Student numbers down at Henderson Independent, but progress being made elsewhere

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 1, 2012

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY – An average of 193 students attended Henderson Independent High School on a daily basis during the 2006-07 school year, arriving to a dilapidated building with no media center or science lab.
Enrollment hit a 10-year low of 60 students last school year, despite more than $1.2 million in federal funds spent since July 2010 to turn around the alternative school, which targets at-risk students with academic and behavioral issues.
Those dollars have been used to upgrade the 95-year-old facility, buy resources and bring on additional staff.
The school’s dark, dingy basement has been transformed into a media center complete with some 2,000 hardback books, leather chairs and wooden tables.
Freshly-painted walls and floor lamps that produce dim lighting create an atmosphere similar to that of a cozy coffee shop.
“I’m trying to think outside the box … I wanted this room to be a place where kids wanted to come,” Principal Dr. Chris Vecchione said.
The school’s office has been moved from the basement to the main level entrance. The old space has been turned into a counseling suite.
“Before it was very dark, almost like walking into a dungeon,” Vecchione said.
An intervention specialist and mental health counselor have been hired with grant money.
Upstairs a there’s a science lab with custom-built lab tables and a cabinet stocked with everything from beakers to microscopes.
“This used to look like a regular classroom,” Vecchione said. “Prior to the grant, everything was done by book.” The school has obtained eight laptop carts equipped with about 10 MacBooks each. Twelve desktop computers make up a computer lab.
Five big-screen smart televisions are suspended throughout the school in areas such as the main entrance, media center and principal’s office.
Vecchione said the school uses the TVs, which are both 3D and wireless, to display announcements and show student-produced videos. They are also used during meetings to display data.
Every classroom is equipped with a smart board and document cameras.
Vecchione said the school plans to finish up a commercial-grade kitchen some time this school year so they can launch the district’s first culinary arts program.
Fewer students
Although Henderson served a total of 132 students last year, only about 60 were there on an average day. Students move in and out of the school throughout the year based on academic and discipline needs.
The average number of students at the school on a daily basis stayed at or above 165 between the 2001-02 and 2006-07 academic years, when Robert M. Pulliam was the school’s principal. Pulliam died in September 2007 after a long battle with cancer.
The average daily membership fell to 114 during the 2007-08 school year and took a plunge to 74 the following year. It has continued to decline since then.
The school has 12 teachers and several staff members. (See related story.)
Vecchione said the school could handle about 150 students at a time, but that wouldn’t be ideal.
“Could we service more, yes,” he said. “I think what the district views as the secret to success is having small numbers.”
The school began this school year with an enrollment of 45 students, 37 of whom showed up for the first day of school Monday, according to Vecchione.
Dr. Windsor Eagle, who retired from Salisbury High School at the end of June after 32 years at the helm, said the admission process at Henderson has become more stringent recently than it was when the school opened in 1996.
“It’s gotten progressively harder to get students in as time progressed from its initial charter,” he said.
Eagle said he recommended some of the same students for the school several times, but they were denied admission.
“I don’t think anybody recommends somebody for something if they don’t believe it should happen,” he said. “Anytime anybody needs to go to Henderson, it’s not just because of one situation, it’s usually multiple situations.
“Sometimes there are students who want to go to Henderson, but are not allowed in.”
When a Post reporter asked Eagle if he had given up on trying to get students into the alternative school, he gave a cautious response.
“I would tell you that if you try and try and try and still are not successful, then sometimes you have a tendency not to try as hard, whether it’s running track or high jumping,” he said.
Eagle said he can’t point to any specific reason why admission was being denied, but he doesn’t believe it has anything to do with school administration.
“Whoever is there would run the school in line with the policies and procedures,” he said. “I’m not downing the system, I just think there have been some shifts in how the school is operated.”
Chosen by committee
Dr. Rebecca Smith, the school system’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, said prior to 2008, each high school could fill 20 slots at Henderson as school staff saw fit.
Now, such decisions come before a committee of school administrators, exceptional children’s personnel, counselors and staff from the district’s grant-fund LINKS (Learning, Intervention, Nurturing, Knowledge and Student Achievement) program.
Smith said the group reviews the student’s academic, attendance and discipline records as well as any other circumstances he or she might be facing.
“A variety of factors are reviewed including what services Henderson can provide above and beyond what the child is receiving or hasn’t received as yet at their home school and then a decision is made about placement at Henderson,” she said in an email to the Post. “When doing so the goal in mind is that the student will ultimately return to their home school and graduate from their home school with their graduating class.”
Before the change, Smith said, students typically stayed at Henderson for the remainder of their high school careers or opted to drop out.
23 admitted, 53 assigned
“In our attempts to meet the graduation rate requirements for students, we have tried to focus more on a students’ primarily assigned school and interventions for him or her there before seeking Henderson as an option,” she said.
“All high schools have additional resources they can utilize to support students who are having difficulties prior to making a Henderson referral, and each school has a subscription service to Odyssey Credit Recovery that is a (N.C. Department of Public Instruction) approved model.”
Kathy McDuffie, the district’s director of secondary education said last school year 23 of 30 students recommended for the school were admitted by the committee.
She said those who were denied had behavior that did not warrant placement at an alternative school or were provided services to allow them to remain at their home school.
Fifty-three students were placed at the school by the assistant superintendent of administration. Walter Hart filled that role through last October and Nathan Currie took over in January.
McDuffie said those students were sent to Henderson in lieu of long-term suspension, due to significant behavior issues or if they were transferring from another alternative setting outside the district.
A Post reporter asked school officials on Aug. 24 for data on the number of students recommended for Henderson and denied over the past five years but has yet to receive that information.
