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School board approves some changes at planning retreat

SALISBURY — The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education on Monday took several important strides towards becoming a renewal school district.

District renewal, approved Aug. 2 by the State Board of Education, gives the school system charter-like flexibility. RSS is the first and only school district in North Carolina to receive these freedoms.

Monday’s all-day retreat took the place of the board’s monthly work session, and board members and staff spent the day parsing potential changes and parameters. Superintendent Lynn Moody and other district administrators have been insistent that teachers be the force behind any change, but it is still up to the board to designate district-wide parameters.

The board spent a lot of time Monday debating what, exactly, its role would be in a renewal district.

“I think that’s the challenge we’re dealing with now, is where do we get involved?” board member Dean Hunter asked.

On Aug. 16, teacher-led design teams met for the first time and voiced opinions on testing, school calendars, school improvement teams and more. Final approval and designation of design rests with the board.

“We have to determine what we want to see, what we want to continue to oversee,” board Chairman Josh Wagner said. “… I think we now have to decide how involved we want to be in renewal.”

For some issues — like whether or not schools should keep improvement teams — the topic of board involvement became a delicate balancing act. While teachers at the Aug. 16 meeting overwhelmingly said they’d like to do away with the teams, which are state-mandated, board members said they still see some benefit in them.

Board members wondered whether teacher-led design teams and school improvement teams need to be separate entities. They argued that the two teams could serve very different purposes — one to lead the school into the future, and one to manage day-to-day minutiae.

“It’s two different animals,” Wagner said.

But school improvement teams come with a lot of strings attached and have to be run a certain way. Board members questioned if it might be possible to just rework them.

“What (teachers are) asking us, very simply, is, ‘Can we do whatever we want, or can we not?’ They don’t want us involved. Period,” Wagner said.

Whether the board takes a hands-off approach or not, member Richard Miller said, there needs to be some parameters. Travis Allen agreed.

Allen argued for teachers choosing their own representatives, and Miller argued that at least one community member and one parent should be involved on design or school improvement teams.

Board members agreed that whatever the outcome, they want to be uniform across the district. They also agreed that staff should look into redesigning or repurposing school improvement teams to better serve schools and teachers.

Things were more clear-cut when the board discussed the school calendar. Administrative staff Monday proposed forming a districtwide calendar committee and presented a strategy for design and approval involving teacher and parent input.

The committee would have at least one representative from each school’s teacher-led design team and would aim to incorporate teachers’ desire for an earlier start for classes. The plan, Moody said, would be for the committee to come up with a single calendar for all schools to use.

But individual schools could make an appeal for a separate calendar if there is sufficient need and they had the support of school staff and parents.

“So we’re not completely shutting the door to a school having a different calendar in this model,” Moody said.

While the model suggested is an early-start calendar that aligns with local colleges, Miller asked that the committee consider alternative models, as well.

“I would add year-round or quasi-year-round to say, ‘This type of thinking is OK,’” he said.

“I think our problem will be too many ideas rather than too little,” Wagner said.

The board unanimously approved the calendar process. A calendar draft will be brought to the board in November. District policies will be updated to reflect flexibilities in this area.

The third area to consider was whether schools should give the North Carolina final exams this year. While local teachers unanimously support scrapping the tests, board members were hesitant.

Allen and Hunter said they want to make sure the district isn’t decreasing rigor or going “soft.” But administrators assured them that the tests do not influence student grades and are little more than “autopsy data.”

“We’re going to have to find our way through this. It’s a messy process,” Moody said of redesigning accountability.

Teachers also said they’d like to reduce or eliminate end-of-grade and end-of-course exams. While this flexibility has not been granted by the state, administrators said they’ve begun talks about gaining it.

Board Vice Chairwoman Susan Cox said she’d like to see a districtwide final exam designed by local teachers. It could be evaluated by local universities to ensure it meets standards of rigor but would be more appropriate for local students.

“Perhaps the state would let us out of EOGs and EOCs if we provide that,” Cox said.

“That’s exactly where we’re headed,” Moody responded.

While some board members argued against making any changes to testing this calendar year, Moody and her staff pleaded for relief.

“I just beg you to let them out of (N.C. final exams) this year,” Moody said.

After some slight hesitation, the board agreed. Rowan-Salisbury Schools students will not have to take N.C. final exams provided schools use student benchmarks and teacher assessment tools to determine student growth and mastery of subjects.

The board did not take other actions during the retreat.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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