By Catherine Hunter
For two years in a row Buncombe County Schools (BCS) have ranked 19th in the nation for having the most teachers with National Board Certification. Three of the six North Carolina finalists in the 2012 Presidential Awards for Excellence in math and science teaching are from BCS and over 99 percent of BCS educators are designated as highly qualified.
With their students’ 2011 SAT mean scores 44 points higher than the national average, BCS continues to receive awards and accreditations. The BCS total mean score of 1,547 is surpassed only by five of the 115 school systems in North Carolina: Chapel Hill-Carrboro City (1,750), Watauga County (1,590), Asheville City (1,572), Wake County (1,568), and Hickory City (1,551).
Yet BCS as the 11th largest district in North Carolina, ranks 85th out of 115 in the state for funding and spends nearly $60,000 less per graduate than Asheville City Schools. BCS spends more than $1200 less per student than the North Carolina average and more than $3,000 less per student than the national average. In addition, with only .63 administrators per thousand students, the BCS Central Office has fewer administrators to run the school system than all but nine other school systems in the state.
Recent criticism, which BCS Board of Education Chairman Bob Rhinehart credits to political agendas, accuses the school system of falling short in areas such as transparency, availability of information, quality of the meal programs, stakeholder participation and more. Phone calls to accusing parties requesting comments were not returned and those making such accusations have yet to show any documented evidence to prove the claims.
Four areas of commendation for BCS
For reasons why BCS manages to do this well with few resources, BCS Director of Communications Jan Blunt points to the recent accreditation report by North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (NCA CASI), the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement (SACS CASI), and the Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation (CITA).
Blunt said the report gave commendations in four areas which the review team listed as the district’s strengths and accomplishments. The first commendation sited BCS as a “culture of collaboration that exists among all internal and external stakeholders.” The reported stated, “This culture [of collaboration] has emerged as a strong core value that permeates all levels of the system with a relentless focus on student achievement and success.”
The second commendation listed included the district’s ability to adjust to changes in funding, such as the decease in state funds and the increase in federal funds. The report stated this situation [changes in funding] necessitated a change in the paradigm for the delivery of services to its clientele. The report added, “The new focus to budgeting [by BCS] has shifted from “Whom we employ and what we buy” to “What programs we operate and why.”
Blunt credited the district’s ability to adjust to funding changes to the work of BCS Chief Financial Officer Mary Parker and her staff. Throughout her 25 years with BCS, Parker has won numerous state and national awards honoring her ability to adjust the BCS budget to get the most out of the dollars they receive.
The report’s third commendation includes the graduation initiative siting the 35 percent decrease in BCS drop out rate over the last five years. Blunt said if she had to pick one thing that made the district truly strong it would be the graduation initiative. As a collaboration between Eblen Charities, the Buncombe County Commission and BCS, the Graduation Initiative operates at no additional cost to BCS.
“We focus on the attendance of the young children, K-3,” said Blunt who explained that learning the habit of attendance at a young age was very important. She added that transitional programs for middle school and intermediate school students were also a big factor in helping decrease the drop out rate.
Blunt said evidence of the reduced drop out rate also shows up in the improved four year graduation rate for BCS and that TC Roberson’s, BCS largest school, 90 percent graduation rate compared to the North Carolina rate of 80 percent.
The fourth commendation in the report included, “… high quality professional development that builds leadership capacity, improves teaching and learning, and is in alignment with its strategic plan.” Blunt sited the high percentage of BCS teachers rated highly qualified and their high number of teachers with National Board Certification.
She added that the schools continue to offer additional professional development opportunities to BCS educators such as the classroom mentors and coaches who observe and offer suggestions for effective teaching techniques.
Rhinehart credits the staff and BCS Superintendent Dr. Tony Baldwin with the success. “Everyone, teachers, principals, staff, even the custodians, are doing their part,” he said.
BCS Associate Superintendent Susanne Swanger agreed with Rhinehart saying much of the schools’ success is due to the “…excellent educators who work diligently to help students grow academically.” Sanger added that BCS “… teachers are experts in their content areas, and continue to learn new curriculum practices.”
Baldwin said in his opinion a great deal of the success was due to the involvement of the parents and the community. He sited the laser focus of parents, non-profit organizations including Eblen, the YMCA and United Way and the K-12 educators and staff, who made the Graduation Initiative such a strong success over the last five years.
Room for improvement
Though the accreditation report was very strong, it did cite three areas in which BCS could, and are continuing to work on, improvement. The first area included strategies to address academic improvement in the growing diverse populations and economically disadvantaged groups.
The number of BCS students on the free or reduced lunch program is 55 percent, and there are 64 different languages spoken in the homes of BCS students.
Blunt pointed out that BCS is one of 14 school systems participating in the North Carolina Global Schools Network, an effort to expand global awareness and world language education. Mandarin Chinese is being taught in seven BCS High Schools and 11 international teachers from 10 different countries will be working with students at 10 different schools during the 2012-2013 school year. In addition a new Spanish immersion pilot program was started at Glen Arden this year.
The BCS Board of Education has recently approved a free breakfast program in order to address the hunger issue which affects academic achievement for many students.
Another area of improvement suggested by the report included more measurable outcomes statements in the district’s School Improvement Plans and the district’s Strategic Plan. The third area of recommendation included more transparency in the area of school improvement and individual students’ progress through an electronic medium. Through Parker’s work, BCS has recently received an “A” transparency rating from the John Locke Foundation. BCS is only one of two districts in the state with an A rating.
Rhinehart said despite the criticisms of a small minority who make a lot of noise, he believes that most of the parents are happy with the efforts of the school system. “There’s always room for improvement,” he said. “We’re always striving to do better.”