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April 17, 2024

Educators hold roundtable discussion with Sen. Settle

EDUCATORS GROUP MEETS SENATOR SETTLE IN TAYLORSVILLE — Pictured above, left to right: Angela King, retired teacher and Times writer; Tina Walker, 6th Grade Teacher at East Alexander Middle School, Ryan Rowe, Science Teacher at Alexander high School, Shelia Settle, Wife of Senator Eddie Settle and retired educator, Senator Eddie Settle, Amy Daigle, Principal of Hiddenite Elementary School, Kelly This, Instructional Coach at East Alexander Middle School, Rylee Robinson, 8th Grade Student at West Alexander Middle School, Michelle Robinson, 5th Grade Teacher at Taylorsville Elementary School.

Conversation included testing, public school funding, school vouchers, student mental health, and other topics

By ANGELA FARR KING

[Editor’s Note: This article recounts the recent meeting of local educators with State Senator Eddie Settle. Times writer and retired teacher Angela King invited the guests and coordinated the discussion, which is described below in a conversational format.]

He is a freshman senator. He’s been on the job for six months. Senator Eddie Settle serves four counties: Wilkes, Surry, Yadkin, and Alexander. He grew up in Wilkes County so he’s very familiar with the demographics of Alexander County. While researching an article entitled “Shame on the State of North Carolina,” I found contact information for the House and Senate representatives for Alexander County and The Times published the information in the paper. Public educators are very concerned about the expansion of the Scholarship/Voucher program that will give more money to families choosing private schools, thus taking more funds away from public schools. This could potentially cause a huge budget shortfall for Alexander County public schools beginning in the school year 2025-26. This prompted me to reach out to Senator Settle to see if he would listen personally to the concerns of local public educators. I was impressed that he responded with a “yes” the same day.

Senator Settle visited Alexander County July 11 with his son and his wife, Shelia, who retired from education after 30 years of service. She is a tremendous asset to the senator. The team of educators was selected to sit at this discussion table based on my knowledge of their expertise and my tremendous respect for all of them in their various roles: Michelle Robinson, 5th grade Teacher at Taylorsville Elementary School; Tina Walker, 6th grade Science Teacher at East Alexander Middle School; Kelly This, Instructional Coach at East Alexander Middle School; Ryan Rowe, Science Teacher at Alexander Central High School; and Amy Daigle, Principal of Hiddenite Elementary School. Rylee Robinson also represented the student population of Alexander County. She is an 8th grade student at West Alexander Middle School.

Two major themes of concern were vocalized in this meeting: the student mental health crisis and the outdated end of grade testing regiment and scoring system. There is much more to discuss and Senator Settle has already agreed to future meetings.

It is obvious when talking to Senator Settle that he has a heart for children. He admits to never teaching in the classroom, but coached football for years. He had the opportunity to mentor several young athletes. He said he was in schools almost daily, checking on their grades and behaviors. He tells stories of taking them home from practice and he has seen kids living in some pretty dire circumstances. He said that one young man bought his own padlock for his bedroom and used his window to come and go, to keep his mother’s boyfriends out of his bedroom. He told of another boy that had never owned a bed in his life, so he made sure he had one, and others as well.

I immediately sensed that public schools could have an ally in Senator Settle and I was thankful that he took the time (over an hour and a half without rushing) to speak with us and to simply listen to us.

I began the session expecting it to be an interview format, but the relaxed interaction made it much more of a roundtable discussion. This was a question that I know many public educators wanted answers for, so this was our starting point:

“With the proposed House Bill 823 and Senate Bill 406 ‘Choose Your School, Choose Your Future,’ which will take away millions of dollars of public school funding, how are NC public schools supposed to function with such limited resources? They are looking at losing schools, athletic programs, instructional support staff, counselors, supplies, teachers, and Career and Technical Education Programs. This county has spent years building these programs to educate all children. What are the realistic expectations moving forward? How can school systems meet state mandated expectations with these losses?”

Senator Settle definitely seemed ready for this question. I am certain he has fielded it before. He had done his research prior to coming to Alexander County, so he first answered this question with a question: “I do look at numbers and I have questions for you. I look at Alexander County’s public school population and I compare it to the other counties I serve. Yadkin is the most similar with almost the same number of students being served in public schools. Alexander is the smallest (school system) of the four counties I serve, yet they have 183 students already taking advantage of the Opportunity Scholarships. Yadkin County only has 19 students receiving opportunity scholarships, even though they have many private options. Why is that? If I lived in Alexander County, that would be a question I would ask. Are the public schools competing with these other schools?”

I thought this was a fair question and I was unaware of the differences. I believe this is what many people in government must wonder when they see the numbers and they don’t know the exact situations in public school classrooms across this state. This began a conversation about why public schools are losing ground.

