No easy way around cuts to education, Grissom says

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 24, 2012

By Sarah Campbell
The leader of the Rowan-Salisbury School System outlined challenges facing public education during the Rowan Chamber of Commerce’s Friday Forum breakfast.
Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom discussed six hurdles the district is facing, including a decrease in funding, an increase in the poverty rate and changes to accountability.
“I’ve been in this business more than 40 years … and there really have been more changes in the last five years than the 35 before that,” she said. “It has just been phenomenal.”
Grissom said the school system expects to have to trim at least $6 million from its budget this year.
That’s on top of a loss of $10 million in state funding during 2009-10 and $1.5 million the following year, she said. Last year, state cuts exceeded $5 million and the local appropriation was shaved by $1 million.
“We are trying to do more with less; that seems to be the new slogan,” she said. “Regardless of what people may say, we do look at classrooms first … we do everything we can to protect our classrooms.”
No teachers or teacher assistants were cut this year, and class size remained the same, Grissom said.
“We have tried very hard to protect the classroom,” Grissom said. “It gets more and more difficult each year to do that, but that is our priority and it will stay our priority.”
Grissom said the school officials go through each line item when deciding where to trim funds.
“I know the central office is always the target for cuts. … People don’t’ really understand what we do. They think we put our feet up,” she said. “Our central office makes up .8 percent of all our personnel, so if we closed our central office and sent everybody home, we still could not meet that deficit.”
The school system has landed more than $12 million in grants throughout the past four years to supplement cuts.
“We don’t have a grant writer. We write them ourselves,” she said. “We work really hard on writing grants because we can’t just count on what we get budgeted.”
Poverty is also an issue that is becoming “more and more of a challenge for our country and our county,” Grissom said.
About 32 percent of the district’s students received free or reduced lunch in 1997. That figure has climbed to 62 percent today.
Grissom told a story about a teacher who had talked with a student who didn’t have homework done because there was no electricity at home.
“When you have students who don’t have food, who are cold and who don’t have electricity at home, they are not going to be learning,” Grissom said.
The school system partners with 86 local churches to help fill the needs of such students. They provide tutoring, mentoring and help pack bookbags with food to send home over the weekend.
“It’s amazing what those churches have done,” Grissom said.
Grissom said teachers are also receiving training about how to spot and address issues children of poverty face.
The state’s accountability reform effort has also been a challenge for the district.
“This is a biggie for our teachers,” Grissom said.
In the future, tests will have more open-ended questions instead of multiple choice. They will also be administered online by 2013.
Grissom said teachers have been receiving training for the new curriculum during five professional development days that were added to the calendar in lieu of student days.
“They have to have all the training this year, but they are still teaching the old curriculum and still testing the old curriculum,” she said. “It’s been a very, very difficult year for our teachers.”
Grissom also talked about the challenges that come with today’s “digital learners.”
“Today’s students are just not like they were when we were in school,” she said. “The students today have never known life without technology in their hand.”
That means the district is having to change the way it approaches education by finding ways to keep students engaged.
“This task is not easy … especially when you started your career 20 years ago. It requires a different set of skills,” Grissom said. “But we don’t have any choice, because these students are not going to adapt and change their methods. We are going to have adapt and change our methods.”
There is now a 21st century model classroom equipped with laptops, document cameras and more technology at every school.
North Rowan Middle, North Rowan High, Knox Middle and Overton Elementary are participating in the iPod project, with all students receiving an iPod that they can use both in class and at home.
Grissom said specific grades at North Rowan and Hanford Dole elementary schools, Southeast Middle and Salisbury High should be receiving iPads later this year.
“We’re going to transition to the iPads because the screens are larger and they are starting to put textbooks on them,” she said.
Increasing the district’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) literacy and critical thinking is another hurdle.
Grissom said the school system is working to expand STEM education to underrepresented groups such as females and minorities.
“It’s our goal to prepare the students for the STEM race,” she said.
The district has also joined the STEM community collaborative, which includes education, government and economic development leaders who are developing STEM ideas.
Teachers are also receiving training to become more fluent in STEM. Nearly 60 received about 80 hours of science and math training last summer through the federal Math and Science Partnership grant. More than 60 teachers will receive that training this summer.
Keeping students in school is another challenge Grissom said the district and the state are facing. She told the Chamber group that the state’s 53,800 dropouts in 2010 accounted for $14 billion in lost wages and productivity as well as $492 million in Medicare costs.
Grissom said the district has taken steps to ensure that students are staying in school, including piloting its night school program at West Rowan and Carson high schools.
The district’s dropout rate fell last year to its lowest level in a decade, from 4.24 in 2009-10 to 3.36.
“That is really quite an improvement,” she said. “I’m telling you, we are working like crazy to keep them in school. … We are doing everything we can.”
At the end of her presentation, Grissom said the district needs everyone in the community to help move the school system in a “real positive direction.”
“Sometimes the community gets caught up in the blame game,” she said. “Instead of being the problem, I wish everyone would commit to being part of the solution.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.