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Josh Bergeron: What should new superintendent know about Salisbury-Rowan?

It’s not easy to move into a new job in a new community.

Particularly in leadership positions, it takes time to acclimate to the intricacies of life there. A coach might know how to win a championship, but his methods might not fit his new team. A newspaper editor might know how to run a publication, but he or she will face challenges in knowing where to look for news, when to elevate certain stories and when some items simply aren’t as important to the new community of readers.

A similar story is true for a public school superintendent. He or she may know how to run a school district and foster a culture of excellence, but their job will be made easier by knowing where to look when they need help and community attitudes about items related and not related to education.

Now more than ever, success is important for Rowan-Salisbury Schools. The system is in the middle of its bold renewal project and, like school systems across the country, public education is made more difficult than ever because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With that in mind, I reached out to local leaders and a few residents to gather a list of things that might be helpful for incoming superintendent Tony Watlington, who was named to the job by the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education last week.

Those words of knowledge, both education-related and otherwise, are as follows:

• Outgoing Superintendent Lynn Moody, who will likely have many conversations with Watlington before he officially starts, said Rowan-Salisbury is a very generous community. “If you need something for children, you can expect the community to come to the rescue,” she said.

• Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds said Rowan County has a geographical advantage that communities across America would love to have. “If we can match location with a quality school system, that will make Rowan County hard to compete with,” Edds said.

• Rowan-Cabarrus Community College President Carol Spalding provided a list of items.

Students in the Rowan County Early College program are able to graduate with their high school diploma and an associate degree. There are nearly 240 students enrolled, and 59 graduated in May, with 85% of them also earning an associate degree.

The Career and College Promise Program offers high school juniors and seniors the choice to take classes for college credit. It has grown from 289 students in 2013-2014 to 797 in 2019-2020 — a direct reflection of a partnership between the community college and public schools, Spalding said.

Still on the to-do list is start construction and welcome students into a $45 million advanced technology education complex that will include a permanent facility for the early college program. That means ditching the complex of trailers that students have used.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools was a founding partner of the Rowan Education Collaborative, which has brought together education leaders and others in the community to work toward exceeding national rates of educational attainment, creating career-ready graduates and driving workforce and economic development.

• Salisbury Mayor Karen Alexander shared a list of items as well.

Alexander started by saying the city of Salisbury, while not a large source of funding, believes in supporting special initiatives that Rowan-Salisbury Schools would not otherwise be able to do. That includes funding dual principals at Knox Middle School, Horizons Unlimited, STEM education for teachers and the DARE Program through the Salisbury Police Department.

Alexander said Communities in Schools has been a boon to students who participate, with 98% of those going through the program graduating. Volunteers also read with students on a weekly basis. Alexander said she was among those volunteers, regularly reading at Hanford Dole Elementary until COVID-19 hit. Now, it has moved to Zoom calls.

Similarly, she said, Crosby Scholars has been beneficial for students. It’s a nonprofit that works to ensure every public school student in Rowan County has the chance to continue their education after high school.

She also said the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce, Rowan-Salisbury Schools, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, Livingstone and Catawba have aligned their curriculum so students can matriculate through their educational journey without losing credits.

There are many opportunities for young people to be exposed to the performing arts, she said, mentioning the Salisbury Symphony, Piedmont Players and Lee Street theatre.

Among the other items Alexander mentioned were a robust business and entrepreneurial department at Livingstone College that partners with international schools for exchange opportunities in India; one of the best theater and music programs “in the region and beyond” at Catawba College; the Salisbury Community Foundation giving out more than $250,000 per year to nonprofits that support education, health and the arts; that Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury embraces a diverse model of theological training and serves as a gathering point for community events; and that there’s an active downtown in Salisbury with many restaurants and diverse shops.

“I could go on, but I promised I would get this to you by the end of the day,” Alexander said.

• Chamber of Commerce President Elaine Spalding offered several suggestions, including creating a personal support network of local people in Salisbury and Rowan County and meeting with them regularly for input and advice.

• Local residents offered a range of items. Readers might say I talked to pessimists, but the folks I spoke to might correct that assessment to say they’re realists. The feedback is probably best described as a reflection of public opinion.

Feedback included: citizens want a return to community schools; the community is “hands-off” because they do not feel they can make a difference; there’s been a long-running attempt by the city of Salisbury to run the schools; there’s been “white flight” from the school system; the superintendent should be prepared for a racial climate that will be subtle sometimes and front-and-center other times; that the school system has chosen to focus on computers instead of books and that’s a bad thing; the school system is losing enrollment; and that trauma, poverty and structural barriers have been major influences in how local schools fare in state metrics.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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