In any other year, a Moore County Schools budget with a request for a $4.2 million local funding increase would have likely been the subject of extensive commentary.
But with countywide redistricting on the table, approving the schools’ 2019-2020 budget — the only item of business on the board’s agenda Monday — accounted for about five minutes of that meeting. During the period designated for public address, five school principals, two Robbins Elementary teachers, five parents and a student weighed in on redistricting.
Last week, the school board revealed its first proposal for new attendance lines affecting every school in the district. School staff and board members discussed the proposal with parents in public meetings at New Century and Southern middle schools last Tuesday and Wednesday.
By 2021, the district will look different. McDeeds Creek Elementary will open this fall on Camp Easter Road to offset over-enrollment at the Sandhills Farm Life and Vass-Lakeview elementary schools.
Next year, new 800-student elementary schools will open on new campuses off of N.C. 5 in Aberdeen and off Morganton Road in Southern Pines. At the same time, the four elementary and primary schools serving Southern Pines and Aberdeen will close. A new, much larger Pinehurst elementary school is scheduled to open the year after that.
But as proposed, the changes that will be phased in over the same window would do far more than tweak Moore County Schools’ attendance lines accordingly. On top of that, they shift students east and north in an attempt to manage enrollment growth at the West Pine elementary and middle schools. That elementary school is nearly at full capacity, while the middle school serves more than 800 students in a school designed for 700.
The plan also shifts attendance lines around the new McDeeds Creek school, Vass-Lakeview, and Cameron Elementary in anticipation of growth in the Moore County “panhandle” east of Vass that extends toward Fort Bragg.
Rhetoric Heats Up
But the proposal released last week has drawn complaints from many parents, especially those in Pinehurst who would be moved into the Southern Middle attendance area from West Pine Middle. Many of the concerns deal with being assigned to a school that the state classifies as “low performing.” Others have accused the schools of designing the plan to inflate schools’ test scores and worry that racial and socioeconomic demographics have had excessive influence in the process so far.
“Us parents want to see the substantiating documentation supporting the use of demographics and proficiency information in rezoning processes,” said Cal Castleberry, one of three current West Pine parents who questioned the redistricting process on Monday.
“Why are these variables being used? On April 2 at (New Century) I asked Dr. Grimesey this question. He replied (that) they’re not being used, they’re after-the-fact variables to measure success.
“If so, then why did he also state that if a school’s minority percentage increases during redistricting, then that’s a bad thing?”
Based on state End of Grade test scores from 2017-2018, Moore County now has two low-performing schools: Southern Middle and Robbins Elementary. Any school that receives a D or F grade based on the percent of its students performing at grade level on those tests is designated as “low performing” unless it also exceeds expected growth.
Mitch Williamson pointed out that the facilities plan Moore County Schools originally formulated in 2014 was presented as an alternative to redistricting. That plan, which has been revised several times since, still includes a new middle school in the Pinecrest attendance area and an expansion of West Pine Elementary. Williamson argued that funding the county is allocating to an expansion at North Moore High would be better spent on those priorities.
“Rather than following the former plan of enlarging West Pine Elementary to 700 and accommodating projected growth for the next 10 years,” he said, “your plan is to send children east and north and enlarge and improve a dying high school.”
‘Not Making It Worse’
Under the proposed plan and given current enrollment projections, some schools, namely Southern and West Pine Middle, would remain over capacity under the proposed plan. Others, like New Century, Vass-Lakeview and West End Elementary, would get there within a few years of the plan’s full implementation in 2022.
“Today we’re facing overcrowding in middle schools, aging elementary schools and the school board and administration’s solution is redistricting and assigning students to schools, some more than 10 miles further away than their current assigned school,” said Williamson.
Board Chair Helena Wallin-Miller maintained that the school board won’t pursue a redistricting plan that would exacerbate disparities between the schools’ student demographics. She also said that the district is compiling some of the body of research supporting the link between diversity and student achievement — beginning with the congressionally funded Coleman Report that in the 1960s was the catalyst for school integration after it identified socioeconomic integration as the most critical factor behind academic achievement across the board — for parents who are interested.
“In approving the guiding principles for the redistricting process, the board also determined that improved demographic balance is desirable where feasible. While not a primary driver, we will review data to ensure we are moving demographic balance in the right direction and not making it worse,” said Wallin-Miller.
“The school board believes that a more balanced approach is a benefit to the whole community and supports better outcomes for all students. There are numerous citations to support this conclusion.”
Rising to the Defense
On Monday, representatives from Southern Middle and its feeder schools, as well as Robbins Elementary, spoke to defend their schools. Nate Holler, a seventh grader at Southern, said that the school’s staff is available for everything from revising classwork to STEM and arts clubs after school hours and during optional Saturday school hours in the spring semester.
“Students always have someone to talk to when in need, whether it be one of our vice principals, a guidance counselor or Mrs. Cooper herself there is always an adult ready to listen,” he said.
