How Can We Do This Better?’

The News & Record created the One Guilford series to stimulate discussion on vital issues affecting those who live here. The most recent symposium, hosted by UNCG on March 12, focused on education. Participating in the discussion were representatives from the county’s schools and institutions of higher education as well as students and members of the business community. To continue that discussion, we sent panel participants written questions from the audience that they didn’t have time to address. Following are their responses.Q. What can the community do to help you?

Alan Duncan: Develop relationships with our children and show them that you and others care. Let them know that you are there for them, watching them — and watching over them.

Start at just one child and try to find a way to work with that child to develop a positive relationship and to provide assistance of the type that will best help that child grow into a happy, talented and productive member of society.

Kathryn Baker Smith: One of the most important needs (of GTCC) is transportation. Maintaining the HEAT system after the end of the grant will be very important. The community could participate in providing this service.

GTCC often hears that the college is “the best-kept secret in Guilford County.” We would like for the community to visit and see their community college! The people we train are providing the basic services, public and private. They are the nurses, firefighters, police, child care workers, office workers, auto repair people, welders, physical therapist assistants, aviation maintenance personnel, electricians, cosmetologists, chefs, paralegals, computer programmers, and on and on.

GTCC offers 100 unique programs of study. GTCC also provides people with excellent preparation to go on to four-year institutions. Help our young people know that education and training is available at GTCC to put them into one of these and many other careers.

Joseph Graves: The most important thing community members can do is to take an active interest in what’s going on related to education issues. One thing that is sorely lacking in America today is a reverence for education. Do you know that most Americans cannot name a single person who is a practicing scientist? The University of Texas-Dallas dominates collegiate chess because they give full scholarships to qualifying chess players. These are students who also major in high-demand mathematics and science areas. Why aren’t we in Guilford County looking to recognize our high-achieving academic students in the same way? (See H3 for Graves’ full response.)

Samantha McCulley: The community can help students by having volunteer centers. The volunteer centers can be like after-school programs. They can help students on all grade levels by teaching them problem-solving skills and other life skills needed while going through school. They can also have homework help centers where people come to help with homework, projects and other assignments. The main thing to remember is that students don’t want another teacher trying to “cram” a subject down their throats. They want someone to spend time with them and help them actually understand. Students just want to have people there for them who know where they are coming from when they have a question or problem.

Margaret Arbuckle: The community needs to develop its vision for what we want our public education system to provide for our students. The larger community can set the standard of expectations; we can support students’ achievement through rewards, acknowledgments, praise and accolades, and we can provide the resources to our schools that can bring them to the highest standards. For too long, we have been satisfied with mediocrity rather than always asking, How can we do this better?

What role does teacher preparation play in this dialogue?

Duncan: It is critical. The excellence of the quality of teacher will at the end of the day drive the level of excellence that we will achieve in our school system.

Arbuckle: Teacher preparation is key, but also an important ingredient is providing support within the system for new teachers. In Guilford County Schools, we have a staff of eight to provide support and guidance to more than 500 new teachers. We need our teachers prepared for the real world of the classroom, and for most new teachers that means in highly impacted high-risk schools where there are multiple cultures, families living in poverty, many not speaking English and most without books in the home. Young teachers need to understand what this means for a child growing up in this environment. They need to gain respect for the many strengths that children have who come through living in poverty and build upon those strengths of resilience, creativity and self-reliance. They need to use these strengths to build students’ esteem to be successful academically.

The county heavily focuses on the two ends of the bell curve. How should we plan to work with our B’ and C’ students?

McCulley: I have been one of those “B” students before. Going through grade school, I found that each teacher had a different teaching style. Some of my teachers would only focus on students with A’s or F’s because they were the ones who either needed help or made the school look really good.

I think that the county can have school incentives that they can pass on to their students. For example, when I went through elementary school, all students who got good grades got to go on special field trips or got free ice cream. I think that student with B’s and C’s are still good students, maybe they just need a little more time and understanding on certain subjects.