I said, “I will speak on behalf of my public school colleagues (Anyone can chime in here!) and say that public schools are losing ground partly because they continue to lose resources and personnel and they are dealing with a very large mental health crisis among students who are streamed directly into classrooms and they have been given no additional help, support, or training for teaching these students. They are overwhelmed and struggling to provide instruction when tasked with dealing with this crisis daily. When I say that our students are experiencing mental health issues, what do you think that looks like?”

I asked this question because many people hear the term “mental health crisis” and they automatically think of school shooters or suicides and those are very real problems affecting our schools and societies, but we all wanted the Senator and the general public to understand what severe mental health issues actually look like in classrooms daily. As I had predicted, his mind went to mass school shootings first.

At this point, several teachers shared some of the traumas they have witnessed in the classrooms that disrupt instruction. These are not isolated incidents. They feel that their hands have been tied when dealing with students who exhibit extreme emotional issues in classroom settings because of the severity of the incidents and because there are not always clear plans as to how to handle these situations. Even some school administrators lack the training needed to intervene. The teachers talked about the struggle to provide instruction to an entire class (sometimes with 28 or 29 students), while still providing the emotional support that these individual students need. It is clear when listening to them, that they have also been traumatized as teachers, not knowing how to help certain students or how to respond to certain severe behaviors, such as outbursts, cursing, yelling, screaming, getting physical, laying on the floor, and sometimes having to remove classrooms full of students due to safety concerns.

These are some of the best teachers and leaders I know, yet they sometimes feel helpless when faced with these mental health needs and we collectively told Senator Settle that they need help. They don’t necessarily want these students removed from regular education settings, although I believe sometimes that would be best for even the students struggling in these ways. They want the support they need in the form of training and more personnel.

The incidents described seemed to shock Senator Settle and he said, “I don’t know what to say about that. I really don’t know what to say. That is traumatizing to anybody.” Mrs. Settle joined in on this discussion and asked if these children ever received “one on one” assistance. We explained that this type of assistance, at least in this county, is a thing of the past, due to a lack of funding and an overstretched Exceptional Children’s (EC) Program. We also explained that there are too many severe cases in public schools to assign one on one assistants. There needs to be more training for teachers and more personnel directly in classrooms to help manage these behaviors so that uninterrupted instruction can be maintained. We further explained that “After the Pandemic, students came out more traumatized than when it started because home was not a safe place for them.”

Principal Amy Daigle explained that with students out of the classroom for an extended amount of time due to the Pandemic, it has been hard to gather data that is required by the state to acquire the emotional help needed for some students. I also explained that the needs are too great for one on one assistance for every child that is experiencing severe emotional trauma. That help needs to come in the form of additional personnel and relevant training for teachers and administrators on the front lines. Social and Emotional Learning Programs (SEL) in schools are not the answer. They are simply not enough.

The Senator explained that there was more money coming to mental health this year in the state budget, but that does not necessarily mean that there will be more money coming directly to school systems to address the rising mental health needs of students. He also explained that there is more money coming in the budget for education in North Carolina than there has ever been before. With that being the case, we wanted to know how we could get funds directly into schools for their most pressing needs. In my experience, more money does not always mean more money directly going to students.

I also said, “Most people are not teaching for the money, although we know North Carolina does not pay teachers well and the lack of pay is certainly a lack of respect. These teachers are not here complaining about their salaries. If they can have the support, the respect, and the help for their children that is needed, they can retire knowing they accomplished something positive for their students. Teachers are begging, clawing, and pleading for help and sometimes it seems that no one in the government is listening.”

Ryan Rowe from ACHS then talked about the problem at the core of these mental health issues being the breakdown of the family unit. He said, “Every one of these issues always seems to go back to the home life of these students and it’s always the education system that gets stuck solving a problem that is not the education system’s problem to solve. As society goes, so goes education, and we’re stuck asking for money and trying to figure out how to parent other people’s children.”

Rowe is absolutely correct. Many parents at home are neglecting their parental duties and relying on technological babysitters that are only compounding the mental health issues for children with seedy chat rooms and dangerous social media sites. Many students are lost in a dark internet world and most parents refuse to combat this issue. To add to this problem, when parents are contacted for behavioral issues, there is often little support. How to hold parents more accountable and create more respect for teachers was touched upon in this meeting and will definitely be part of the discussion at our next meeting.

At this point in the meeting, Principal Daigle brought up the matter of testing. The students we had been discussing are in regular education classes daily and are still judged and evaluated by the same unrealistic testing criteria that has been in place for years with no additional support for their learning. She asked, “How can we find the funding to support the classroom teacher and her (emotionally traumatized) students while still dangling the carrot of test scores on a test that will be basically impossible for many of these children to pass?”

We also discussed how these test scores affect the evaluations of students, teachers, and administrators. Using one tool to evaluate all is certainly not good practice.