Meeting expectations
The school received the nearly $2.2 million School Improvement Grant, now in its third and final year, based on a formula that identified it in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s consistently lowest-achieving schools according to state testing and a graduation rate of less than 60 percent.
The grant is designed to drastically overhaul instruction and student support.
After receiving the grant, the district had to replace principal Ken Sherrill and at least half of the teaching staff.
Vecchione said the school increased attendance rates and met performance expectations in algebra I and English I last year, but that wasn’t the case during the first year of grant implementation when those figures actually fell.
“We almost lost the grant,” he said. “Last year in June when we had our federal monitor come in, that was on the table because we had not made sufficient impact using the funds.
“Some of our data actually showed dips.”
Trisha Baptist, a former assistant principal at South Charlotte Middle School, was brought in in August 2010 to replace Sherrill, with Vecchione acting as grant coordinator.
Vecchione said he left the school for about five months that year due to a bout with cancer.
“A lot of the things I was in the middle of kind of came to a crashing halt,” he said. “So when I came back in June, we kind of started up again.”
Diplomas questioned
Baptist was at Henderson for only one school year. The system placed her on paid suspension in July 2011. She resigned the next month and filed a lawsuit, accusing the school board of discriminating against her and the students who attend Henderson because of their race. Baptist is black, as are many of the school’s students.
According to the most recent court filings, the school system notified Baptist on July 5, 2011, regarding concerns that she may have awarded credits to students who did not complete all course requirements.
Henderson’s four-year cohort graduation rate climbed from 10.5 percent to 34.6 percent under Baptist. It fell back to 27.3 percent last year while Vecchione was in charge.
Since the state began collecting graduation data in 2006, the highest rate the school has seen was 43.2 percent during the 2006-07 school year.
The number of short-term suspensions has taken a nosedive, dropping from a high of 477 during 2009-10 to 180 the following year.
Attendance rates were at the highest about a decade ago at 82 percent. They hovered just above 70 percent for the past four years before climbing back up to 77 percent last year.
Staff recruitment and retention
George Hancock, the state education department’s school improvement grant coordinator, said he saw trouble spots when he visited Henderson following the first year of grant administration.
“We had some concerns with regards to teacher evaluations, recruitment and retention,” he said. “If you’re implementing the turnaround model, you should be setting up competencies on how you would recruit and retain staff, we didn’t see those protocols and practices being set up as quickly as we like.”
After a meeting with school system officials, including Smith and Vecchione, things changed, Hancock said.
“They were very proactive in agreeing that more work needed to be done,” he said. “Bottom line is they got things turned around very quickly from year one to year two.”
The school board approved an incentive pay program for Henderson employees drafted by Vecchione last November.
Teachers can receive pay for performance incentives of up to $5,000 annually based on student achievement, graduation rates, staff attendance, student attendance, student discipline and dropout goals.
Vecchione can receive as much as $9,000 extra and assistant principal Rodney Smith can bring in up to $5,500 more.
The bonuses are paid with grant funds.
A look at expenses
Vecchione will earn $86,020 this year during his first full year on the job as principal of Henderson.
Previously, he received a $85,000 annual salary as the school’s grant coordinator, a position paid for by the grant.
Vecchione’s salary is now funded with state and local dollars.
Buncombe County Schools, which also received a federal School Improvement grant in 2010, hired a part-time turnaround specialist to oversee its implementation.
Spokeswoman Jan Blunt said the person in that position is paid $280 a day for about 120 days each year – $33,600.
Hickory City Schools, another district that received the grant that year, did not hire anyone new to oversee the grant.
Spokeswoman Beverly Snowden said that job is done by the district’s director of federal programs who was already on staff.
Per-pupil spending
Henderson receives the same per-pupil amount of state and local funds as every other school in the district, but the formula used to determine the total dollars allocated is different.
“I traditionally allow for 150 students … due to the at-risk nature of the school and to accommodate the transitional nature of the enrollment,” said Tara Trexler, the district’s chief financial officer, in an email to the Post. “The number of students enrolled at Henderson could vary drastically from the 10th day of school to the enrollment assigned as the school year progresses.”
Last year, the school received $4,971 from the state for instructional supplies, $8,160 locally for instructional supplies, a $2,624 copier allotment and a $420 local staff development allotment, Trexler said.
Gene Miller, assistant superintendent of operations, provided the Post with information about the school’s operational costs.
A total of $41,893 was spent on utilities from June 2011 through May 2012. That includes $35,678 for electricity, $3,476 for natural gas, $1,171 for water and $1,568 for sewer.
The district also expended $66,172 for repairs and maintenance to the school last fiscal year.
“This includes materials, supplies, equipment and contractor expense, but does not include local maintenance labor,” Miller said in an email.
The value of alternative schools
Eric Houck, an associate professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Education, said alternative schools have value.
“A lot of districts will have alternative schools to address academic and behavior issues,” he said. “They do cost more money, but the districts tend to want to invest in them as a way to make sure that kids who are not being successful in a traditional environmental have a chance to be successful somewhere.”
Houck, who has done research on school spending and resource allocation, said spending more money on a school that caters to specific needs is a legitimate use of funds.
“The question becomes how much more is being spent and how effective is the alternative school operation,” he said. “If you’re spending money, you need to make sure that you provide as much access as possible so as many kids as possible can take advantage of the programs in place.”
School board member Kay Wright Norman said the alternative program shows the district values all students.
“We must do everything we can to move them toward success,” she said. “It would be wonderful if we could always measure success in dollars and cents, but you can’t always do that.”
Norman said it’s better to invest money in educating students now so that they don’t up in the costly penal system.
“I’d much rather spend that on the front end rather than the back end,” she said.Editor’s note: Average daily membership, graduation, attendance and suspension figures were compiled by a Post reporter using data from North Carolina Report Cards, which have been released each October since 2001.Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.