Orange County Schools Board Chair Resigns

The chair of the Orange County School Board is resigning, less than a year after joining the board.

Dr. Debbie Piscitelli announced her resignation at a school board meeting this week. It’s effective immediately: board vice chair Brenda Stephens will take over as interim board chair, and the full board will select a new chair at its next meeting in December.

Piscitelli was first elected to the board in 2006 and served two terms. She decided not to run for re-election in 2014, but returned this March when board members appointed her to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Rosa Williams.

Piscitelli’s resignation leaves two vacancies on the seven-member board: Lawrence Sanders also resigned from his position less than a month ago. The district is already accepting applications to fill Sanders’ seat; the deadline to apply is December 2.

Back To School, OCRCC Keeps Kids Safe

Students and teachers aren’t the only ones heading back to school.

Volunteers from the Orange County Rape Crisis Center are also heading into local classrooms with their annual safety education programs, teaching kids to say no to bullying and unwanted touching from peers and adults alike.

The OCRCC has two education programs, “Safe Touch” and “Start Strong.” Designed for elementary schools, “Safe Touch” works to prevent child sexual abuse by teaching kids the difference between safe and unsafe touching and encouraging kids to “say no, get away, tell someone” if they experience unwanted touching or abuse. “Start Strong” is an anti-bullying program for middle and high schools – also designed to teach students the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

And the OCRCC also has a training program for adults: called “Stewards for Children,” the program sends volunteers to organizations that work with kids, to teach their staff to recognize the signs of child sexual abuse and take the proper steps when they see something. The national nonprofit Darkness to Light has recognized the OCRCC as a “Partner in Prevention” for this program.

OCRCC Community Education Director Rachel Valentine spoke with WCHL’s Aaron Keck this week.


For more information about the OCRCC and its in-school programs, visit

Storytelling Linked to Early Reading in African-American Children

New research from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute suggests oral storytelling skills might be particularly important for early reading in African-American children.

Researchers know that a preschooler’s ability to tell a story can predict their reading skills later in life. But Frank Porter Graham researcher Nicole Gardner-Neblett wanted to take that connection a step further.

“This link hasn’t been investigated by race and ethnicity and socioeconomic status in the past, and so we wanted to take a look and see, are there differences?” Gardner-Neblett said.

Gardner-Neblett and her co-author studied data from a national survey of more than 6,000 students. They compared the students’ oral narrative skills in preschool to their literacy in kindergarten. For most students, those early storytelling skills were not a predictor of kindergarten literacy. Except for one group.

“Only for African-American children did preschool oral narrative skills play a role in early language and in their later reading outcomes,” Gardner-Neblett said.

Gardner-Neblett says it’s hard to say why the link was present in African-American children but not in other groups. But it may have something to do with African-American culture.

“We can hypothesize that it has something to do with the historical importance of storytelling among African-American communities,” Gardner-Neblett explained. “But there’s not enough research to make a firm conclusion.”

While Gardner-Neblett says the link she found is significant, she’s not ready to use the study to give advice to educators.

“At this point the research is saying that there’s something different in terms of how oral narratives may be operating for African-American children. Or it may [work the same way in other groups] but just at an earlier stage [for African-American children],” Gardner-Neblett said. “But I think we need more research in order to give recommendations to teachers or parents as to what they should do.”

Next, Gardner-Neblett says she wants to look at literacy in students beyond the kindergarten level to see whether early storytelling skills have a long-term impact.

PACE Students, Teachers Await Mid-August Decision

Lawyers wrapped up their arguments Tuesday in a hearing to determine whether a Carrboro charter school will remain open. But students and teachers at PACE Academy won’t know for several weeks whether they will be able to return to PACE in the fall.

After a meeting at PACE Academy, PACE student Addison Edwards takes a stack of papers from Jamie Bittner, his school’s occupational therapist.

“This is his paperwork for career and college promise,” Bittner says waving the stack of forms. “His GPA is outstanding, his SAT scores are outstanding, so he’s going to be taking community college courses while attending—hopefully PACE next year.”

Bittner says “hopefully PACE,” because it’s up in the air whether PACE will be open for Edwards to come back to in the fall.

In May, the State Board of Education voted not to renew the school’s charter over concerns about poor attendance records and non-compliance with some regulations for teaching students with disabilities. The school appealed that decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings.

After 4 days in court, it rests for Judge Phil Berger Jr. to decide if PACE will get to keep its charter. That has PACE student Jerry Garfunkel worried about where he’ll be in the fall.

