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OC Schools Names Superintendent

ORANGE COUNTY – McDowell County Schools Superintendent Dr. Gerri Martin was announced Thursday night as Orange Schools’ next superintendent.

Martin has served McDowell County in Marion since July 2012. She’s been working in education for 27 years, including four years as Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction prior to her role in McDowell.

The Orange County Schools Board of Education reviewed 30 applications which came from 11 states. In a press release on Thursday, the board said Martin’s experience, credentials, strong communication skills, tenacious work ethic, and dedication to student learning makes her the best fit.

Martin got her bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Politics from Wake Forest University. A few years later, she went on to Appalachian State University where she obtained her master’s of arts in Educational Leadership. She continued her education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she received her Doctorate of Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations.

“I am so humbled to receive the opportunity for this responsibility,” Martin said. “I come with great enthusiasm to serve the students, staff, and community of Orange County.”

Martin will take the position at a date to be determined in October.

Orange County Wealthy On Average, But Poverty Still Lingers

Aaron Nelson and Chamber board chair Paige Zinn. Photo by Donn Young, courtesy of the Orange County Visitors Bureau.

CHAPEL HILL – Year after year, Orange County consistently ranks as the wealthiest in the state of North Carolina—but poverty, even here, continues to be a nagging and serious issue.

“There’s a big disparity between wealth, (and) there continues to be growth in childhood poverty,” said Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson at his annual State of the Community presentation this week. “That is (a statistic) that we need to pay close attention to.”

Orange County ranks first in the state with a per capita income of $48,683 in 2011, well above the state average of $36,000. But in spite of that, our poverty rate is also well above the state average: in 2011, 16.9 percent of Orange County residents were living below the poverty line, compared to 16.1 percent of all North Carolinians (and 14.3 percent of all Americans). The percentage is even higher in Chapel Hill alone, where 22.1 percent of residents lived below the poverty line in 2011.

“Some folks have often discounted that–(because they think) that’s just the student population…but our poverty level is high,” Nelson says. “We ought not to discount it simply because it includes students.”

For the first time, researchers this year were able to distinguish between students and non-students when analyzing wealth and poverty in the area. Students do account for much of the poverty rate in Chapel Hill—but that poverty rate is still elevated even when they’re taken out of the equation. About ten percent of Chapel Hill’s non-student population lives below the poverty line—a poverty rate that’s less than the state average, but still more than twice as high as nearby communities like Apex and Cary.

And the poverty rate increases when the focus is narrowed to children. “That is on the rise,” says Nelson, “and in a pretty serious way.”

The key increase is in the percentage of “economically disadvantaged” children, which is to say children who qualify for free and reduced lunch. 26.5 percent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School students and 41.6 percent of Orange County School students qualified for free and reduced lunch in 2011-12—the highest percentage in both districts since at least 2006, when the Chamber began collecting data.

And the high level of need in Orange County is at odds with the common perception of Chapel Hill as a wealthy community—a disconnect that actually makes it harder for governmental and non-governmental organizations to address the real need that exists.

“(It’s called) ‘Chapel Hill Syndrome,’” Nelson says. “Donors get this: it’s a belief that we don’t need anything, Orange County doesn’t need anything–we have the highest per capita income, the University’s there, the hospital’s there, your economy’s bulletproof–but the reality is that some of us feel that way and forget to reinvest and take a look under the rocks on what’s going on in our community with respect to poverty, particularly children in poverty.”

Nelson delivered his State of the Community report on Tuesday at the Friday Center. You can see the full presentation at this link.

For Northside And FPG, New School Year Marks Dawn Of New Era

Northside Elementary School principal Cheryl Carnahan shows off the new building.

CHAPEL HILL – Students in Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools head back to school on Monday morning–and for two elementary schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district, the first day of the new year also marks the first day of a new era.

Frank Porter Graham Elementary School reopens Monday as a dual-language magnet school, the first in the district. “We’re delighted to be the district’s first magnet school,” says principal Emily Bivins, “and (we’re) looking forward to the opportunities in using bilingual education to close the achievement gap, particularly for students who historically have not been successful in our schools.”

FPG Principal Emily Bivins (in Northside library)

FPG Principal Bivins speaks at a press conference Thursday at the new Northside Elementary School.

More than 500 kids are enrolled at FPG, about half of which are new students in the district’s Spanish dual-language program.