“I have heard a lot about Southern Middle over the last few weeks. I have heard about parents who do not want their child to come to Southern Middle because they deem it a failing school. However, I walk through the doors of Southern Middle five times a week and this is what I see.”
Southern Middle Principal Marcy Cooper said that teachers offer individualized instruction to students regardless of where they fall on the achievement spectrum.
“While providing support for our high-achieving students, we also provide intervention for our students who are struggling with grade-level content,” she said. “During our intervention and enrichment block, students may participate in a wide variety of classes to meet their interest such as robotics, coding, speech, debate, STEM and others.”
Cooper also pointed out that the state’s method of determining School Performance Grades has been controversial since the practice of assigning letter grades to individual schools was introduced in 2015. Those grades are based primarily on whether or not students’ End of Grade test scores indicate they’re on grade level. How much students have improved since the prior year accounts for only 20 percent.
So at a glance, Southern Middle’s “D” grade doesn’t reflect that its students met expected growth last year. Aberdeen Elementary, also graded a “D” school, was exempt from the state’s “low performing” designation because it actually exceeded growth last year.
“We do not define ourselves by a letter grade that is determined by a formula created by the state that even the current state legislature determines to be ineffective at demonstrating the quality of our schools,” said Cooper. “We are going to define ourselves by the academic progress our students are making and the culture that we are creating in our very wonderfully diverse school community.”
Ashley Green, whose son is in first grade at Southern Pines Primary, spoke to allay parents’ apprehensions about the prospect of their children moving from Pinehurst to the Southern Pines area school. Green said that she was also nervous about the school at first, but that was based on hearsay from neighbors with no experience at the school.
“I couldn’t be happier with his education, but I also couldn’t be happier about the fact that he goes to a school that is representative of the real world. His best friend in class is a little boy who he would probably never cross paths with in life if it weren’t for being in the classroom,” she said.
“People are concerned about the achievement gap, and I get that, and my kid has noticed it, and we talk about it. We talk about being someone’s champion, we talk about being encouraging and you know what, he will come home from class and he will brag about his classmates and his friends when he notices them making strides in learning.”
Another West Pine parent, Kami David, said that redistricting from West Pine Middle to Southern would involve a significant increase in travel time for families north of N.C. 211 and N.C. 2, who would no longer be able to circumvent the Pinehurst Traffic Circle.
“If parent involvement in middle schools is a problem, I think the distance that you’re sending children and the time — not just the distance, but the time travelled — that you’re sending children to these schools needs to be considered,” she said. “It makes it very difficult for me, as a currently involved parent, to remain involved when a round-trip form my home to my daughter’s school is an hour long.”
Wallin-Miller also sympathized with parents who fear a longer drive or bus ride if their children are assigned to a new school. She said she planned to send her children to Academy Heights Elementary in Taylortown before it closed in 2011.
“I understand that student assignment planning is stressful and disruptive to families. I get it,” she said.
As a board member, Wallin-Miller voted in 2016 to end the year-round program, in place at four elementary schools, in which her children were enrolled.
“The school board did away with year-round schooling for budgetary reasons and my own children moved schools. As a reminder, I was on the school board when that decision was made and I had to make that decision as well. I moved my own children so that the whole community could benefit.”
‘Our Children Are Watching’
On the northern end of the county, the area served by Robbins Elementary and Elise Middle is proposed to extend south into the current West End Elementary attendance area. Some of the Carthage Elementary and Crains Creek Middle attendance area along the Lee County line would be moved to Highfalls K-8. That would effectively enlarge the area served by North Moore High.
Rachel Ray, a fourth grade teacher, said that Robbins Elementary’s “D” grade from the state doesn’t reflect the work that happens there every day.
“Unfortunately, the assignment of grades has served only to label schools regardless of the many obstacles that occur outside of school grounds,” she said. “We view our kids as whole individuals and address all the elements that come along with that, regardless of whether they are academic or not.”
Katy Ong, a Pinecrest parent whose son went to the Southern Pines schools and Southern Middle, said that contrary to the outcry from disgruntled parents in meetings and on social media, most of her neighbors are open-minded about potential redistricting and are satisfied with the school board’s methods of collecting input so far.
“The majority of parents I know with children across all three school levels, and across Pinehurst and Southern Pines say they understand the need for redistricting, that this is the right time, and they understand there will be some discomfort with both the process and the outcome,” she said.
“Our children are watching, and they’ll follow your lead. If you’re inflexible, angry and defiant, it will affect how students transition. If you’re flexible, optimistic and open-minded, your children will be too.”
The school board will review a second draft of the redistricting proposal in May in a meeting that will again be followed by public input sessions at Southern and New Century. Superintendent Bob Grimesey is scheduled to make a final recommendation to the board this fall.
Contact Mary Kate Murphy at (910) 693-2479 or email@example.com.