructional time, Wilson-Norman said. The school has also partnered with museums for field trips.

"I am seeing a significant culture change at the school," Wilson-Norman said.

In particular, Manning was impressed by testimony from Lowe's Grove Middle School Principal Kathy Kirkpatrick about programs to improve student achievement. Students are offered behavioral incentives, and the school day has been restructured so that there is time reserved for tutoring and homework if students don't complete it the night before.

Kirkpatrick said the changes have put more pressure on teachers. The school, which has more than 70 percent of students on free or reduced lunch, saw a 20 percent turnover among teachers this year and last year.

"You are with me or not. If you are not, you've got to go," she said.

Kirkpatrick said she aims to create a culture of achievement and expectation for students and teachers. The motto for students is "Go to high school, go to college," college banners are hung around the school, and awards have been created to motivate and reward teachers, she said.

"I am absolutely seeing progress," Kirkpatrick said. "Our kids have the capacity to pass EOGs (end-of-grade tests), and that's what we are going to do."