“It’s scary to think about,” Garfunkel says. “I don’t really know where I’m going to go, or what I’m going to do.”

PACE says its mission is to serve students in grades 9 through 12 who aren’t thriving in traditional public schools. Half of PACE’s students have autism or other mental health diagnoses. Many are teen mothers, and some are homeless or former dropouts.  Garfunkel says he came to PACE because the traditional public school environment was much too stressful for him.

“I thought I was going to end up in the UNC psych ward if I stayed there any longer,” he says. “I almost had a mental breakdown in my study hall class.”

Garfunkel says the smaller class sizes and nurturing environment at PACE suit him much better.

“The people here are understanding, the students here are very kind, the teachers here are extremely qualified for their jobs,” he said. “I’ve just been going from like D’s and F’s to A’s. It’s incredible.”

Berger will deliver a judgment by August 13—less than two weeks before the start of the school year. PACE Assistant Principal Jane Miller says that means she and the other administrators aren’t just hoping for the best, they’re planning for it too.

“Rhonda, Jamie and I are still operating as if we are going to open on August 25,” Miller told a room of concerned parents, students, alumni and teachers. “Because if we don’t plan enough, we simply wouldn’t have enough time once we get the decision that affirms we stay open.”

At the same time, PACE administrators say they have a contingency plan. Miller says she and other staff members will spend the next weeks helping families identify traditional public schools, private schools and home-school groups in case PACE closes.

Book Sparks Discussion About Teaching Diversity in OC Classrooms

Former Efland-Cheeks Elementary School teacher Omar Currie stood before a full audience of adults at the Chapel Hill Public Library and read a children’s book: King and King, a story about two princes who fall in love and get married.

Hear Currie’s full reading of King and King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland at the Chapel Hill Public Library below:


While Wednesday night’s reading ended in applause, Currie received a much different response after he read the book in his third-grade classroom in May. Several parents complained to Currie and the school about his decision to read the fairy tale in class.

Currie eventually resigned, he says, because he didn’t get the support he needed from his principal or the school district during the controversy.

king and king“After my reading of King and King, the first thing that was said to me was, ‘We could have dealt with this as a disciplinary issue,'” Currie said. “So my career was put out there, as if to threaten me and to say, ‘Oh, well you need to back off and not move forward with anything.’”

Wednesday night at the library, Currie’s reading kicked off a panel discussion about teaching diversity in the classroom. Kathleen Gallagher, researcher at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, was on the panel. She says Currie made the right decision in reading a book that included gay characters.

“It’s our responsibility to educate children for this anti-bias perspective—for cultural competence,” Gallagher said. “We can’t prepare children for all the diversity that they’re going to encounter, but we can prepare them to have that open space—that third space—to think about it and reflect on it and be open to accepting.”

But panel members acknowledged there are many barriers to teaching diversity effectively. UNC Library Science Professor Brian Sturm says it can be difficult to find books like King and King that depict diverse characters.

“In the publishing arena in North America, particularly in the United States, you find that it is still predominately white; it is still predominately male.”

Currie says in his case, he needed support from his principal to shield him from angry parents. Gallagher says Currie’s principal needed support as well—from the school district.

“Every level needs to create this safety for conversations about diversity,” Gallagher said. “And when one falls apart, the whole thing falls apart.”

Currie won’t be teaching in Orange County, or North Carolina. He says he’s taken position at an elementary school in Alexandria, Virginia.

Carrboro Charter School Battles to Stay Open

PACE Academy will fight in court Tuesday to keep its doors open.

Teachers, students, parents and alumni of PACE Academy gathered at the State Board of Education building Monday morning. They were there to protest the Board’s decision to revoke PACE’s charter.

The state’s Charter School Advisory Board recommended PACE be closed due to concerns about low attendance, financial problems and compliance issues. But protest organizer Stephanie Perry says she believes those concerns are unfounded.

“Over the past two years, PACE Academy has been aggressively targeted by the Charter School Advisory Board in a very unfair way,” she said.

Perry says the advisory board did not take into account the school’s unique population when making its assessment. PACE serves students in grades nine through twelve. The school says half of its students have mental health problems or learning disabilities and that many of its students are teenage parents and former drop-outs. Perry says that means many PACE students take classes on a nontraditional schedule and weren’t there when advisory board members came out to check the school’s attendance

“Because of the vocational curriculum, a lot of the students have on-the-job training and internships,” Perry said.