Another important point brought up by a team member was that some students who would not typically fall behind are struggling because their instruction is being interrupted by students with emotional outbursts. Their teachers are being occupied with these behaviors when they should be instructing students. So are these students really tiered students (flagged as “at risk”) or have they just lost important instructional minutes?

Settle listened to facts about the poverty in Alexander County and the abundant drug use and neglect among families. He noted that “Alexander County does not own the poverty level students. They are in other counties as well.” He mentioned that other counties have clothing banks and food programs for their families below the poverty level and educators at the table shared about resources that are provided in this county as well.

Michelle Robinson made a good point when she asked if it was fair for school systems to have to rely on their local Good Samaritan and faith-based programs to assist students with basic needs because the state government does not provide all that they need, especially when it comes to basic resources and assistance in learning at school.

Many students in Alexander County and across the state are simply in survival mode and this prompted further discussion about the flawed testing system in North Carolina. Amy Daigle brought up the “80/20” rule for school performance grades, explaining that school accountability is measured based on 80% proficiency (passing with a 3,4, or 5) and 20% growth. That means that students who struggle to pass these tests do so partly because some of them cannot focus on the intense testing procedures and expectations due to trauma, neglect, or abuse. Robinson spoke of trying her best to keep kids awake during the long hours of testing. Some of them manage to grow tremendously, but their scores aren’t heavily weighted in the final grades given to schools by the state. This makes some schools look like failures when, in fact, they are not.

Kelly This has been an instructional coach for years at Taylorsville Elementary School and will be at East Alexander Middle School this year. I consider her an expert on the testing process and expectations for students. She had this to say about testing in the third grade. “We were just talking about our 3rd graders who have to take a reading test with 6 passages. There are at least 8 questions per passage. They have to do that in a 3 hour time block. First of all, working for three hours is not developmentally appropriate for them, but just to be able to read those words at 115 words per minute, which is considered proficient for an 8 year old, takes them half of their allotted time. That doesn’t account for the time they need to reread and look back over it and find answers. Also, they are taking this test on a Chromebook, which they’ve had for one year and they have not even become proficient on using their Chromebooks yet. It doesn’t make any sense. We teach them to read books. We teach them to annotate, to take notes and then we give them a computer to take their tests.”

She added, “And they’re 8 years old. They don’t have the ability to read at that speed and generate those answers. I don’t have a problem with them being tested. I think it’s important that we know if we are doing a good job and we are giving them a good education, but I think the test should be more common sense. I don’t know who to talk to about this, but I’m happy to talk to someone who could (help make changes to our testing process).”

Something disturbing that I learned during this meeting from Kelly This is that students who make less than a 3 on their end of grade tests are labeled “NP,” which stands for non or not proficient. This was very unsettling to me and upsetting to everyone at the table. No child should ever be labeled with anything that begins with the word “not,” because that cuts deep and can have lasting repercussions. I would encourage parents and educators to revolt against this practice.

Senator Settle said, “I believe if you polled people in this area, about 90% would say exactly what you are saying.” We all agreed with him on this point and that is what instigated the meeting in the first place. We knew we just needed someone with some influence in the government to hear us and to hopefully take some action on these pressing issues.

Senator Settle has agreed to further meetings with this group of educators and possibly others. He is also willing and enthusiastic about visiting Alexander County Schools. He said he likes to tour schools and talk individually to teachers about their successes and their concerns. It is my hope that this will take place in the coming school year and that teachers will be given opportunities to speak with him directly about their needs.

I felt like Senator Settle may now have a clearer picture of some of the issues facing public school teachers. Toward the end of the meeting, Settle did ask why he hadn’t been contacted before about these needs and my explanation to him was that many times people in education feel they will not be heard, so they don’t always ask. I believe he has proven to us that he will listen. When I sent him a “Thank You” email for coming and listening, I asked him if he would be willing to have future discussions like this one and if he would be willing to visit Alexander County Schools. In his reply, he stated, “As you mentioned, we discussed many issues and topics and agreed on concerns. It is my desire that we can collaboratively work toward addressing the concerns and improving the various issues. Perhaps resolving a few.

“I welcome both of your suggestions and look forward to engaging in discussions with your team throughout the coming year. We enjoy visiting schools, meeting staff, and hearing about your successes and goals. As we all know, there is much to do when the goals are focused on our children and future generations. Let me know when your team is ready to gather for our next round table discussion,” Settle stated.

This reply gives me hope for my friends in public schools. I will always do my best to support and provide a voice for anyone who truly seeks to put Children First. I am thankful for other educators who are willing to do the same.

2 Comments

  1. Melinda Glenn on July 26, 2023 at 7:23 pm

    Thank you for bringing these issues to the forefront and searching for answers. This is an excellent group of educators from Alexander County who always represent us well!

  2. Cindy Sellers on August 1, 2023 at 3:51 pm

    So just fund the schools! Pay educators and staff. The rest is BS.

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