NEW HANOVER COUNTY — While state accountability scores released last week show New Hanover County schools are making improvements in some areas — though they are yet to return to performance levels of pre-pandemic – other sectors declined. The data highlights that schools with a larger population of students belonging to lower socio-economic status could be the most affected.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has compiled annual school data based largely on end-of-grade test scores, while taking into account student learning growth – the amount of academic progress that students make over the course of a year or class. The 2021-2022 school year was the first year the state has given schools a letter grade, AF, since before the pandemic.
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The new report says 13 of 39 NHC schools are “low performing,” meaning schools received a D or an F, compared to just five before the pandemic. New Hanover County is not necessarily unique in this increase; statewide, the number of underperforming schools nearly doubled.
Of five schools that earned an A grade in 2018-19, one — Ogden Elementary — did not receive the same grade in 2021. The four A schools this year are Wrightsville Beach Elementary, Wilmington Early College High, Masonboro Elementary, and Isaac M. Bear Early College High School.
Testing and accountability director Elizabeth Murray noted that emerging from the aftermath of the pandemic will be a gradual process.
“Our learners are very different,” she said. “And what we know about learning loss is that it’s the idea that learning deteriorates over time if students don’t engage in it regularly. And so, for almost two years, our students have not been able to engage regularly.
Many students are two years behind in their learning. Inequalities became apparent during the Covid-19 shutdowns, as not all students had internet access across the county to participate in virtual school.
Still, Murray noted that the school district has improved its graduation rate from 87 percent last year to 89 percent this year, compared to the state’s overall rate of 86 percent. ACT scores are eighth in the state and scores on WorkKeys, a career readiness assessment, are fourth in the state.
“We’ve already started to see a significant recovery in learning,” Murray said.
School board members Nelson Beaulieu, Judy Justice, Stephanie Walker and Stefanie Adams agree that letter grades are not enough to capture a school’s success. Essentially, board members are concerned that he is ignoring the hard work that students and staff put in on a daily basis.
“I’ve had a long-standing problem with the school being given a simple letter grade,” said board member Nelson Beaulieu. “I would walk away with the idea that all of my hard work isn’t properly valued, isn’t reflected in a simple letter grade invented by someone looking at paper who has never been in my building.”
“My answer has never changed — I don’t believe a report card score is representative of what’s really going on in a school,” Adams added.
Studies have shown that assessing a student’s ability or understanding based on test scores is a flawed system, although standardized testing in schools has been the normal mode of operation since the 1970s. funding is tied to test scores due to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
The state calculates its letter grade at 80% based on test scores and 20% based on growth.
“I would return it,” Beaulieu said.
Walker echoed that it’s more important to look at a school’s growth numbers as a better indicator of success, even if the number is still not global. The NCDPI calculates growth by using test scores to measure how much a student has improved in learning compared to the previous test.
The 2021-2022 report identifies only four of the ‘underperforming’ schools – Holly Shelter Middle, Wrightsboro Elementary, Myrtle Grove and Forest Hills Global Elementary – either failed to meet growth expectations, or students did not make progress in learning on par with state guidelines. One school, Sunset Park Elementary, exceeded growth standards.
While data on test results may be limited, Walker said the numbers shouldn’t be ignored and provide clues about where the district can improve its support.
Thirteen NHCS schools that have received D or F are predominantly made up of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. For example, AH Snipes Academy of Arts & Design, which received an F, has a population in which 90% of student households operate on the poverty line and nearly 100% of students receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch. .
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According to U.S. News & World Report, all but one school — Myrtle Grove Elementary — that has been classified as underperforming have a minority population of more than 50%.
Justice and Walker said the data reflects the district’s “neighborhood school” assignment model, adopted a decade ago. It gives priority to students attending establishments close to their place of residence. The two council members claimed that the model essentially reduced segregation of county schools.
Decades ago, NHC schools were required to retain between 15% and 50% African-American students at each institution, following a Title VI complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in the 1990s. The ordinance expired in 1997, but efforts continued through the late 2000s , when council later voted in favor of a “neighborhood” approach.
A study by the UNC Center for Civil Rights found that 28 of 42 NHC schools were racially unbalanced. Ultimately, he determined that the neighborhood model increased disparities already present due to New Hanover County’s residential segregation.
Part of the move to a neighborhood system was to create magnet schools; Rachel Freeman, Snipes, and DC Virgo were identified, but white populations dwindled dramatically, with no one filling the vacant seats. That left schools hyper-segregated and under-enrolled, according to the UNC report.
The metrics included elementary and middle schools, the only schools to receive “low-performing” scores from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction; no high school in the area ranked below a C.
“Not enough people in the community are talking about it,” Walker said.
She pointed out that several factors can hinder a student’s ability to learn, with students living in poverty or other limiting living conditions.
“Children bring their trauma to school and that makes it harder for students to learn,” Walker said.
Studies show that schools in low-income areas often experience high levels of teacher turnover, which prevents schools from building staff more responsive to student needs. PCD reported in 2020 that the attrition rate was around 20% in Forest Hills, Gregory, Snipes and Freeman, while predominantly white schools, such as Masonboro (née Parsley), Ogden and Wrightsville Beach, retained the majority of experienced teaching staff for over a decade.
“These very poor schools, no matter how much money you spend on them, schools need to be redesigned with targeted redistricting,” Justice said. “We already have overcrowding, so we need to do more.”
Director of Studies Patrice Faison said the NHCS ensures that each child is assessed for their individual needs and is connected to resources to help them succeed in the classroom. The school district offers “wrap around” services, which may include tutoring, meeting with a social worker, receiving a free or reduced price lunch.
“The administration has been so focused on working with our nonprofit vendors, you know, look at the Port City United partnership within our schools and our communities,” said school board member Adams. “Look at the YWCA offering after school care – I mean, we have so many different partnerships that our students are surrounded and wrapped up in.”
Dozens of area schools listed in alphabetical order; the alternative schools JC Roe Center and Lake Forest Academy are not classified:
- A.H. Snipes Academy of Arts and Design: 36 (F)
- Bradley Creek Elementary: 65 (C)
- Career Readiness Academy at Moseley: 52 (D)
- Castle Hayne Elementary School: 66 (C)
- Charles P. Murray Middle School: 75 (B)
- College Park Elementary School: 43 (D)
- Dr. Hubert Eaton Elementary School: 82 (B)
- Dr. John Codington Primary School: 73 (B)
- Edwin A. Anderson Elementary School: 70 (B)
- Edwin A. Alderman Elementary School: 51 (D)
- Emma B. Trask Middle School: 58 (C)
- Emsley Lane Secondary School: 64 (C)
- Eugene Ashley High School: 64 (C)
- Forest Hills World Elementary School: 28 (F)
- Heyward C. Bellamy Elementary School: 75 (B)
- Holly Shelter College: 51 (D)
- Holly Tree Elementary School: 68 (C)
- International School at Gregory: 51 (D)
- Isaac M. Bear Early College High School: 91 (A)
- John J. Blair Elementary School: 48 (D)
- John T. Hoggard High School: 70 (B)
- MCS Noble Middle School: 71 (B)
- Masonboro Elementary School: 88 (A)
- Mary C. Williams Elementary School: 62 (C)
- Murrayville Elementary School: 62 (C)
- Myrtle Grove Middle School: 54 (D)
- New Hanover High School: 55 (C)
- Ogden Elementary School: 84 (B)
- Pine Valley Elementary School: 61 (C)
- Elementary Porters Neck: 72 (B)
- Rachel Freeman School of Engineering: 22 (F)
- Roland Grise College: 60 (C)
- SEA-Tech: 73 (B)
- Sunset Park Elementary School: 51 (D)
- Williston Middle School: 39 (F)
- Wilmington Early College High School: 88 (A)
- Winter Park Model Elementary School: 62 (C)
- Wrightsboro Elementary School: 36 (F)
- Wrightsville Beach Elementary School: 89 (A)
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