Views differ on how to help Hoke

A court-ordered effort to fix Hoke district struggling schools has barely begun, and already state and local officials are renewing a long-running dispute about what kind of help is needed.

State education experts blame Hoke’s problems on high teacher turnover, inadequate recruitment, excessive teacher absences and poorly prepared substitutes. If Hoke school leaders understood these problems and had a better plan to correct them, state officials say, they could improve school quality and student performance in the small, rural county about an hour southwest of Raleigh.

But the superintendent for Hoke county schools says he can’t do much to improve teacher recruitment and retention without more money.

The clashing views are included in papers filed last month with Wake Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr., who directed the state last summer to intervene in Hoke County. Developments in Hoke are being watched closely as the courts and state leaders seek ways to boost performance of disadvantaged students.

Manning has said in earlier rulings that schools don’t necessarily need more money to improve student performance. But Hoke and other poor districts that sued the state in 1994 have always argued that more state funding is the greatest need.

"The report proposes that Hoke hire additional recruiting personnel, raise the recruiting budget and devote additional funds to raise teacher supplements," Hoke Superintendent Allen Strickland said in a letter to Manning, responding to the state’s status report. "These may be good ideas, but there is a major problem with them — we do not have the money."

State education systems school Hoke, NC say can find better ways to spend what it already receives to cover such needs as more aggressive recruitment of teachers.

"Once Hoke better understands why extraordinary numbers of teachers are leaving the system or are absent from work, it should make a commitment to use available funds to address the problems," state Superintendent Mike Ward and Phil Kirk, chairman of the State Board of Education, said in their report to Manning.

"We recommend that Hoke immediately establish an adequate operating budget to support year-round recruiting, and develop a plan to improve the quality of its substitute teachers either through better recruiting or improved professional development," Ward and Kirk said.

Manning told state leaders to help Hoke as a first step in complying with his sweeping order in April to provide North Carolina’s neediest students with the opportunity for a "sound basic education." He ruled that the state was ultimately responsible for ensuring that all students have a chance to receive an adequate education guaranteed by the constitution.

Deputy State Superintendent Brad Sneeden said in an interview that he thinks Hoke could improve more quickly with the infusion of more money.

"There’s no doubt about it," he said. "If you want to tap the potential of all students in Hoke County or any system, you’re going to need more resources."

The State Board of Education wants to broaden the use of assistance teams next year for more school systems struggling with low student performance. Gov. Mike Easley’s budget includes $500,000 to launch the effort with one team serving four school systems.

Having evaluated Hoke’s problems, the state plans to send a team of five or six educators this month to help the school system correct them.

"The assistance is going to be important," Sneeden said. "The assistance team will give a jump-start to these things."

The state’s report outlined a list of recommendations for improvement in Hoke.

Among them:

  • Clearly communicate goals and priorities with school system personnel.
  • Give special classroom attention to Native American males, ninth-graders who have been held back, achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups, and progress for students already passing their state end-of-grade tests.
  • Improve staff development tailored for educators with different levels of training and experience, from substitutes and teacher assistants to veteran teachers.
  • Establish a budget for the personnel office, including funding for recruitment and retention of teachers and principals.
  • Reduce funding for teacher assistants and clerical staff, and reallocate money for supplemental pay for teachers or other programs tied to the system’s overall goals.

Strickland said he agreed that Hoke educators could improve their planning efforts. But he complained that the state’s recommendations "demonstrate a lack of knowledge of our current practices."

Sneeden said he wished Strickland would view the state’s intervention in Hoke County as a way to help improve the system’s performance.

"If we didn’t have this court case, I think he would be looking at this differently," Sneeden said.

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