Meanwhile across town, the new Northside Elementary School is finally open for business after years in the making–with 496 students enrolled and 80 employees on staff–and school officials like principal Cheryl Carnahan (formerly of Estes Hills Elementary) say they couldn’t be more excited.

Carnahan says Northside’s mission statement is “Thinking, learning, and growing, with purpose, persistence, and pride.” Purpose, persistence, and pride are joined by a pedagogical approach that’s eminently forward-thinking, while still nodding back to the past.

Northside principal Cheryl Carnahan 1

Carnahan speaks at Thursday’s press conference. (The sunbeam is intentional: Northside is designed to maximize natural light.)

A tour of Northside Elementary is striking: every facet of the new building is consciously tailored to be both eco-friendly and high-tech, from the placement of the windows to the design of the students’ chairs. Reflectors and skylights throughout the building maximize natural light to save on electricity; that electricity is channeled instead into a wide variety of state-of-the-art technology–including iPads (one for every two students), high-speed wireless Internet, and interactive whiteboards that also function as massive touch screens. (Chalk on a slate is ancient history.) Students sit on chairs designed to allow for wiggle room (they’re even comfortable for adults), and the teachers wear microphones to ensure sound quality.

Northside Elementary School classroom

Moseley Architects construction administrator Steve Nally (L) points out some key features in a Northside classroom.

“It’s a different way of thinking about technology,” says Carnahan. “Our focus is always on what (we can) do to collaborate, communicate, and create with our technology.”

But even as Northside looks to the future, it’s also making a concerted effort to stay rooted in its historic past. Its location at 350 Caldwell Street is also the site of the original Northside Elementary, which served as Chapel Hill’s elementary school for African-Americans prior to integration. That history is preserved on the first floor of the three-story building, with a commemorative wall, a trophy case, and a gallery of decades-old photos–a veritable museum of the Northside community’s educational history.

Northside Elementary history wall

The history wall, downstairs.

That history will make its way into the classrooms as well: Northside’s approach revolves around student-driven, “project-based” learning, and Carnahan says the first schoolwide project will focus on Northside.

“(The project) will be about 12 weeks and will start in October…building community and looking at the history of our school site,” she says. “The essential question is, how can we as historians document what has happened in the past, and use that for the present and project to the future?”

And since the school is seeking to look in two directions at once, it’s only fitting that Northside’s symbol is the compass–there are dozens of them on the walls, floors, even the clocks–and the team name is the Navigators.

Neither Northside nor FPG are opening without controversy, of course. In 2012, parents at FPG protested strongly against the school board’s decision to convert the school to a dual-language magnet—and earlier this year, parents across the district spoke out against the new redistricting plan, which moved a large number of students out of their previous schools to ease overcrowding and make way for Northside.

And as students across Chapel Hill-Carrboro return to class, school officials behind the scenes are still contending with another round of budget cuts at the state level–not to mention the threat of an even more difficult financial strain next year, when the district’s fund balance is projected to run dry.

Still, Monday is a day of pride and optimism for local schools–Northside, FPG, and everywhere–as thousands of Orange County students return to what remain two of the top-rated districts in North Carolina.

“It is going to be a great school year in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools,” says district spokesperson Jeff Nash. “It was a great year last year, and we have every reason to believe that despite anything you might see coming outside the Beltline, this (too) is going to be a great school year.”

Northside Elementary rooftop garden

Northside Elementary’s rooftop garden. (Yes, it has a rooftop garden.)

Northside Elementary cafeteria

Skylights abound in Northside’s cafeteria.

Northside Elementary Playground

One of Northside’s three playgrounds. (They’re divided by grade level.)

Northside Elementary Playground artificial grass

A closer look at the playground: that’s actually artificial grass down there.

Northside Elementary auditorium gym

Not far from the history wall, Northside’s gym/auditorium–complete with elevated stage–nears completion.

Northside Elementary School plaque

(No school is perfect.)

Northside Elementary exterior

The exterior of Northside Elementary School. (Note the light reflectors installed in each of the windows.)

OC Schools Making Progress In Superintendent Search

ORANGE COUNTY – The search continues for the next superintendent of the Orange County School System.

Donna Coffey, Chair of the Board of Education, says Dr. Del Burns was named as the interim superintendent in July.

“We needed to give ourselves enough time to get qualified applicants in and go through all of the resumes, look at them, and choose who we wanted to interview,” Coffey says.

Burns served as the superintendent for the Wake County Public School System from 2006 to 2010. Coffey says Burns will remain in the position until a permanent hire is found.