Rosemary Wander: Excellent question. One approach could be greater involvement in experiential learning activities.

Arbuckle: There are many who would argue that we are not addressing the students’ needs at the high end. … It is not OK to just “get by.” (We need to) figure out ways — through hands-on learning, relating skill development to real-world experiences, and getting (students) excited about learning through challenging, relevant work — to move the B/C student into higher achievement.

What difference would a gift of $100 million make for Guilford County Schools?

Arbuckle: Many things! We could set up the Hope Scholarship program for those students who would not otherwise have the opportunity to extend their learning into a college experience — providing hope for the future and then setting high standards and expectations as a way to achieve the dream. We get what we expect, and if we change the expectations, we can get different results.

McCulley: It would make a HUGE difference. I know that for a fact. I went to Andrews, which is a low-income school. Low-income schools need money for repairs and new books. New furniture is needed as well. The money could be used to take students on field trips. A biology class could go to the zoo to study habits of animals and how they react in a controlled environment. Things like that are not available because of the lack of funds. My teachers in high school always wanted to go places, and we couldn’t because there was no money.

To Dr. Graves and Dr. Smith: How do you communicate unpreparedness’ to the feeder schools and administrators? What do they say in response?

Graves: It is hard to believe that the principals of North Carolina schools haven’t seen their own assessment data on student performance. They must be aware of the achievement gaps that exist in reading, mathematics and science for minority students.

Worse is the disconnection between the critical-learning objectives that are being identified by leaders of industry and higher education as so crucial to global preparedness and competition and what is being stressed in the state high school curriculum.

In short, we in higher education are looking to develop broad- based critical-thinking skills. These are not well assessed by the standardized tests used to evaluate student learning in the areas mentioned above. Clearly, we at the university level need to do a better job of partnering with the K-12 system. At present, we just aren’t there yet.

Smith: The state provides data for each school system showing how graduates of that system perform when they reach UNC system institutions and North Carolina community colleges. GTCC also has made data on the numbers of their students who need developmental classes from our own database available to the public schools.

GTCC has many points of contact with the public schools. GTCC houses three high schools on its campuses, and works with all the high schools to provide college-level courses to those students who are ready for them. High school counselors are hired each summer to contact high school graduates and determine their college plans. GTCC follows up with information about our programs. GTCC provides scholarships to completers of the high school tech-prep program. Some of them arrive unprepared and take developmental courses prior to being awarded their scholarships.

The tech-prep staff is working to communicate the expectations and requirements to students and parents early in their high school careers so that they will prepare well before they leave high school. This collaboration has won top state honors for a number of years. More than 250 tech-prep graduates are enrolled at GTCC to continue their technical programs.

Public school personnel are concerned about their students’ preparation for college-level classes, and we would like to cooperate in more ways.

We sometimes need to make just a small adjustment either to our vision or perspective to get to what is wrong. Is it possible that we are clinging to an 8 a.m.-to-2 p.m. school day, which is causing our students to learn superficially?

Arbuckle: The school day is too short and the school year is too short. We no longer need the agrarian model. Let’s make the school day from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and include opportunities for sports, arts, hands-on learning, greater academic challenges. We would achieve higher results.

Why not give a good amount of the remedial money spent at the community colleges and the UNC system to the K-12 schools?

McCulley: I think that should happen. The community colleges and UNC have nice things, and they receive money from their students. The computers that they have are nice and can do almost anything you can think of. Guilford County schools don’t even compare to any college in the United States. Guilford County needs to update all the schools.

Smith: Taking funding from the community colleges to give it to the public schools will not solve the problem of under-prepared students. All of education in North Carolina merits the support of the people of the state.

It is necessary for people who did not have access to quality education — whatever their ages — to return to the classroom and acquire those skills. Many of these people have been forced out of well-paying jobs in our traditional industries. In order to go into a new career in the modern economy, their academic foundations must be improved. GTCC’s fastest-growing group of students are in this category.