PACE has appealed a May decision by a State Board of Education review panel that revoked the school’s charter. Senate President Phil Berger’s son, Judge Phil Berger Jr., will hear arguments beginning Tuesday.

This is the second time PACE has had its charter on the line. The school’s charter was nearly revoked in 2013 over similar concerns.

Thousands of NC Teacher Assistants in Limbo

The General Assembly passed a stop-gap spending measure Tuesday. The bill keeps the government funded until mid-August while the chambers grapple over the final budget. But the measure does nothing to ease the concerns of  8,500 teacher assistants whose jobs are now in limbo.

North Carolina teacher assistant Melinda Zarate has spent the last several summers on edge.

“It’s just very nerve-wracking,” Zarate told reporters. “Imagine not knowing whether you were going to have a job in a couple months. And yeah, that happens in business too. But for teacher assistants, this happens every single year.”

The Legislature has made frequent cuts to teacher assistant positions since the 2008 recession. This year, despite a budget surplus, the Senate’s budget proposes axing another 8,500 teacher assistants. That would leave schools with less than a third of the teacher assistants they had before the recession. Those cuts don’t sit well with Lisa Caley, a parent of a child with special learning needs.

“Our public schools today are focused on educating every student, and TAs are working to provide the individualized instruction to make that happen,” Caley said. “That means they’re assisting with kids who need remediation, with students who are on grade level and students who are above grade level, to make sure that lessons are differentiated to meet all students’ needs.”

Teacher assistants and their advocates argue their instruction is needed in today’s classrooms.

“Things have become so individualized in our schools, that we don’t do a lot of whole-class instruction—teachers standing in front of a group of kids just delivering trying to fill their heads,” Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Tom Forcella said. “It’s more about breaking kids up into small collaborative groups.”

Senators who support the cuts say reducing the number of teacher assistants will allow the state to hire more teachers and raise teachers’ starting salaries. The House’s budget also proposes raising teacher salaries, but it does not cut assistants. Todd LoFrese, Assistant Superintendent for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, says his district is eagerly awaiting a final budget.

“We’re going to have to take a good look as we develop our budgets if teacher assistants are reduced at the state level again: What are our options? Do we have any options, because those are really big numbers that they’re talking about making in the Senate budget,” LoFrese said.

The two chambers have until August 14 before stop-gap funding expires. In the meantime, thousands of teacher assistants can only guess whether they’ll return to the classroom in the fall.

Large Disparities Exist Even in State’s Healthiest County

Orange County children may be the healthiest in North Carolina, according to child-advocacy nonprofit NC Child. But a closer look at Orange County shows that the block you grow up on may matter more than your county.

Orange County is the wealthiest and most educated county in the state, and overall its children are the healthiest. Orange County Health Director Colleen Bridger says that’s not a coincidence.

“The more highly educated you are, the more likely you are to have a professional job that provides you with health insurance, time off to go to the doctor, time off to take your kids to the doctor and a living wage,” Bridger said.

But Orange County’s wealth and college degrees aren’t divided equally among all its residents. Census estimates show wide socioeconomic gaps between adjacent blocks.

“Even though Orange County in the aggregate is doing well, there are pockets of poverty and places where people are struggling that rivals any other place in the state,” Bridger  warned.

Bridger says the greatest health disparities within Orange County often come down to disparities in education. There are areas in the county where two-thirds of third-graders are reading below grade level. The county says it’s working to improve health outcomes by closing the education gap through a project called the Family Success Alliance. The program replicates an initiative out of Harlem in New York City.

“They’ve basically said ‘anything a child needs from before she or he is born to the time he or she has a job after they’ve graduated from college, we want to provide it.’ And so we want to replicate that here so that we are able to ensure that every child in Orange County can succeed, regardless of where they live,” Bridger said.

Local Schools Explore Solution to Sedentary School Day

Public schools across North Carolina are entering their final weeks of the year, and that means it’s testing time for students. But with childhood obesity on the rise, schools face pressure to balance test preparation with the need for physical activity throughout the school day.

You can listen to the story below:


At Perry Harrison Elementary School in Pittsboro, several fifth-grade girls are playing foursquare on the basketball court, and Brynn Dodge is on a winning streak.

State policy stipulates public elementary and middle school students are guaranteed at least 30 minutes a day of physical activity, and the state encourages schools to provide several hours a week of physical education. Researchers cite recess and P.E. as important tools in the fight against childhood obesity.

