SCOTT MOONEYHAM: A New Day For State's Schools
Across North Carolina, a new school year has begun. At 17 of those schools, it's truly a new start.
The 17 low-performing high schools were singled out by Superior Court Judge Howard Manning for possible closure earlier this year. Manning, though, recently agreed to allow the schools to remain operating after school officials demonstrated to him that they are putting in place plans that redesign teaching and curricula.
Many of the plans fall in line with proposals pushed by Gov. Mike Easley and his education advisers to create smaller, focused schools-within-a-school that track students into career paths.
There are no guarantees of success. Some recent stories in The News & Record of Greensboro, examining low-performing schools in Guilford County and the use of the schools-within-a-school concept in other areas, made that clear. The newspaper found instances of success and failure using the concept.
Nevertheless, after more than a decade of legal fighting over what constitutes the constitutional guarantee of providing each child an opportunity for a "sound, basic education," the change marks an actual school-level response to the court rulings.
In Guilford County, reform plans call for the creation of academies within Smith and High Point Central high schools. At an academy within one of the schools, students will study medical careers and construction technology. At an academy within another, students will focus on cooking, public safety and medical careers.
The proposals also call for better tracking of individual student progress, partnering with churches and other groups to provide tutoring, and enforcing stricter disciplinary rules. The state will also have coaches in each of the schools working with principals.
Both in Guilford County and elsewhere, the judge wasn't completely satisfied. He hasn't dismissed the idea of shutting down schools in the future if test results don't improve.
Finally, Manning was particularly perplexed that Hertford County, in the northeastern part of the state, wasn't further along in its school reform plans and worried about the hiring of an inexperienced principal. He directed state school officials to "go in there and ride herd."
But what all of these plans offer, whether or not they need some retooling as time moves along, is an opportunity to make education more relevant to more students.
The state's high dropout rate -- at around 35 percent, with more than 20,000 students leaving school each year without a diploma -- is strong evidence that large numbers of students simply see no relevance in traditional, college-track focused high schools.
It's those students who need a tangible goal, real job skills, to move forward.
Manning also recognized that many need basic academic skills shored up upon arriving to high school, which is another aspect that he wants incorporated into reform plans.
Many a start leads to a stumble or fall, and given the complexities involved in this one, such an outcome would surprise no one. The time, though, had clearly come for this start.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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