Editorial: Real test lies ahead

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 11, 2007

It was no trip to the woodshed, but the joint meeting that Rowan County Commissioners and Rowan-Salisbury School officials held Monday proved a few points.

Commissioners got to huff and puff and demand answers. They wanted to know why Rowan-Salisbury is one of only 11 school systems in North Carolina assigned a state assistance team because of repeated failure to meet provisions of No Child Left Behind. Commissioners proved that they cared and that they were holding school officials accountable. That’s really about all they can do concerning schools — posture and allocate money.

The school board was practically mute. But Dr. Judy Grissom, the schools’ new superintendent, took advantage of the opportunity to publicly lay out her plan for improving test scores, proving she was working on this problem even before official word came down from Raleigh — and proving she does not crumble under pressure. She’s made of solid stuff.

But who knew what when? Though improving test scores is the top priority, many of us are hung up on the fact that the general public, commissioners and even school board members, by some accounts, didn’t realize the entire system was in danger of being put under corrective action.

Yes, everyone knew fewer and fewer schools were making “adequate yearly progress.” Everyone knew Rowan-Salisbury Schools needed to improve. What the general public didn’t grasp was that the entire system had officially been identified “for improvement” and that one more round of subpar testing could make it subject to corrective action. Did the state send a letter to parents of students at all schools last year, as the federal law requires? No one seems to remember receiving it. The state needs to answer that question.

Whatever the answer, the state finally got our attention by putting Rowan-Salisbury on the short list of systems to get a state assistance team — one of only 11, which has been widely interpreted as “the bottom 11” in the state. Getting that news felt like a hammer to the head — painful and unexpected.

And somehow clarifying.

School board members may feel miffed that commissioners demanded such a meeting, but when someone gives you $30 million a year, it’s best to fulfill their requests when you can. Answering questions at a public inquisition is easy; solving the problems of making AYP will be much more difficult. Literature from the state about No Child Left Behind says it’s doubtful that students in the lowest category of performance could become proficient within three years. Yet Rowan-Salisbury is expected to post better scores within a matter of months.

The meeting also gave school supporters a chance to step forward and state their faith in the schools. That included David Setzer of the Robertson Family Foundation, which has invested a great deal of money in the schools. Foundation leaders could have expressed dismay, threatened to cancel grants or otherwise distanced themselves from the struggling system. Instead, Setzer reaffirmed the foundation’s support. Others did the same.

Now that this public airing of frustrations has transpired, maybe everyone can focus on solutions.