Turnout light for school ‘walk-in’ in Forsyth County

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Hobart Jones watches Victoria Beamer's kindergarten class as they do their morning movement and learning exercises, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2013 at Petree Elementary School. Jones was one of the community members who visited the school for the WS/FCS's Walk-In Day. (Walt Unks/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. —  Judy Salisbury was shocked when she stepped into her granddaughter’s third grade classroom at Sherwood Forest Elementary School on Wednesday.

There was Hervey Ann, working out math problems – on a computer.

“Can you believe they’re sitting at computers?” said Salisbury. “I am just blown over.”

Salisbury said she’d been to Sherwood Forest — which her grandson Alden, a first-grader, also attends — for performances and other after-school activities. She hadn’t been into a class, though.

“I couldn’t even begin to function with the kids,” she said. “It’s so different.”

That’s the reaction education officials were expecting from classroom visitors during Wednesday’s “walk-in” event. For two hours Wednesday morning, the public was formally invited to visit any Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school and observe a class.

“So much of what teachers do and schools do every day can’t be easily articulated,” said Theo Helm, school system spokesman. “You really have to see it to appreciate it. They (teachers) have a very difficult job, and they do a very good job at it.”

Helm said the event went smoothly Wednesday, though turnout varied from school to school. While some had nearly a dozen visitors stop by, other schools had no visitors.

“We’d always like to have more people if we could,” he said.

Showing support for teachers

The walk-in was the first in a series of events the district is planning to help show support for teachers. Helm said others will be planned after the first of the year.

The walk-in event spawned from talk of a proposed teacher walk-out earlier in the month. In the end, teachers did not walk out of their classrooms but other schools held similar walk-in events in an effort to make a statement about changes made to public education during the last legislative session.

“This was very well-timed and very much-needed,” said Brad Royal, principal at Jefferson Middle School.

Royal said that while teaching has long been a thankless job, this year has been especially tough. The continued freeze in teacher pay, the ending of bonuses for advanced degrees and removal of teacher tenure came on top of a new, state-mandated curriculum.

“So it’s nice to have someone acknowledge the sacrifice you make,” he said.

Seventh-grade language arts teacher Matt Fossa said he thought the walk-in helped teachers feel supported. He said it took a negative – the proposed walk-out – and turned it into a positive event while still letting teachers make their point.

“We’re committed to our students, but we also care about our own well-being too,” he said.

Fossa said he feels like there is a misperception that tenured teachers didn’t do their jobs. Providing tenure and the annual pay increases spelled out in the state’s salary schedule are a matter of respect, he said.

A ‘very worthwhile’ event

The event coincided with American Education Week. The N.C. Association of Educators is encouraging schools across the state to provide opportunities for the public to visit during the week and see how classroom demands and dynamics have changed.

Despite low turnout in some places, Ann Petitjean, president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators, said she thought the event was successful.

“It was not a huge turnout, but I think it was very worthwhile,” said Petitjean, who visited 10 schools Wednesday. “The people I did run into that were visiting schools were smiling and happy.”

Petitjean said she was glad to hear several local state legislators and school board members also made a point to get into schools Wednesday.

Public education saw a great deal of change during the last legislative session, including budget cuts, cuts to teaching assistant positions and the end of tenure for teachers. Teachers have been unusually outspoken about the issues over the last six months.

Republican majority leaders have pushed back. When the walk-out was turned into a walk-in, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake, issued a joint statement that said schools should “not serve as marching grounds for political protests orchestrated by unions.”

Tight state budgets were cited for the cuts to education spending.

A recent poll conducted by High Point University and the Greensboro News & Record Poll found 74 percent of Guilford County residents would support a tax increase to raise teacher salaries, while 23 percent would not and 4 percent didn’t know or refused to answer.

“There is so much is going on that’s negative, with the budget and career status and all the things we hear about all the time,” Petitjean said. “It’s really important people get to see the power and the beauty of public schools. It’s almost a miracle teachers can do what they do, but they’re doing it very well.”

By Arika Herron/Winston-Salem Journal

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