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July 4, 2020

Two asterisks: Looking back at renewal status of RSS in pandemic year

By Carl Blankenship
carl.blankenship@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY – This year was set to be an important one for Rowan-Salisbury Schools: the first year in which its renewal status was district-wide.

But for people who have children or family members in school, they may not have noticed.

A school year usually wraps up with some fanfare. Proms lead quickly into graduations for seniors as the younger students finish up final projects and celebrate with end-of-year field days and awards before largely disappearing into the summer until everyone comes back in August to start the process over.

This year, there were few clues that classes ended last week. Schools were already empty and had been since March. All of the end-of-year events were canceled, modified or postponed.

RSS Superintendent Lynn Moody says this school year and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be talked about in education forever. It was an important and transformational year for education across the country because of the pandemic, but district-wide implementation of Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ first-in-the-state status of renewal also marked a departure from how most school districts are organized.

Renewal takes freedoms afforded to independent charter schools in the state and gives them to an entire district rather than individual charters. That freedom allows the district to set its own calendar, use more of its funding as it sees fit, hire outside of normal bounds and change curriculum.

Schools closing to contain the pandemic presented some setbacks, but by the end of the year the district approved the individual renewal plans for every school, with the exception of Henderson Independent.

Chief Strategy Officer Andrew Smith, who said he was happy “to talk about anything other than COVID at this point,” said one-page summaries approved in the prior year do not contain the full scope of the work the schools put in to develop the plans.

“That required the teacher-led design teams at all the schools to be meeting on a frequent basis,” Smith said.

The summaries represent weeks to months of work. During the fall, teachers traveled all across the country to explore some of the most innovative and effective practices to bring back to RSS. The plans focused on how each school intended to use freedoms afforded by the renewal legislation that fit in with the district’s vision for meeting the needs of its students.

“A lot of things we learned during the school year I think confirm thoughts that we’ve had for a very long time,” Moody said. “The situation with the pandemic really brought things to a whole new light.”

‘Volunteer their attention’

One of Moody’s sticking points is moving toward education that meets students where they are and abandons the required standardized testing that has been the standard for quantifying student progress for decades. Shortly after the pandemic began to shut down public life across the country, the federal government suspended required standardized tests and gave states the option to cancel them.

“I think we already knew that we can mandate students to come to school or attend school, but we’ve always known they have to volunteer their attention,” Moody said. “During this pandemic, we saw it at an all-time high because students weren’t actually coming in.”

A new challenge the district ran into was how to measure student success in a system that is divorced from the traditional standardized tests. In an attempt to address the issue, the district discussed earlier this year and announced in late 2019 its own accountability model.

A major part of that model is an exit survey for outgoing seniors. The district has a goal of making sure every student has a plan when they leave high school whether they are enrolled for higher education, enlisted in the military or employed when their school career ends.

The district also wants to measure interpersonal skills and progress toward a student’s life goals. Smith said during the “baseline year” the district wanted to figure out what success looks like.

Exit surveys

This was the first year the district gave an exit survey to seniors to measure how many of them had a plan, but the pandemic complicated that process.

Director of Accountability Kelly Burgess said participation will not be as high as the district hoped because students were out of the classroom. Under normal circumstances, the seniors could be given the survey at school, but this year they were asked to complete it remotely.

Burgess said 1,114 seniors responded to the survey, but the district is in the process of verifying how many of those surveys were filled out correctly. Even without a final participation rate, she said the data will still be valid.

“We need to improve our processes, and that would have needed to be done under the best of circumstances. So, there would have been a little asterisk in the record books to begin with, that this was our baseline year for communication collection,” Burgess said. “Now, there are two asterisks next to this in that it is our first year and under extremely unusual circumstances.”

The district has faced another setback on the state level because funding was held up to fund a study by N.C. State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation to report about the successes of the district to the state legislature.

The $300,000 in funding was included in draft state budgets last year, but no budget passed the general assembly.

Beyond renewal

Changes this year extend beyond renewal. In the past few months, the way the district feeds kids had to be completely overhauled.

“It’s been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done as a leader,” said Nutrition Director Lisa Altmann.

Altmann, who has worked for the district for 20 years, said serving summer meals is her passion. This year, the district has taken meal delivery after the shutdown and adapted it to summer meals, resulting in delivery several times each week the number of meals it would on a normal year.

Altmann said she likes to be on the cutting edge of school nutrition, and an emerging idea is ways to keep students in the classroom with their meals rather than in the large groups associated with cafeterias.

“I have no idea what the options are going to be, but we have already started on our end thinking how can we meet students in the classroom and give them a choice,” Altmann said, noting there are already innovative meal models in some of the district’s schools.

Faith and Enochville Elementary Schools are still in limbo. COVID-19 sidelined talks about school consolidation, but the district created formal closure studies for the two schools, which are the latest the RSS Board of Education has looked at for reducing a surplus of seats and reducing operating costs.

The board agreed to move forward with consolidating Knox Middle and Enochville Elementary schools into one K-8 and previously consolidated Cleveland and Woodleaf Elementary schools, but most of the conversations about other closures and consolidations have been abandoned after public pushback.

The issue was placed on a recent BOE agenda to keep it in the board’s conversations.

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