Issue V: Education

We spoke to NC educators about the future of our education system.

Politics have entered the classroom with the debate of school choice, changes in Title IX policy and a call for higher teacher pay. Education draws focus to North Carolina through its research universities, low teacher pay and struggling ranking among other states. Our childhood is structured around education and can sometimes be the foundation for the rest of our lives. We spoke to educational researchers, teachers, coaches and leaders in education to learn about the challenges North Carolina faces.

We surveyed 54 North Carolinians about their opinions on North Carolina’s education system and the government should play.

An apple a day

Wanting to shape a child’s life is a theme for teachers. Some had a great teacher growing up. Others worked with kids and decided teaching was the right career choice.

“A lot of teachers have it in our blood,” Bryan Proffitt, the president of Durham Association of Educators and former history teacher, said. “I have a grandmother, a great grandmother, a great aunt, two aunts and three cousins. I come from teachers. Another reason why a lot of people become teachers is because they had a teacher that was really inspiring to them.”

Thurman Jordan, an English teacher in Durham.

Thurman Jordan thoroughly enjoys his job as an English teacher and coach at Hillside High School in Durham.

“This a job I want to get up and go to everyday,” Thurman Jordan said.

“I know people who go to work and dread every second of being there. I never had that feeling about teaching kids.”

For Jessica Odom, an Apex High School teacher, her decision to teach came from a middle school teacher and a want to give back.

“I had a phenomenal language arts/social studies teacher in sixth grade, and he really made coming to school everyday really interesting and fun,” Odom said. “He seemed to truly enjoy his job.”

Odom explained preparing her students for the future is what she finds to be most rewarding, especially when they return the next grade.

Jackie Novotny, an English teacher in Durham County.

Jackie Novotny, a teacher at Hillside, shared similar sentiments. She understands college is not a viable choice for everyone, but helping her students be able to have a constructive argument, share opinions and learn about how current events impact their day-to-day is.

“Every teacher says that, but it’s really for me teaching kids social justice, teaching them how to advocate for themselves,” Novotny said.

Odom explained providing students with tools appropriate for their career is important.

“Not every student wants to go to college or they have other avenues for how they want to pay for college, which sometimes includes the military first,” Odom said. “Making sure they’re aware of what the requirements are for these different things they’re interested in. It takes a while to really hone in on what it is each student wants for their future and making them aware.”

For Jordan, he wants his players to understand that education should be their priority — over sports. His advice hits close to home because he was offered to play collegiately but chose education.

“All my players know I’m pretty upfront with them in the beginning that my goal is to see them continue education and go to college not necessarily as an athlete.” he said. “I try to stress to them at some point sports are going to come to an end.”

“Some of them will go to college and have the opportunity to play at a professional level, but those opportunities are rare. The opportunities through your education are far greater.”

Working at N.C. State’s Friday Institute, Greg Garner is helping schools better prepare their students for careers and adulthood. His projects includes implementing a computer science and graphic design curriculum at Raleigh’s Bugg Elementary. His work is personal — he did not feel as if his education prepared him to choose a career.

Greg Garner, an educator at N.C. State’s Friday Institute.

“It’s easy to slip through the cracks, and people slip through the cracks in bad ways and that’s what seems to make the news,” Garner said. “It’s ‘Oh I wish someone intervened,’ and that’s valid, that’s really important but it’s easy to slip through the cracks in a good way. I flew under the radar. I don’t have counselors hunting me down saying look what is it that you want to do.”


Moving up a grade

Education is evolving, and it comes with much debate how to prepare our community’s youth for the future. Parents, lawmakers and educators are deciding what is the best option for kids. Educating students can come in various forms from public schools, private schools, charter schools, home school and online courses.

Michael Maher, the assistant dean for professional education and accreditation at N.C. State.

Michael Maher, the assistant dean for professional education and accreditation at N.C. State, said he thinks there is a right fit for every student. As a public university, they partner with public schools and charter schools, and he has learned and taught in public schools his entire life.

“Personally I think there’s a type of school for every child,” Maher said. “I’m a huge proponent of public schools. I went to public schools. My children are in eighth grade and 11th grade in public school made their way. I prepare public school teachers, so I believe strongly in the value and the purpose of public schools, but I understand that that’s not the right situation for some people.”

Bryan Proffitt, president of Durham Association of Educators

According to Bryan Proffitt, the president of Durham Association of Educators, these choices are diminishing the value of public schools. He explained it began with former President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education’s “A Nation at Risk” report.

“It begins this echo chamber about public schools and their failure,” Proffitt said. “This story that ‘public schools are failing, public schools or failing, public schools are failing.’ This becomes the narrative about public schools. While that’s happening, the resources that are being invested from local all the way up the national level begin to shrink. Then, they impose all kinds of testing measures, and the testing measures will tell you whatever you want them to tell you. If I’m the company writing the test, and I’m connected to the people who want to privatize public schools, I can make tests that will tell us public schools are failing.”