The requirements of the workplace and daily life are changing rapidly. Not so long ago, a person with lower-level academic skills could function well. Today people with low-level skills have difficulty with complicated health information, financial management, assisting their children with school assignments or even with school rules and requirements. In the workplace, most jobs require some kind of computer literacy; manuals are written at a higher reading level; instructions for many processes necessary for safety and productivity cannot be navigated without literacy and numeracy skills once not needed. People who did not get this preparation need a place to come to secure it.

Community colleges are committed to the open door: providing those who desire education and training the skills they need no matter where they need to start. Developmental education is not easy, and it is not cost-free.

Wander: Universities do not receive funds specifically targeted for remedial activities.

Readiness to work on robots and forklifts with computers is NOT the same as readiness for participation in a self-governing democracy. Which is the priority? How do we avoid pitting them against each other?

Graves: Actually, I disagree. The root of all technical proficiency is the ability to think critically. This is what we are not teaching in the public schools today. A critical thinker has the tool kit to do mathematical and statistical thinking as well as moral and ethical reasoning, and aesthetic appreciation. Our core general education curriculum at N.C. A&T is designed to give our students these skills.

Unfortunately one of the greatest hurdles is that students have been indoctrinated in this society (not just by K-12 curricula) against such thinking. In a student forum the other day, a student decried the injustice of being forced to learn logic! The Net generation has developed a variety of psychological characteristics that make them resistant to critical thinking, such as their allegiance to subjectivism (what is true for you, doesn’t have to be true for me) and frustration with ambiguity. Many of our students have real weaknesses in reading comprehension, which in part results from them hating reading because it doesn’t give them instant gratification (something that also emanates from the ease of using modern technology).

The battle for critical thinking is something we dare not lose. Unfortunately, our political system is actively working to crush this capacity in the American public. For example, a critical- thinking public would never have waited so long to take action against climate change or have fallen for the WMD rhetoric justifying the invasion of Iraq or the Willie Horton fear-mongering ads which helped usher George H. Bush Sr. into the White House.

Thus in reality, the battle for meaningful education that teaches students to think independently and critically is the battle to preserve our republic.

Wander: A comprehensive education teaches not only technical skills, such as how to operate a forklift, but also the “soft” skills, e.g., critical thinking, oral and written communication, work ethics and professionalism, ability to work in teams, global awareness. Both are needed to make an engaged citizen.

Smith: Both are important, and not necessarily in conflict. A person whose citizenship awareness is at a high level but who cannot qualify for a job will not be able to support a family and may become dependent on government. And, increasingly in the modern economy, people who work in almost any job must have a level of general knowledge to be productive. Employers are aware that a person who is not able to communicate or understand concepts, think critically, work with others, is not going to be as productive as a person who has more general education.

At least two panelists have implied that high school graduates are clueless out of high school.’ If this is the scenario, what initiatives or activities would you recommend for high school graduates prior to their enrollment into post-secondary education?

Smith: The community must take an interest in the development of our young people, both in terms of academic attainment and in the acquisition of norms of civility, responsibility and desire to learn. Of course, parents should play a primary role. However, too many children do not have responsible parents, and thus are abandoned if the responsibility is assigned solely to parents. Every adult is a possible role model for a young person. Every adult should ask him or herself whether his or her conduct is setting a good model or a bad one for young people. (We need to work on our own civility and responsibility!)

The community can support safe and attractive schools that communicate that we value our children and youth. The community can provide constructive sports and arts activities as alternatives to street idleness. The community can assure that children without responsible parents have someone else available for them to rely on. The community can identify jobs that young people can do for some personal income and for the pride that comes with productivity. The community can provide high school youth with the expectation that they can go beyond high school if they stay in school and do the work — and communicate that message and college requirements to them early.

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