School board discusses ‘choice zones’ for North, Salisbury

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Steve Huffman
Salisbury Post
EAST SPENCER ó A suggestion to turn North Rowan and Salisbury high schools into “choice zones” resulted in spirited debate at Monday’s meeting of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education.
Board member Bryce Beard noted that attendance has declined at both North Rowan and Salisbury, especially at North where enrollment has plummeted to the point where the school’s athletic teams will soon be forced to compete in a distant 1A conference.
Educators said Monday that North’s enrollment has dropped to 690 while Salisbury’s is 983. Both schools are well below capacity.
Beard, the board’s former chairman and its Salisbury representative, suggested turning the two schools into “choice zones,” meaning any student in the county could choose to attend either of the schools, regardless of the district in which they live.
“I think we ought to do open enrollments,” Beard said.
He suggested “good, positive programs” at North to attract students to the school now on Gov. Mike Easley’s Watch List mandating improvement in end-of-grade testing.
Beard said improving the school by offering curriculum not offered elsewhere might be the only way to avoid systemwide redistricting in the near future.
“If we don’t have students at North by choice, sometime, we’re going to have to redistrict,” Beard said. “That’s going to upset a lot of our shareholders.”
Make North “attractive” through better curriculum and facilities, he suggested.
“If it doesn’t work, we tell our shareholders, ‘We tried,’ before redistricting,” Beard said. “If successful, we may not have to move students from existing neighborhoods for a very long time.
“I really think we need to be an advocate for North Rowan.”
But other board members saw no easy fix to the problem and questioned how North’s enrollment is likely to improve if its students have the option of attending nearby Salisbury.
Board member Karen South Carpenter, who represents the North district, noted while North is on the governor’s Watch List, Salisbury recently received the prestigious N.C. Lighthouse School Award.
“One got the Lighthouse (award) and the other’s on the governor’s watch list,” Carpenter said. “That’s not a very good choice.”
She asked if the school system was going to offer transportation to any student who opted to attend an out-of-district school. When told “No,” Carpenter said, “Then it’s not a choice.
“This is an issue that warrants a lot more time, a lot more consideration,” she said. “The ramification of creating a choice zone for Salisbury High and North is devastating for North. I hate to say it, but I see Salisbury High the winner in that equation.”
Beard countered that it’s “not one winner and one loser.” He suggested the system “focus on programs people there want to have,” referring to the students at North.
“We already have seats at North. Why not put the programs there?” Beard asked.
Carpenter wasn’t the only board member to question Beard’s reasoning.
Board member Jean Kennedy, a retired educator who taught at North, noted that over the years, North lost programs like bricklaying, carpentry and health occupations that had been the best in the county.
“This didn’t happen to us overnight,” Kennedy said of North’s woes. “We somehow should have seen this happening. …
“I want to see what we can do to make North an inviting learning environment again.”
Kay Wright Norman, the longest-serving school board member, noted, “It would take a majority vote of the board to give the superintendent the OK to make changes (at North). Unfortunately, we haven’t had that.”
Board Chairman Dr. Jim Emerson, who previously suggested addressing “capacity issues” in the system, called a truce Monday.
He suggested addressing the issue at future meetings. “Keep an open mind,” Emerson said, and “a willingness to talk.”
In a related matter Monday, board members voted unanimously to send a letter to Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who presides over a statewide school funding case and has threatened to close 17 of the state’s lowest-performing schools and members of the state Board of Education.
The letter will request that North Rowan be allowed to continue in the Central Carolina 2A Conference rather than be realigned to a distant 1A conference made up primarily of schools from Chatham, Moore and Montgomery counties.
The N.C. High School Athletic Association recently ruled against an appeal by administrators from North, who asked that the school be allowed to remain in the Central Carolina Conference.
Administrators and supporters of the school noted that getting off the Watch List by improving end-of-grade tests requires additional coursework and study time.
Leaving school early to travel to a distant school for games is counter-productive to what school administrators are trying to do, board members agreed.
“We think changes do need to be made,” said board member Patty Williams, who suggested sending the letter to Manning and the athletic assoication. “The main point is, in an age of accountability, we can’t send contradictory messages.”