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RSS superintendent talks district’s future, strategic plan survey

SALISBURY — Roughly 100 days into Tony Watlington’s tenure as superintendent, Rowan-Salisbury Schools is examining what its future should be.

When Watlington was hired in December, he told the Post his immediate priority was to visit every school in the district and dive into creating a plan to guide the district toward its goals for the next few years. He’s done the first and is getting started on the second.

Watlington spoke Monday to the Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education about numbers, giving them an overview of what the ups and downs of the district’s work for the past few years. Some pieces were positive, including the district’s climbing graduation rate and declining dropout rate. That statistic shows the district is graduating more kids in four years but not boosting those numbers by allowing more students to drop out. Another good trend is more students enrolling in middle school math one and advanced placement courses across the board.

Other pieces were less positive. The number of low-performing schools in the district identified by the state dropped from 19 to 13 a few years ago, but now it has crept back up to 15. The number of schools not meeting growth expectations has also increased.

In an interview with the Post, Watlington said sometimes the numbers keep him up at night, but improving these areas is a priority of which he thinks the district is capable. The district’s renewal status will come up for review for the 2022-2023 school year. Too many low-performing schools in the two years prior to the review could be grounds to end renewal.

Renewal, which gives the district freedoms normally afforded to charter schools, is a core part of the work the district has been doing for the past two years and the subject of a $26.3 million federal grant it was awarded late last year.

“An immediate issue for me and for us is to reduce the number of state-identified low performing schools,” Watlington told the Post. “Because if we increase by one or two, it puts renewal status in jeopardy.”

Watlington said one of his strategies is to look at what the district did in the past to reduce that number, tap into those strategies and examine why numbers have crept back up. He said district needs to put the best, most-qualified teachers in front of students that need them the most and retain them there. He plans to recommend a strategic plan steering committee look into incentivizing the best teachers and administrators to work in low-performing schools.

Another issue is the district is losing students — white students in particular. The demographics of the county as a whole have stayed steady for the past 10 years, but the district has not followed that pattern. Watlington said the district needs to figure out why white families are leaving and how to respond.

“I think it’s an issue any time we’re losing a good portion of any of our students,” Watlington said. “We are losing a lot of white students in Rowan-Salisbury Schools. We need to pay attention to it. More importantly, we need to do something about it. I would say the same thing if we were losing high numbers of Black children or Hispanic children.”

The best model for public education, Watlington said, is “the same model that Dr. Martin Luther King wanted and that president Lyndon Johnson wanted: an integrated public education system.”

The strategic planning process will ask families inside and outside the district.

He has good feelings about what the district is doing. Watlington said he thinks the district can create a plan that will give a district-wide vision but keep the autonomy afforded by renewal.

“I think we can do both, but we have to take the time to go slow to figure out what is the right, healthy balance,” he said. “The bottom line is we have to reduce the state-identified, low-performing schools and we need to significantly increase the percentage of schools that meet or exceed growth every year. I think at the end of the day all of our principals want that, the Board of Education wants that, our school faculties want that.”

The planning process will take about three months. The plan will guide the district for at least through 2027 and the district wants everybody in the community to know it is looking for their feedback.

“We’re trying to take their feedback, our trend data and what we know about improving schools and education and pull it all together,” Watlington said.

District staff are working on reaching out to people who left the district or are not connected as well. The district is trying to push out the availability of the survey through media outlets and will print hard copies if needed.

To take the survey, visit surveymonkey.com/r/5C2YJ8F.

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