By Richard Sullins |

The Lee County Board of Education gave final approval Tuesday to improvement plans drawn up by four county schools identified as “low performing” during the 2021-22 school year.

The “low performing” schools were Lee County High School, J.R. Ingram Elementary School, East Lee Middle School, and West Lee Middle School. The principal at each school appeared at the school board’s last meeting on October 11 and presented preliminary versions of their improvement plans.

State law defines a low performing school as one that received a school performance grade of D or F, and a school growth score of “met expected growth” or “not met expected growth.” The designation of “low-performing” is made at the state level by the Department of Public Instruction.

The plans drafted by these schools were also made available to the public on their websites for a two-week period that ran from October 12-26. The report presented to the board on Tuesday noted that “during that time, two comments were submitted, neither of which were directly related to the school’s improvement plan.”

In a 5-2 vote, the school board chose Tuesday night to approve the plans for implementation, with members Sherry Lynn Womack and retiring member Pam Sutton, both Republicans, voting against the plans that were presented. Following Tuesday’s approval, the strategies must now be submitted to DPI before November 8.

What you need to know

Within 30 days of a school being identified by DPI as low performing, the local superintendent is required to submit to their board of education a plan for remediation of the identified deficiencies.

The designations are calculated by making use of a formula that gives an 80 percent weighting to student proficiency on testing and 20 percent to student growth.

As a result of the learning loss associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of low performing schools across North Carolina almost doubled, going from 488 in 2020-21 to 864 in 2021-22. There were 29 low-performing school districts in the state last year, but Lee County was not among them.

At both middle schools, the improvement plans call for increasing proficiencies in all tested subjects, increasing parental involvement in the educational process, and on retaining teachers and decreasing turnovers. For example, the data noted that the turnover rate for teachers at East Lee Middle School in 2021-22 was 44 percent.

Teacher attrition was noted as an issue at J.R. Ingram Elementary School as well. The study concluded that students at Ingram would benefit from having fully licensed classroom teachers that would be maintained through a support network. But one-third of the staff surveyed at Ingram didn’t believe its teachers were fully supported by the parents of students.

Lee County High School’s plan identified several areas of focus to work on. The school will increase the rigor of its instruction through school-wide strategies that will create linkages between all content areas. There will be a concerted effort to continue improvements in test scores seen in the end of course and ACT exams.

But in perhaps the most wide-ranging of the entire district’s goals for improvement, the high school will seek to improve the physical, social, emotional, and behavioral health of its students, faculty, staff, and families.

During the 2021-2022 school year, there were 55 discipline referrals for fighting, aggressive behavior, and assault at LCHS. The average daily attendance among students was 83.87 percent and teachers were absent an average of 1.3 days per month.

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Chris Dossenbach outlined a plan being tested this year to deal with these issues. A few members of the faculty were interested in the concept of “restorative justice” and suggested that using just one strand from that tapestry could allow the district to come at these issues from a wholly different angle.

Restorative justice or Critical Race Theory?

Most schools use a punitive means for handling discipline. If you break a rule, you can be punished with detention or even suspension. But that system disrupts a student’s education and can lead them to behavior that is even worse. It provides those students with no skills for handling future conflicts with others and can establish a cycle that repeats itself through life.

Restorative justice looks at the matter through eyes that focus instead on mediation and agreement. The offender must come to an understanding that they have caused harm and accept responsibility for the consequences by making restitution to the victims. It has been tried successfully in a number of school systems over the past 20 years.

Womack, though, didn’t like the idea or even its name.

“Once you start this process, there are multiple avenues where things can go wrong. It suggests to me that somehow, we have not provided justice in our schools. That’s just not true,” she said.

Dossenbach explained the district was not embracing the entirety of the restorative justice construct. Instead, some interested faculty wanted to approach the issue from a completely different angle on a trial basis. Since the traditional methods of discipline were not producing differing results, they’d suggested trying a single strand of the restorative justice approach.

Womack remained firm in her opposition.

“I would challenge you that this phrase – restorative justice – is misleading,” she said. “It’s critical race theory, and I don’t think we should be going down that road.”

Dossenbach also refused to cede any ground, saying, “for the record, I disagree with pretty much everything that was just said. We have a bunch of new teachers and I think it’s important to do this.”

Board Chair Sandra Bowen, a Republican, was supportive of the concept, speaking especially in favor of finding alternative ways of dealing with conflict.

“High school is so very different. People forget that. You are with a different group of people every single class that you take, unlike elementary or middle school,” she said. “This can help students to overcome that mindset. The more you suspend students, the less they learn.”

As the discussion prepared to come to a close, Womack made a motion to change the title of the plan from “restorative justice” to “conflict resolution plan.” Sutton seconded the motion, but it failed in a 2-5 vote. Democratic Member Patrick Kelly then moved approval of the plan as presented and it passed by the same 5-2 margin.

In a closing remark, Bowen said that she wasn’t sure whether the board had the authority to change the title of the plan as Womack had suggested anyway. Before the board’s attorney, Stephen Rawson, could respond, a Republican candidate for one of the three seats on the board in next week’s election, Chris Gaster, rose to his feet and shouted, “you’re a freakin’ board! And you can’t change a decision?”

Gaster stormed out of the meeting room, slamming his hands into a door’s panic bar as he left. He could still be heard shouting the same phrases: “You’re a freakin’ board! And you can’t change a decision?” as he walked down the hallway toward the building’s exit.