The county’s performance in the face of a two-year pandemic shows silver linings, deserves continued support

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The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released its annual report cards on state schools this month for the first time since before the pandemic, and in a year that saw the number of “low performing” school districts more than triple since 2019, Lee County’s public schools managed to come away with more good news than bad. 

That good news: Despite the negative impacts of the pandemic over the past two and a half years — hybrid learning, students and teacher absences, mental health challenges and other obstacles to learning — 10 of the county’s 14 public schools met or exceeded growth in the 2021-2022 academic year. And the county’s high school graduation rate actually increased to 87.7 percent (above the state average), while statewide that percentage dropped slightly.

The not-so-good news: Four Lee County schools (two of its three middle schools and both high schools) failed to meet growth — East Lee Middle, West Lee Middle, Southern Lee High and Lee County High. J.R. Ingram Elementary met growth expectations despite its numbers dropping slightly from 2019. All other schools exceeded growth. 

Two of the county’s three charter schools were also graded (Central Carolina Academy started this fall). Both met growth expectations, though Ascend Leadership Academy earned an overall grade of C, while MINA Charter School was handed an F, joining East Lee Middle School in receiving the lowest possible grade. Seven schools earned a C, five a D and only one school, Lee Early College, earned an A. 

The data is based on end-of-grade and end-of-course testing — aligned to the North Carolina Standard Course of Study in English Language Arts (reading) and Mathematics and the Essential Standards in Science for all public schools in North Carolina. Eighty percent of the grade is performance data, and 20 percent is growth.  

The School Performance Grades aren’t without controversy. The idea of assigning a simple letter grade to something as complex and ever-moving as an ENTIRE SCHOOL based on testing and perceived growth is insulting to some. For example, W.B. Wicker Elementary had better growth than all but three schools in the district and was still slapped with a D. Seven out of every 10 students at W.B. Wicker are identified as “economically disadvantaged students,” which has shown to be a direct parallel to being considered a “low performing school” in this state.

The grades can also be used as a weapon for those writing the checks for teachers and staff. Last year, Lee County Commissioner Kirk Smith stated that local teachers shouldn’t receive a raise in their annual supplements because of “mediocre” performance on these report cards.

Lee County’s performance on this year’s report is a mixed bag. But what do the grades tell us about our public schools at a time when more students are leaving them for private and charter schools? 

Lee County Superintendent Andy Bryan highlighted the aforementioned positives in a public letter to the school district on Sept. 1. He also noted the struggles teachers have faced since 2019.

“We saw how much student learning and academic performance has been impacted over the course of this pandemic,”  he said. “We’ve known … that helping students recover the learning they have lost will be a long process. That’s not unique to Lee County, of course. It’s a challenge throughout our state and across our nation that has been documented and described by research of all kinds.”

A recent study showed that it could take students as a whole three to four years to “fully catch up” to previous pre-pandemic success. Bryan pointed to a New York Times article that the national performance of 9-year-olds in math and reading dropped to levels from two decades ago. 

“That’s why we have already been providing additional academic support for students — ranging from academic summer programs over the last few months to more-intensive academic initiatives underway this school year,” Bryan said. Academic coaches and deans of students have been added to middle school staffs “to work directly with parents, principals and assistant principals to resolve behavioral issues before they threaten our students’ success.”

“There is plenty of work to be done, but we know our students, teachers, staff, parents and community are up to the challenge,” Bryan added. 

So the takeaway? Students and teachers struggled mightily in 2020 and 2021, and despite EVERYTHING, test scores managed to remain steady. That’s an incredible achievement — one that even the men and women holding the purse strings can’t condemn. 

That doesn’t mean next year is guaranteed to be better. Our county is growing, and teacher shortages remain. Charter schools are pulling students and teachers from traditional public schools. And the pandemic isn’t over — who’s to say another wave of positive cases won’t derail the coming school year. 

But Lee County should be pleased with this report as a whole. More resources are needed in all schools, but our high schools and middle schools need extra intention.

Now is the time to fund these resources. We tell our kids that hard work and dedication are keys to improving their grades. Our district needs similar dedication if the overall grades are going to improve.