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Our future demands school chief who'll pursue change

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By Peter Thomson
Columnist

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Recently a meeting was held for the public to comment on the choice for the new superintendent for the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools. Nobody came. In fact, many if not most parents in Pasquotank appear disengaged. School board seats are uncontested, and many who do stand for office are manning the barricades against things getting worse. Within the student population a few go on to prestigious universities, but many graduate without the ability to write a cogent sentence. Teachers are leaving, money is tight and everything is, once again, in transition.

Some parents regard our schools as having the job of graduating day laborers and farm workers, ignoring the fact that, in an era where picking machines are run by memory boards, the simplest jobs will soon require computer knowledge and technical skills. While more money would certainly help, in North Carolina the playing field is tilted and rich counties can top up school budgets in a way that Pasquotank cannot; and there’s no indication that state financing will change for the better.

Our current system, and the factors contributing to it, has resulted in low standardized scores and poorly served students. Experts agree that if a child is not reading at grade level by third grade the chances of becoming well educated are slim. Many of our students do not pass these tests. Later, having been pushed on through, when confronted with college-level work graduates find themselves far, far behind.

Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” To bring in a superintendent and ask him to work with the current system in the current way, believing that things will change, seems to follow that definition. Surely we should look for a new type of administrator with a track record of turning systems around — an innovator and initiator of change. This county needs it and the kids deserve it.

What will happen if we continue on our present course? Today we have a problem attracting professionals with school-age children. Coasties live out of county and commute, as do doctors and professors. Without a high-scoring school system we doom ourselves to a future as a have-not area with possibilities for growth and prosperity substantially curtailed. Most economic development professionals regard good schools with STEM learning as being an essential element to attracting industry. Without it, we are uncompetitive no matter what other advantages we may have. We lose the possibility of good jobs for our youngsters and we become ever older and ever poorer.

But this can change. There are cases where school systems have been turned around in a relatively short time, where failing schools became models, parents and the community were engaged, and students came to understand that excellence provides the impetus for a good and prosperous life. We cannot let our future be tied to past systemic failures; we need to commit ourselves to radical change. A good start would be hiring a superintendent willing to change the system itself in a way that makes it work for all, then supporting the new unfamiliar initiatives.

President George W Bush perhaps said it best, ”No child in America should be segregated by low expectations, imprisoned by illiteracy, abandoned to frustration and darkness of self-doubt. ... Now some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less — the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Peter Thomson is an Elizabeth City resident.

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