State superintendent visits Rowan, wants teacher pay raised

June Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction, looks at research about Iroquois Longhouses that fifth-graders Lillie Rusher, left, and Natalie Lusk have been working on.
June Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction, looks at research about Iroquois Longhouses that fifth-graders Lillie Rusher, left, and Natalie Lusk have been working on.

SALISBURY — On a visit to Rowan County on Thursday, state Superintendent June Atkinson got the chance to see how local students study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Atkinson visited two local schools and an education center Thursday with William Cobey, chairman of the state Board of Education. They joined school system officials on a tour of a Lego Robotics class at Knox Middle School and several classrooms at Overton Elementary School.


At Horizons Unlimited, they stopped by a forensics class, where students were learning how to read fingerprints, analyze blood types and reconstruct a skull into a human face to solve a “cold case.” The group also took a tour of a fossilization classroom and the education center’s planetarium.

Atkinson said she tries to spend at least two weeks per month visiting schools. She said she had not come to Rowan County in a long time, and she wanted to honor the work of Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom before Grissom retires Sept. 30.

“I’ve known Dr. Grissom for a long time, and she has been recognized nationally for her leadership in technology and STEM,” Atkinson said. “As state superintendent, I wanted to come see all of the magnificent work the teachers, the central office staff and Dr. Grissom have done to provide quality education for students here.”

Atkinson said she was impressed when she boarded the STEM bus, where students were playing engineering video games and solving puzzles with magnets.

“We have a new emphasis on STEM in our state,” she said. “One of the reasons why we have a renewed interest in STEM in our schools is because of what we see as the trends in occupations and careers for our students.”

At Overton, she visited several classrooms and talked to some students and teachers about what they’re learning in school.

Third-grade students at the school told her about a project they’re working on called “Saving Grits.”

“We’re pretending that we all have a dog, and we’re hiking with our father. There’s a storm coming, and the dog goes up on a ledge because we’re near a mountain,” said Raja Blankenship. “We try to rescue him, but he has a broken femur, so we’ve got to try to take him to the hospital without picking him up.”

The name of the dog is Grits.

“We’re trying to build a harness so it won’t touch his femur, so it won’t get hurt, because it’s dangerous to move somebody where they’re hurt,” said Kaalyn Wynn.

Inside a STEM classroom, two fifth grade students showed Atkinson their project to collect rainwater for an imaginary worm named “Fred.” Each team has to solve the problem with a certain set of materials like styrofoam bowls, plastic bags, paper and posterboard.

“Do you have good ideas about how to catch the most rain?” Atkinson said. “What were you thinking about when you built the rain collector?”

“We thought about what could we build to hold the most water, but that’s still stiff so it wouldn’t fall over,” said Blessed Griffin.

Noah Hafez said they also had to think about how to pour the water out of the collection unit so that Fred can drink it.

Betty Tunks, principal at Overton, said she enjoyed being able to show Atkinson how the school has worked problem-based learning into STEM topics.

“It’s really an honor to have her here,” Tunks said. “I mean, it’s everybody’s dream to show off what works best at their school.”

She said Overton was chosen for the visit because it is one of two elementary schools — along with Isenberg — that have become STEM academies. Knox Middle School is also a STEM academy, she said.

“It’s progressive learning that’s going on — building children for careers of the future,” Tunks said.

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On her visit Thursday, Atkinson also addressed the state of public education in North Carolina. She said one of its biggest challenges is dealing with limited financial resources.

North Carolina ranks 46th in the nation for teachers’ salaries, Atkinson said, and those salaries need to be raised to show teachers that they are respected and valued.

The General Assembly sets a large portion of teacher salaries in North Carolina, and Atkinson acknowledged that it has been facing difficult economic times.

“I’m optimistic that our General Assembly, as they move forward, will see how important it is for North Carolina’s economic development to raise our teachers’ salaries so that we can again compete with Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina. We’re losing that battle now,” Atkinson said. “A teacher in North Carolina who wants to start the very first year teaching can go to Tennessee, Virginia and many other states and make at least $10,000 more. We cannot afford to have a revolving door of our teachers being here just a short time and then moving to another state.”

Rep. Harry Warren, who joined Atkinson on the tour Thursday, said teacher pay isn’t just determined by legislators in Raleigh. Counties and school boards can choose to supplement state salaries with local funding.

“Having said that, there is no question that teacher compensation in North Carolina from the state level does need to be addressed,” Warren said. “We need to improve upon it so that we have a compensation structure in place that will recruit, retain and reward good teachers, and that will be competitive in the Southeastern area.”

He said that starts with a more competitive salary base that graduates a little more quickly, with additional pay depending on experience and certification levels.

But one of the most important factors, Warren said, should be local input from teachers’ immediate supervisors and their school boards.

“More local control needs to be part of that process,” he said. “After all, it’s the parents and local school administration that know what each teacher’s performance and relationship with the students has been.”

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.

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