Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Schools in the Rowan-Salisbury system opened their doors to visitors Monday, giving them an inside look at a day in the life of educators and their students.
The “walk-in” day was organized to counter a statewide effort to get teachers to call in sick or take a personal day today in protest of teacher pay and working conditions.
Local educators say they’re frustrated too — with five years of stagnant pay and legislation passed in Raleigh this year that they see as anti-education — but they didn’t consider skipping school to prove it.
“For us, it wasn’t about walking out. We love our kids, we love our school,” said teacher Stacey White, who helped organize the walk-in day at West Rowan High School. “My overall hope is that the community sees what really is going on in education, what we see every day.”
At West Rowan High, students led tours through the halls and classrooms. About two dozen observers throughout the two-hour event got to see what students are learning, and how teachers are working to ensure they succeed.
Jake Kennedy, student body president at West Rowan, said about 150 students volunteered to help with the walk-in day.
“Our students respect our teachers. We love our teachers,” he said. “We know what they go through and want to support them.”
He helped lead a group that included N.C Rep. Harry Warren, Rowan County commissioners Chairman Jim Sides, school system Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody and several school board members.
They saw a teacher use Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to teach world history and heard another serenade students with a song he made up to help them remember Latin words.
The group heard a student explain what he does in a cooking class while they were enveloped by the smell of brownies. They heard that agriculture students have done experiments on how to increase tomato yields and have begun raising tilapia.
They toured cabinet-making and masonry courses and got a look inside a mobile unit, where students packed in to learn American history.
Katie Taylor brought her 1-year-old daughter Macie on the tour. She and her husband, who owns Taylor Steel Buildings, also have a son, 8-year-old Bryan, in third grade at Cleveland Elementary School and wanted to “show support for the local school system,” she said.
“It’s really comforting to see the community pull together and instead of walking out, people come here,” she said. Taylor said she was relieved that no local teachers took the day off in protest, but she worried what effects legislative decisions might have on education as her children rise through the school system.
“I do, but I hope that the teachers we have are doing it for the right reasons, and I hope our state will come to its senses and support our children, because they’re our future,” she said.
Marian Thompson, a guidance counselor at West Rowan Middle School and head of the Rowan-Salisbury Association of Educators, said she’s worried children are already being shortchanged.
“I’m certainly concerned about how this is going to affect our students,” she said.
Thompson helped organize the walk-in day at her school and urged teachers to do it across Rowan as an alternative to a “walk-out” and a show of support for teachers and public education.
“We want everybody to get on the bandwagon so that what happened in the legislature does not happen again, and we want to change what we can,” she said.
Among other things, she and other educators are upset about the General Assembly ending tenure and extra pay for teachers who earn master’s degrees and shifting money from public schools to a voucher program for private schools.
That’s on top of not getting a raise in years.
“The morale of our staff is very important, because if they’re insecure about their jobs, their benefits … it’s going to trickle into their enthusiasm,” she said.
Thompson and West Rowan Middle school Principal Nancy Barkemeyer said the result could be more than the loss of enthusiasm — it could lead to the state hemorrhaging good teachers.
“It’s really important for our kids to have the best teachers they can, and I’m honestly worried that what is happening with pay, we’re going to lose some of our best teachers to neighboring states,” Barkemeyer said.
Rowan County Commissioner Jon Barber toured West Rowan Middle on Monday. A former teacher, Barber said what “teachers and staff do to educate our children today is phenomenal, and they do not get thanked enough.”
“We have not demonstrated that we value public education in North Carolina, putting it bluntly,” he said. “For a lot of children, this is one of the last stops for having a successful future.”
And teachers say they’re working to make it even more beneficial.
Carrie Melton, another West High teacher who helped organize the walk-in day, has a master’s degree in instructional technology.
“You do those things to better prepare yourself to teach these kids with technology,” she said.
White, the West Rowan High teacher, said she left a better-paying job at Food Lion to become a teacher in 2000.
“We chose this career not for the money, but because we love what we do,” White said. Still, she said, the state government’s direction on education “is disheartening, it really is.”
Barkemeyer, the West Middle principal, said she hopes school visitors on Monday will pressure state legislators to improve education funding.
At least one of those legislators roamed Rowan hallways Monday. Among those who toured West Rowan High was N.C. Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican from Rowan County.
“I hope he gets a very real picture of what being in public education is like,” White said.
Warren said he was impressed with what he saw at the school and acknowledged that “it’s been a very frustrating six-year period for teachers and for education in general.”
Warren said he was in favor of ending tenure but disagreed with the way extra pay for master’s degrees was phased out, and he said that issue will be revisited in the legislature’s upcoming short session.
However, he said, a lot of what happened in Raleigh regarding education has been unfairly politicized. And he doesn’t think all the decisions were bad ones.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that teacher compensation needs to be improved, but … many positive changes are being made in public education that are not being communicated effectively to the public in general, and specifically to those in education,” he said.