According to the CDC, childhood obesity rates doubled during the past 30 years and quadrupled in teenagers. As U.S. kids’ waistlines grew, teacher Laura Fenn watched as their time for school recess and P.E. shrank.

“I was a fifth-grade teacher for a long time, and over the course of 10 or 15 years, time for P.E. and recess was continually cut or eliminated,” Fenn said. “And the kids are just so miserable sitting inside all day long. But with all the focus on testing and achievement, a lot of times, time for P.E. or recess gets replaced with classroom instruction.”

Several years ago, Fenn came up with a solution to the increasingly sedentary school day. She started recording her lessons so her students could listen to them while they walked outside.

“The kids loved it because they got to go outside. They thought they were getting out of something,” she said. “It really tapped into a learning style that many students didn’t know that they had. And so students who were not successful in a traditional setting, all of a sudden, their kinesthetic, auditory learning style was really tapped into, and they were able to participate more and really feel like a successful learner.”

In 2011 Fenn launched a podcast of pre-recorded lessons called “The Walking Classroom.” It’s being used in 700 schools across the U.S. One of those schools is Perry Harrison Elementary. The school received “The Walking Classroom” as a donation from Briar Chapel, local real-estate development company. Brynn Dodge tried it out in her class this year.

“It was a cool way to get out because we were exercising while we were learning things,” Dodge said.

The students each created their own podcasts as part of a class project inspired by "The Walking Classroom."

The students each created their own podcasts as part of a class project inspired by “The Walking Classroom.”

Zion Verinder is a sixth-grader at Margaret B. Pollard Middle School, which also received a “Walking Classroom” donation. He said he liked the podcasts.

“It’s a nice addition to everything,” he said.

But, Verinder says, he’s not a fan of being outdoors, for the walking classroom or for recess, especially when it’s hot.

“They make us walk around the soccer field,” Verinder complained. But his mother, Julie Wagner, sees things differently.

“See I love that, as a parent,” Wagner said. “They really have the kids get up, and they have to walk around and do laps. And I live close to the school, so I see all of them, even eighth-graders, seventh-graders and sixth-graders, walking around the school and going out to the fields.”

Verinder thinks he’s getting enough P.E. He said he has the class twice a week for the rest of the year.

“That’s wonderful,” Wagner responded. “I’m so glad you have P.E., but I wish you had P.E. every day.”

Like most parents in North Carolina, and the U.S., Wagner has to settle for a few hours a week.

Marble Maze Inspires Kindergarten Class

Many teachers will say their most important, and sometimes most difficult, job is keeping students engaged. That challenge has prompted one local kindergarten teacher to come up with an out-of-the box idea.

The covered-outdoor walkway outside Claire Ross’ kindergarten classroom at Estes Hills Elementary was the place to be on Friday afternoon as the group of young builders tried out their marble maze.

What started out as a project during the class’ fun-center activity, evolved into a massive structure of toilet paper rolls, duct tape, and masking tape – 318 toilet paper rolls to be exact.

Listen to the full story below:


Three months of work from enthusiastic five-year-olds resulted in a colossal zig-zag of four levels of the taped-together rolls.

Then came time for the trial run.

After a deafening countdown from 10, the marbles were off, barreling down the cardboard slope, dropping from level to level, accompanied with an enthusiastic “WOO” with each drop, and after a roughly 20-second trip….success! The marbles erupted from the other end of the tube, dinging a bell that had been set up as a finish marker, leading to celebratory screams from the group of youngsters.

After several runs, it was no longer just Ross’ “Rockets” in the breezeway, class after class came down to check out the kindergartner’s project.

Marble Maze_2

Ross says the best part of all of the hard work was all the children were engaged and learning without realizing they were doing schoolwork.

“That all of the children are working toward the same goal, and they’re all excited, and they’re all involved, and everybody is into it,” she points out as rewarding moments. “They’re all working, they’re all engaged, they’re all wanting to be part of the team that’s working on it at that time.

“They’re totally buying into it. They want to learn more.”

Ross says her class was able to accomplish a lot of their academic goals by putting them into this hands-on project.

“We’re working on addition, and we added together all of the smaller numbers,” she says. “Then they used writing because they’re writing about what they were doing and explaining their ideas.”

Ross adds Estes Hills is working toward more STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) projects, and the marble maze incorporates many of those aspects.

For all of their hard work collaborating, all of the classmates got teamwork awards.

And the group of five-year old builders who learned what it means to be an engineer may have a new career aspiration.

Ross videoed the students throughout the project and created this documentary: