Forsyth school board candidates diverge on CHANGE proposals

by Keith Barber

The Winston-Salem chapter of Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment , or CHANGE, unveiled the results of a survey distributed to all candidates running for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board during a press conference last week. CHANGE, a community organizing group composed of 54 local church congregations, asked school board incumbents and challengers if they would support three initiatives regarding comprehensive family engagement, ending the general practice of outof-school suspension and finding an alternative to the current student assignment or “school choice” plan. The survey results revealed general agreement on the need for a family engagement plan but significant disagreement on the issues of out-of-school suspension and improving the student assignment plan.

The Rev. Ryan Eller, the lead organizer for CHANGE, said the three questions were developed and based upon 10 years of research and work on education by CHANGE, which included house meetings with more than 3,000 people in local church congregations as well as house meetings with parents and educators.

The questions posed by CHANGE were as follows:

• If elected, do you commit to having the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools start an effective and comprehensive program for family engagement by August 2011?

• Will you agree to end the general practice of out-of-school suspension (except in cases meeting strict safety criteria) and require that every child receive quality classroom instruction by August 2011?

• Are you willing to commit to a formal public exploration of alternative student assignment plans that will increase diversity and improve student achievement in partnership with interested community groups by 2011?

Survey results reveal that three incumbent school board members — Elisabeth Motsinger, Jeannie Metcalf and Jane Goins — responded no to CHANGE’s initiative on out-of-school suspension, or OSS.

Motsinger cited several programs already in place that provide teachers with additional training in classroom management as evidence that the school system is responsive in its discipline issues.

“A huge amount of behavior issues are a lack of clear expectations on behalf of the adults in the building,” Motsinger said.

Motsinger conceded that the sheer numbers of children being suspended out of school is troubling but there is due process for parents and students. Motsinger said she would support modifications to the current policy, but she couldn’t say yes to CHANGE’s question.

“Let’s talk about this but no, I can’t agree with that statement,” she said. “I’m not going to give you my word to a promise I can’t keep. That was a promise I could not keep.”

School board challengers Robert Barr, Lori Goins Clark and Jim Toole’s responses on the OSS question were “unclear,” according to the CHANGE survey. District 1 incumbents Geneva Brown and Vic Johnson said they would support CHANGE’s out-of-school suspension initiative, while incumbents Jill Tackaberry, Buddy Collins, and Marilyn Parker gave “unclear” responses.

Challengers Joyce McAdams, William H. Roberts, Nancy P. Sherrill, Malishai Woodbury, Jimmie Lee Bonham, Chenita Barber Johnson, Diana Williams Cotton, Donald Dunn, Carla B. Farmer, Tom Hackelman, Norman Hill, and Stacey Walker McElveen all said they would support CHANGE’s initiative on ending the general practice of out-of-school suspension. Incumbent Donny C. Lambeth and challengers Stan Hill and Regina J. Barnes did not respond to any of the questions posed by CHANGE.

The greatest divergence in opinions came in the question regarding alternative student assignment plans. Brown and Motsinger were the only two incumbents to voice support for the initiative.

Johnson, Metcalf, Collins, Parker and Jane D. Goins gave an explicit “no” in response to the question while Tackaberry’s answer was “unclear.” Among the respondents, Lori Goins Clark was the only challenger to say no to the school assignment question.

Vic Johnson supports the current student assignment plan and characterized the school system’s busing plan, which ended in the mid- 1990s, as a failure.

“There was a never a true desire to integrate anything,” Johnson said.

“It set us back many years.”

Johnson, a retired teacher, coach and administrator in the Winston- Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said he supports the current policy on student assignment because it empowers parents and students.

“If they’re not satisfied with one school, they can make a change to a different school,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what school you go to. If you read all the books in school, you’re going to be intelligent anyway. We can’t put all this blame on the schools.”

Clark said she supports the school system’s current policy because a high percentage of parents said they received their first choice among the county’s elementary and middle schools, and the school board granted all 60 transfer requests made by high school students and parents during the 2008-09 school year.