“Our original schedule called for us to name a superintendent in September and we started the process in late July and are working through that right now,” Coffey says.

Former Orange County Schools Superintendent Patrick Rhodes retired on June 30; he held the position since 2007 and also worked as a school teacher or administrator in North Carolina for 30 years.

Tax Hike For CHCCS District; OC Prop Tax Unchanged

CHAPEL HILL-Orange County Commissioners signaled on Thursday that they will hold the line on property taxes, though the CHCCS special district tax will go up.

The board won’t formally adopt the $187 million dollar budget until next week, but commissioners made it clear they want to keep the countywide property tax rate unchanged while still spending more money on public schools.

Looking ahead, some said that won’t be sustainable in the future.

“We have to keep in mind that this might be the last year that we’re going to go without raising taxes,” said Commissioner Penny Rich. “I’m not the kind of person who loves to raise taxes, but there’s a certain level of services that we expect in Orange County, and we can’t go year after year, especially with the school systems, and not raise taxes.”

The ad valorem tax rate will stay at 85.8 cents per $100 of assessed value for the fifth year in a row.

Last month, parents, teachers and administrators from both the Orange County and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools districts came out in droves to beg the board for more money to cover anticipated cuts at the state level.

In response, county commissioners dug into reserve funds to find $1.6 million in extra school funding, raising the per pupil allocation by $81 dollars for both school districts and generating approximately $1.6 million for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and $650,000 for Orange County Schools.

But that money is still not enough to open Chapel Hill’s new Northside Elementary. Commissioners agreed to raise the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax by two cents to generate approximately $2 million for the new school. The new rate will be 20.84 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Commissioners also allocated $49,000 in additional funding for a host of nonprofit organizations, and set aside a quarter of a million for something they dubbed the Social Justice Fund, a reserve account to help lessen the sting of state cuts to social programs.

“In a way it’s a commitment that this is something we consider important,” said Board Chair Barry Jacobs. “I think we all agree there are depredations being done to the social safety net. We want to try to address them and we know can’t address them all.”

The board will vote to formally adopt the budget for Fiscal Year 2013-2014 at a meeting on Tuesday, June 18.

BoCC Eyes CHCCS District Tax, Not Property Tax, For School Funding

CHAPEL HILL- Orange County Commissioners signaled on Thursday that they’re looking for more money to fund public schools, but they stopped short of supporting a countywide property tax rate increase.

“As much as I believe in a strong school system, raising the taxes, personally I believe we have to really have to take a deep look at that, because the rate of poverty is increasing so dramatically in Orange County,” said Renee Price.

In the past two weeks, dozens of residents have  come out to public hearings to ask commissioners to allocate more money for the school systems.

But some commissioners worried that those who can’t afford a tax increase have not had a voice in the debate. Penny Rich said she’s been hearing from residents who did not feel comfortable speaking out on the issue.

“They are very passionate about schools but they just can’t afford any more taxes,” said Rich. “We can make the schools better by raising taxes, but they won’t be part of it, they would have to move.”

Commissioners did indicate they might be willing to increase the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax to help raise the $2 million needed to open the new Northside Elementary.

“We do have a precedent for opening schools in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools on the district tax, so I think as we’re balancing all these different needs, we shouldn’t discount that as a possibility,” said Alice Gordon.

A two-cent increase of the district tax would generate $2 million dollars, while a five-and-a-half cent increase would be needed to fully fund the school board’s budget request.

The manager’s recommended budget falls between $3 million to $8 million dollars short of what the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school boards had asked for, but Board Chair Barry Jacobs noted that the manager’s budget actually increases school spending by about $2.4 million over last year, and he said this year’s funding debate is par for the course.

“I don’t think anybody should take umbrage if we don’t fully fund what the schools request, because they know that no matter what they ask for we can never fully fund it,” said Jacobs.

Officials from both school systems are concerned about state budget proposals that would eliminate funding for teaching assistants in second and third grades.

If approved, the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro districts stand to lose a combined total of 70 teaching assistants. School board representatives estimated it would cost approximately $2.3 million dollars in local money to save those positions.

While the board agreed to keep looking for more school funding, Bernadette Pelissier warned that the county’s resources are limited.

“On the one hand, I say we have to do as much as possible for the schools. On the other hand, we can’t always fill in all the gaps that we have from the federal and state level,” said Pelissier.

Commissioners will continue their deliberations at a series of work sessions next week, with an eye toward formally adopting the budget on June 18.