He continued saying charter schools are not public schools and are actually private schools.

“A charter school isn’t a public school,” Proffitt said. “A charter school is a publicly funded private school. If you call it a public charter school, it gives this illusion that you’re not actually trying to dismantle public schools when the reality is that you are.”

Novotny has seen the negative impact charter schools have brought to the Durham school district.

“We watched schools like Kestrel Heights come in as a charter school and fail kids by doing illegal things,” she said. “They had to shut down because they weren’t meeting graduation requirements set by the state. Then you say, ‘OK that’s a couple hundred kids, where are they going to go?’ Well, they come back in public schools. That means we need to get new teachers, we need to open more positions.”

Charter schools have increased vastly across the state after the 100 charter school cap was removed.

Get your No. 2 pencils

Testing has shaped the school day of students. From pop quizzes to end-of-year examinations, some say testing needs to slow down and be less important. Garner said there needs to be less emphasis on testing.

“I was having a conversation with an elementary school and we were talking about how important it is — let’s tone down testing,” Garner said. “And one of the things that really came out of that was ‘We don’t stress the kids out, we hold pep rallies, we celebrate they’re about to do well on these tests. We make it happy and fun, positive.’ What we’re really saying is when we hold these kinds of pep rallies is ‘Hey this is really important, You need to do really well on this. Look how important this is. We stopped school to have a pep rally.”

Novotny said she thinks the amount of testing is atrocious.

“If you looked at the year, we probably give 20 days of just state testing,” Novotny said. “Now add that into my vocab quizzes, add that into my formative assessments. There’s not a day of the year where they don’t have some test.”

Since 2011, every 11th grade public school student must take the ACT. Odom, who teaches 11th grade, teaches practice questions focused on preparing students for the ACT.

“I certainly recognize how they’re only one form of measuring knowledge but they’re not the best snapshot of what students are capable of,” Odom said. “It’s more about making sure they feel prepared for it. I certainly don’t talk about and teach to a test every day.”


Money on the mind

One common debate of teachers is pay. The majority of residents agree that teachers should be paid more, but getting a raise isn’t as simple when it could potentially mean a tax raise or shortfalls in other departments’ budgets. Increased funds may also come with frustrations for people who don’t have children or are paying out of pocket for their child’s schooling.

Garner has a response.

“Education is a public good and to the extent that we believe that education is a public good and education has the power and the opportunity to change our collective futures,” Garner said. “We should invest in it.”

County by county the access to recourse is different, according to Jordan. He has taught in Franklin, Wake and Durham counties.

“I see all the time the limited access to resources,” Jordan said. “I know here [in Durham], being an English teacher, the number of viable acceptable material that was readily available in Wake County — not so much here. You have to be a little bit more creative here in order to teach some of the things that you want to teach the kids. A lot of the teachers here do a great job to get projects funded, but I know that’s no where close to what I had access to when I was teaching at Holly Springs.”

Paying teachers more is not the only debate. During the 2016 presidential election, federally-funded pre-K was a part of Hillary Clinton’s campaign platform. Maher said the economic benefit of pre-K is significant.

“Every dollar that you spend on pre-K education, the economy gets $7 back,” Maher said.

Going to school

For most educators, teaching is their livelihood. Maher said few leave the College of Education once they get in.

“They realize that I thought I want to work with kids, and I don’t I want to do something else,” Maher said. “What we’re finding is the students we’re getting coming into the college have committed to becoming teachers and so they tend to stay. The big part though is getting them into the college and what we find now in the last several years is it’s harder to convince their parents. More often, I get parents who say why should I let my child become a teacher and my response to that is really around the kinds of skills that teachers develop while they’re in college.”

Jordan said he was floating the idea of being a teacher in high school, but a teacher of his advised him not to. In his college career, he went against that advice. After working at three different school districts, he knew he wanted to go back to Hillside to teach students who have a similar upbringing to his.

“In Holly Springs, it’s a more affluent area and kids weren’t as needy,” Jordan said. “They weren’t looking for anything outside of instruction teaching wise and here I have made a bigger impact because a lot of the kids don’t have access to a person who can guide them along, and it matters that I’m similar to them. I share with the kids a lot. I’m a product of a divorced household. I have an understanding of what a lot of these kids go through.”

“I spent sometime growing up with my grandparents so a lot of things the kids here are going through I have knowledge and experience in and that’s important in developing a more meaningful relationship with the kids I run across in Durham.”

Novotny said she wants to convey one message to her students: “You can’t do anything without education. You just can’t.”


Story by: Liz Moomey, Design by: Chelsea Brown

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