However, that doesn’t mean every high school student in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools is attending the school of their choice, said David Snapp, the school system’s director of student assignment. In 2009, some 600 high school students applied for transfers, Sapp said, but only 499 transfers were approved.

Snapp said the 60 students Clark is referring to are the students whose transfer applications were initially denied and they appealed it all the way to the school board level. Snapp said East Forsyth High School denied 82 transfer requests during the 2008-09 school year and RJ Reynolds High School, a magnet school, held a lottery because transfer applications exceeded the school’s capacity. More than 200 students who applied to Reynolds High School were denied entry and placed on a waiting list, Snapp said.

“Diversity is a wonderful thing, and I love the melting pot of our country,” Clark said in an e-mail statement. “Making our schools more diverse alone will not improve individual student achievement unless we first look at root causes.”

Statistics compiled by CHANGE suggest oth erwise.

Nine schools in Forsyth (all with more than 80 percent of children on free and reduced lunch) have made the state’s “low performing” list on ABC test results and are at risk for a state takeover.

On May 4, coincidentally the day of the primary election, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning will hold a hearing in Wake County, where school system representatives from Forsyth, Guilford and Durham counties will report on what steps are being taken to ensure a sound education for all their students. In those three counties, 59 elementary and middle schools report reading proficiency scores below 50 percent.

“The reason we’re doing this is because we believe we can do a better job in our school system,” Eller said. “There are some reasons here, but certainly, a 30 percent drop-out rate — 900 high school students drop out — and our EOG test scores do not compare well with other metropolitan areas in North Carolina. We’ve got a very significant achievement gap between African-American and Hispanic children and white children. To address those issues, we think these are the areas school board members need to look into.”

The Rev. Nathan Parrish of Peace Haven Baptist Church characterized CHANGE’s three initiatives as “part of a prescription for us getting well,” rather than a harsh critique of school board members.

“We’re not here to demonize people as individuals or cast a shadow over the whole system and saying somehow that it’s all broken beyond repair and there’s nothing good happening anywhere,” Parrish said. “The question is, how can we do better as a whole and what would that path look like?” Last year, CHANGE scored a monumental legislative victory when the NC General Assembly passed House Bill 833, which made Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board elections nonpartisan. CHANGE spent months lobbying state senators and representatives to get the legislation passed. Reps. Larry Womble and Earline Parmon, who represent Forsyth County, served as the bill’s co-sponsors.

A record-high 26 candidates filed to run for the nine seats on the Winston-Salem/ Forsyth County School Board during the filing period that ended Feb. 26. Representatives of CHANGE attributed the dramatic spike in candidate filings to the race being nonpartisan. Two school board candidates — Carla B. Farmer and Tom Hackelman —attended last week’s press conference. Farmer said if elected, she would work to promote alternatives to out-of-school suspension.

“I do not want any student in the schools that is harmful to children, students, teachers and staff, but I do support reducing the number of out of school suspensions,” Farmer said. “If a child is suspended out of school, that is not promoting anything positive for the child themselves. They are not being educated; they have free time on their hands which could lead to them getting into more trouble.”

Hackelman said out-of-school suspension is a necessary tool, but there appears to be a racial component to which students are receiving the punishment.

“Suspensions need to be applied in an equitable way,” he said. “We have a situation of one ethnicity getting suspended while a Caucasian student committing the same infraction doesn’t get [out-of-school suspension].”

Hackelman said the current student assignment plan has led to the re-segregation of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, and he supports exploring alternatives to the current policy.

“It’s clear when you look at the percentages of students receiving free and reduced lunch — the high performing schools have a low percentage of those students and the low performing schools have high percentage of those students,” he said. “Also, teacher turnover rate is extremely high [at low performing schools] and we’re not getting highly qualified teachers in those schools. The problem is not going away; it’s only going to get worse.”