Gearing Up For High School Graduation Weekend

ORANGE COUNTY – High school graduation weekend kicks-off Friday—first up is Orange County Schools.

Orange High School and Cedar Ridge High School are celebrating their commencement ceremonies in the Dean Dome. Partnership Academy is holding its ceremony at 9:30 a.m. in the A.L. Stanback Auditorium.

More than 800 graduates of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools will turn their tassels Saturday in the Dean Dome as well. Also in the CHCCS family, Phoenix Academy’s commencement is taking place Friday evening at the school, which is located off Merritt Mill Road.

Northwood High School of Chatham County Schools is celebrating Saturday in the Carmichael Area on UNC’s campus.

The Friday Center will host Pace Academy’s Saturday morning commencement.

Check-back with WCHL and Chapelboro through out the weekend for coverage of all the festivities.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools: Saturday, June 8, at the Dean E. Smith Center

- East Chapel Hill HS: 9 a.m.  

- Chapel Hill HS:  1 p.m

- Carrboro HS:  5 p.m.

- Phoenix Academy HS: 6:00 p.m. Friday, June 7, at Phoenix Academy HS

Orange County Schools:  Friday, June 7, at the Dean E. Smith Center

- Orange HS: 7:30 pm

- Cedar Ridge HS: 4:30 pm

- Partnership Academy: 9:30 a.m. Friday, June 7,  in the A.L. Stanback Auditorium 



- Pace Academy (Charter): 10:00 a.m. Saturday, June 8, at The Friday Center

- Northwood High School (Chatham County Schools):  Saturday, 11:00 a.m. June 8, at Carmichael Area

Parents Lobby BoCC For School Funding

CHAPEL HILL- For the second time in two weeks, parents and teachers raised their voices to ask Orange County Commissioners to raise more money for schools.

Nearly a hundred residents turned out for Thursday’s public hearing on next year’s  county budget and the vast majority called for a tax increase to fund both school systems.

“I’m here tonight, with many others, to ask you to do what it takes to fund the school districts at their requested amounts,” said Margaret Samuels. “I would support an increase in the county tax and the special district tax to support both school districts.”

“I’m a property owner, a taxpayer, a father and a citizen,” said Hunter Pendleton. “I’m anxious to pay more taxes.”

“My parents said they’re willing to pay more in taxes so the schools will have enough money to keep things going the way they are now,” said third-grader Calvin Hinkle.

“I honestly would be disappointed if I open my tax bill in September and I don’t see a tax increase in it that fully funds our schools,” said James Easthom.

The manager’s budget recommendation covers operational expenses and enrollment growth but it does not fully fund the requests from either school board.

To generate the $8.8 million in additional funding the school boards are asking for, commissioners would need to raise the county-wide property tax by 5.5 cents per hundred dollars of value. Alternately, commissioners could increase the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax by the same amount to generate 5.7 million for that school system alone.

Commissioners have not raised the property tax rate in four years. Victoria Templeton reminded the crowd that school budgets have been shrinking during that time.

“Initially the cuts were used to improve efficiencies, but now we’ve gone beyond efficiencies and we’ve gone beyond waste and we’re now cutting essential programs,” said Templeton.

All parties agreed that the funding shortfalls are made worse by state and federal budget cuts. Commissioner Mark Dorosin urged the audience to make their voices heard next week at the Mega Moral Monday protest at the General Assembly.

“It is incredibly important, as you all said so eloquently tonight, to understand that while we’ll do what we can, the real struggle is much bigger than what’s happening in the county,” said Dorosin. “It’s happening statewide.”

The commissioners will take up budget negotiations at a work session on June 6.

OC Parents Plead For School Funding: “I’ll Pay More”

HILLSBOROUGH- More than a hundred parents, teachers and children squeezed into Thursday’s public hearing on the county budget, while others spilled out into the hallway at the Department of Social Services, waiting for their chance to beg the board of commissioners to spend more on schools.

“We’re not asking you for more advantages for our children or more programs for our children,” said Mindy Morton, co-chair of the Smith Middle School Improvement Team. “We just want enough money so that we can keep it the way it is. So please make that a priority and fund our schools.”

Nearly three dozen speakers addressed the board, with most warning of dire consequences if Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools lose funding for teaching assistants.

Many acknowledged that the proposal to cut more than 4,000 teaching assistant positions statewide comes from state legislators, not county commissioners, but time and again the speakers said it’s up to the county to bridge the funding gap.

