Dr. Angela Hairston started as superintendent in September 2019. She sat down with FOX8’s Lindsay Tuman to talk about where the district is now and how she plans to grow it.
Dr. Hairston says the school district has a lot of strengths, including strong involvement from parents, the school board and supportive leaders from the city and county as well. She is also proud of the options the district has for parents and students.
“We have a choice program, a vibrant choice program, that we want to continue because you know that choice allows us to personalize education for students. We also want to make sure that students who opt out of choice have great opportunities as well,” Dr. Hairston said.
Making sure there are consistently strong schools across the district is part of her goal right now.
According to the North Carolina Department of Instruction’s most recent report card for the school district, there are 21 low performing schools in the district. It reports 46% of third through eighth grade students in 2018-2019 were not proficient in math. and 45% of students the same age were below grade level in reading.
The superintendent has a focus on getting those scores up, particularly when it comes to boosting literacy.
“All children should be on grade level. It’s emotional because you know their future is going to be tough. You can’t imagine a child in seventh and eighth grade, how they must feel, sitting in seventh and eighth, looking at a passage they’re not able to understand, or plow through or respond to questions on the other end. That has to be devastating. And so it’s one of my passions. One of my personal goals and mission statements is that every child has to be on grade level by third grade and no later than fourth grade. And that’s not some children. That’s every child,” Dr. Hairston said.
To reach that goal, she says in part they are looking at reworking the curriculum. She also says making sure the right training and resources are in place is important to help students.
Dr. Hairston says making sure the district is bringing in and keeping the best teachers is an important factor to improving education. Right now WS/FCS says 15% of its teaching staff leave every year, which equates to 540 teachers, and there are currently 30 unfilled openings for licensed teachers. In an effort to help, the district is pushing for a Quarter Cent Sales Tax that is currently on the ballot. It would also lower the property tax, and the sales tax is not applied to things like gas, groceries, prescription medication or rent.
The sales tax would add an additional 13 million dollars to education. That money is planned to be used to give teachers a 2,000 to 3,000 dollar supplement increase. Currently, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools teachers have the lowest supplement in the state for major urban areas. They get a $4,251 yearly supplement. Teachers in Guilford County get a $4,751 supplement. In Durham County, the supplement is $7,005, and in Wake County, it is $8,720.
“Teacher pay has been at the top of the agenda almost for every district across the nation. It’s hard to recruit good teachers and great teachers. It’s hard to retain great teachers because of pay. And we want to be the employer of choice. That used to be our tagline, our motto. And unfortunately because of teacher pay we have not been able to say we are the employer of choice in many instances,” Dr. Hairston said.
She says this is important because the district is not only competing with other school districts to hire these teachers. There is more competition now.
“We’re also competing with other industries, other agencies who now hire teachers for a variety of reasons. They find teachers are good with staff development. Their critical thinking skills certainly are tools that they look for. We want to keep our teachers. We have teachers leaving for higher-paying jobs,” Dr. Hairston said.
But the quarter-cent sales tax and teacher pay is only part of the picture when it comes to making sure employees have a fair salary. She says the district also has to make sure its dollars are being allocated appropriately for classified staff, including school nutrition staff, teachers’ assistants and bus drivers.
“Nationwide, there’s a shortage of bus drivers. But our board of education and our community as a whole has indicated we want to address that. We want to make sure that our bus drivers are paid well and they’re supported as well.” Dr. Hairston said.
The superintendent says those efforts to retain bus drivers don’t stop at pay. That’s why she says she also met with the staff to make sure all of their needs are being addressed.
“I had quite a good meeting with several of the bus drivers. And I heard things like work conditions, you know teaching, giving better coaching when it comes to student behavior. Interacting with schools. That communication pipeline has to improve,” Dr. Hairston said.
She says she also recently began a salary study for district staff to make sure all staff are being paid appropriately.
She said another part of improving education for students is improving what happens outside of the classroom as well.
“So many of our students do not have the support structures in place for a variety of reasons. And we are educating the whole child. And we also know that mental health has been a topic of concern for many of us. We’ve sort of ignored a lot of mental health challenges that children can experience. And we have started to improve in those areas as well,” Dr. Hairston said.
That’s why she’s also pushing to hire more school psychologists and social workers.
Another plan she wants to push forward involves partnering with more organizations in the community. She wants to make sure students will have the ability to learn skills and trades.
“That’s certainly an initiative that we’ve already started here. To get children in cue for internships and apprenticeships and have the right experiences for them, ” Dr. Hairston said. “We also focus on skill trades, and that’s a passion for me as well. So often our jobs in plumbing and electrical work have been marginalized. And unfortunately, we pay for that, don’t we? We want to make sure that children have access to all of the trades. From the schoolhouse to Forsyth Tech.”
Dr. Hairston is working on a strategic plan that should be finished by March. That will also provide some focus and direction on issues that need to be prioritized for the district.