3/21/19 How’s ABSS doing?

Alamance-Burlington School System Superintendent Bruce Benson addresses the Alamance Citizens for Education’s Education Summit on Wednesday, March 20, 2019.

Woody Marshall / Times-News

Alamance-Burlington School System Superintendent Bruce Benson addresses the Alamance Citizens for Education’s Education Summit on Wednesday, March 20, 2019.

How’s ABSS doing?
Alamance-Burlington superintendent lays out challenges, solutions at education summit
By Jessica Williams, The Times-News 3/21/19     
Reprinted with permission.  

Alamance-Burlington Superintendent Bruce Benson used Cookie Monster to discuss graduation rates and teacher turnover Wednesday, March 20.

Studies show students can pay attention to a lecture for one minute for each year of their age, so Benson’s hour-long keynote speech at Alamance Citizens for Education’s 2019 Education Summit was broken up by music, audience polling — and yes, Sesame Street videos.

In between the fun, there were chunks of serious data.

For example, the district’s four-year graduation rate is 81.3 percent, but — within that — some high schools have graduation rates as low as 68.8 percent, while others graduate 100 percent of students.

Teacher turnover shows a similar pattern.

While the district as a whole touts a teacher turnover rate of 13.5 percent, certain Alamance-Burlington schools are losing 40 percent of their staff from year to year while others have rates of turnover as low as 2.71 percent. Thirteen classrooms currently are staffed with long-term substitutes.

Absences are a huge concern as well.

In 2017–2018, 750 certified staff members had more than 11 absences — not including vacation time and holidays — during the 180-day school year. Most of these absences occurred on either Mondays or Fridays.

Again, these data varied wildly by school.

At some schools, nearly 90 percent of certified staff members were included in this category. At others, the percentage was as low as 19 percent.

And, finally, test scores:

According to the data Benson presented, only 55.5 percent of schools met or exceeded expected performance in math, and only 77.8 percent met or exceeded expected performance in reading.

“There’s an inequity here that we need to address as a school system, as a community,” Benson said.

Solutions

In an effort to recruit and retain qualified teachers, the district is turning to a “total rewards” model of marketing.

Since ABSS can’t control teacher pay or benefits, Benson wants them to focus on what they can control: recognition and praise, workplace climate, professional development opportunities, etc.

The Board of Education is considering an incentives package for the district’s three Title I middle schools — Turrentine, Graham and Broadview — that would offer bonuses for signing on, then staying and helping the school improve test scores.

But beyond recruiting and retaining teachers, ABSS has to ensure those teachers are actually showing up for school.

Central Office began collecting teacher attendance data and holding principals responsible for it, and only 150 certified staff members have had more than 11 absences in 2018–2019.

“All we did was call it out,” Benson said. “We said, ‘Look, this is not appropriate, and as building-level leaders you have a responsibility to make sure your school is staffed, and just because somebody put in a request to have the day off doesn’t mean you have to grant having the day off.’ You’ve got to look at that total picture, and just bringing that to principals’ attention, … we’re in a better place than we were a year ago.”

But even if every school had a certified teacher in every classroom who maintained perfect attendance, there would still be a problem.

Part of the reason for the district’s poor performance grades is that there’s a breakdown between what teachers are teaching and what the state expects students to be able to do on a test, Benson explained.

“I had a conversation with a principal recently and we were talking about performance of students on [tests], and the principal said to me, ‘Well, my teachers say the problem is this: The question is asked differently on the test’ than the way they ask questions in the class. Well, that’s the issue right there,” he said. “If we ask the question a different way and we don’t get it right, what did we really learn? We need to make sure that we’re all on the same page about where the standard is and make sure we engage kids at that level.”

To provide teachers with the tools needed to do just that, Williams High School will host a three-day Teaching and Learning Symposium in July for roughly 500 ABSS teachers and administrators.

They’ll be paid for their time — though Benson emphasized that pay isn’t as important to teachers as many believe it is. They’re more interested in learning how to help their students.

As a perfect example of that point, ABSS 2018 Teacher of the Year Tiffany Helton followed Benson’s speech with an inspirational one of her own.

“When our kids are successful and when our kids have these small moments of success, that’s not just theirs, and that’s not just their families’, that belongs to all of us,” she said. “These kids, most of them, are going to stay in Alamance County, not because they have to, not because they’re stuck; they’re going to want to. And we have to invest early to be sure that what we’re turning out is something we want to keep around. And in the event that they go off to other places, let’s be proud to say that ‘we grow’d that one right here.’”