“If the state legislators de-fund thousands of teaching assistant positions, local school districts across North Carolina will be dealt a very raw deal,” said Julie Tucker, parent of a student at Grady Brown Elementary. “We cannot pass that raw deal on to our children. Not in Orange County.”

At issue is the county manager’s recommended budget for next year. While it covers the operational cost for both school systems and accounts for growth projections, it falls about $6 million dollars short of fully funding the requests put forward by the school boards.

The recommended budget does not include a property tax increase or an increase in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax, but several speakers said they would be willing to pay more.

“It is really important that we get what we need,” said Laura Pittman. “I’m a single parent and I’m willing to pay more. I’m willing to put more dollars in your coffers so I can have the education for my kids that they need.”

The board would need to raise the property tax rate by 5.5 cents per $100 of valuation to fully fund both school systems.

Commissioners made no comment at the public hearing, but at a work session just afterwards, they signaled they would be willing to invest in capital projects for each district in the next fiscal year, building a science wing for Culbreth Middle School and an auxiliary gym for Cedar Ridge High School.

A second public hearing on the budget will be held on 7 o’clock next Thursday at the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road. The board will begin deliberations on the budget June 6.

Teaching, Learning, Listening, And Protecting In Our Local Schools

CHAPEL HILL – Preparing for the 2012-2013 school year, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School Board Superintendent Tom Forcella and the school board made a heavily-contested decision to transfer two teachers from school at which they had taught for many years. He says it’s a decision he learned from, but was one not many districts experience.

“It’s very unusual that a reassignment’s challenged,” Dr. Forcella says. “In other places in the country, this would just be so far from the norm. You work for a school system, and that doesn’t entitle you to choose where you’re going to work within that system like any organization. Decisions often need to be made, and it won’t be the last one.”

That’s not the only relocating the CHCCS system discussed this year. Michelle Brownstein is the chair of the school board. She says it was a good thing that the discussion about shifting students away from a school that was all they knew didn’t happen during an election year because it was a conversation that needed experience behind it and the ability to soften the blow of passionate confrontation.

“Everybody loves their schools, and we are very fortunate in that way,” Brownstein says. “No one wants to leave the school their in, even when they’re in a school that is so overcrowded that they know that their children are suffering from that when they 30, 31 children in the classroom.”

Since the shift from Democratic to Republican control in the North Carolina General Assembly—and even more recently—Orange County citizens along with other more liberal parts of the state have questioned the motive of the Legislature in proposing recent bills. Ones that effect the school systems involve issues such as mandatory cursive training and the reevaluation of tenure procedures.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools don’t teach cursive. With computers being so prominent, the art of cursive has become lost. Forcella and Brownstein say it’s a matter of balancing the available time in the classroom with what is most important in the curriculum for preparing the students for future learning and eventually the world outside of learning.

Orange County Schools Superintendent Patrick Rhodes says he and the Orange school board looks at it a different way.

“We still teach cursive writing and instruction, and we think it’s important for students to be able to read cursive writing,” Rhodes says. “I’m very concerned about legislation which might potentially further reduce the funding available to our schools. For example, up until now there’s not been a virtual charter school established in North Carolina.

He says, while a legitimate option for some homeschooled students, it would take funding away from the schools within the district it’s built.

Bills that would mandate legible cursive writing and the memorization of multiplication tables passed the senate on Thursday (April 25) with strong likelihood of becoming law. While cursive is a separate discussion, Carrboro High School principal LaVerne Mattocks says multiplication is about more than just the math.

“Part of learning the multiplication tables is to give students the sense of the number,” Mattocks says. “Often times when students get to be and they’re struggling with mathematics, when we have this specialist talk to us about it, it is because you could probably trace it back to second and third grade where they never really got the sense of the number and how different pieces of things fit together.”

Casey Saussy is the parent of two students of Glenwood Elementary, one is in the school’s Dual-Language Mandarin program. She says it’s great to know that so many people like board members, superintendents, teachers, and administrators are fighting for what’s best for her children.

“One of my concerns is that I am raising my kinds in a pressure cooker,” Saussy says. “How do you have them be just kids? How do you let them be outside long enough to have the imagination, the curiosity, and the creativity that they’re going to need to be good, well-adjusted adults one day, in addition to being really smart and academically advanced.”

These comments and many more were made during the Education panel of the 2013 WCHL Chapel Hill – Carrboro – Orange County Community Forum. You can hear the ten-hour forum in its entirety by clicking here.