Saturday, November 03, 2012 12:43 AM
State superintendent runs for re-election
Atkinson pursuing higher graduation rates, summer reading resources
By Olivia Neeley | Times Staff Writer
When State Superintendent June Atkinson was first elected to the position in 2005, the state’s high school graduation rate was at 68 percent.
"This year our high school graduation rate went to an all-time high — 80.4 percent,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson, a Democrat, hopes to continue, if re-elected Tuesday, to look at other ways to increase the state’s high school graduation rate to nearly 100 percent.
"That takes a lot of work,” she said. "It takes a lot of team work.”
Atkinson faces Wake County School Board member John Tedesco, a Republican.
Atkinson said she wants to improve students’ reading progress and achievement as well. During the summer, children go home to places without books or adults reading to them daily, she said. She said one of her strategies to address reading achievement during the summer is to work with nonprofits, camps and other groups who will be able to help them provide summer reading support.
"We are fortunate that this past year, the General Assembly did give us resources for summer reading camps for third-graders who are struggling with reading,” she said. "That’s a good start. But we need to address the students’ needs during and after kindergarten.”
Atkinson said reading software also helps improve students’ capabilities and can supplement classroom instruction. "We need to ensure that every student has a digital device — iPad, computer or tablet — where students can access digital text books and resources that are much more engaging,” she said.
Atkinson said there are pockets of schools across the state moving in that direction. "Through the use of technology we can be more efficient and effective helping students learn,” she said.
For example, technology gives students access to visuals, source documents and oral histories. She said a new world of learning unveils itself.
"You can hear original speeches from former governors,” she said. "You can access documents. That saves the teachers time. Teachers constantly have to find resources.”
RACE TO THE TOP
North Carolina is one of 12 recipients of 2010 federal Race to the Top grant funding, which brings nearly $400 million to the state’s public school system over the next four years.
Atkinson said those dollars have been an "excellent” resource for the state. That money is going toward technology infrastructure and professional development for teachers across the state. She plans to continue those efforts and wants to ensure that teachers are also respected, valued and compensated well.
"Our teachers are leaders in our communities and in our churches,” she said. "They are people that contribute to individuals and to North Carolina.”
She said she will continue to work with state leaders as she has in the past. "I will be working with the General Assembly to make sure public education is in the forefront, that we have support and that public education will be the best choice for our parents and students,” she said.
Atkinson said over the past several years, the General Assembly has increased the dollars for public education.
"However, we have had an increase of 30,000 students,” she said. "North Carolina is spending $412 less this year (on each student) than it did in 2008-2009. It is important that public education use every dollar in an effective and efficient way. Money does matter. You have to have an adequate amount of money to serve each student well.”
The General Assembly directed the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to make recommendations to close one of three residential schools and consolidate blind and deaf students at the remaining schools in an effort to save $5 million last year. DPI was given five considerations to follow when making their decision.
Following an outpouring of emotion and unified effort among state and local officials here to save
Wilson’s Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf, Atkinson announced last November that ENCSD would remain open under her department’s plan as well as the North Carolina School for the Deaf in Morganton and the Governor Morehead School for the Blind. Atkinson was able to work out a deal with Wake County Schools to lease out buildings that were being under utilized on the campus.
Atkinson has made several visits to Wilson over the past year.
She commissioned the group of leaders here to think outside the box and form partnerships within the Wilson community and beyond. The goal — to drive down the cost per student and generate funds by way of under utilized facilities at the school. The Wilson community and its leaders have continued to meet throughout the months following the guidelines of Atkinson’s vision for ENCSD.
"Of course, I want the community to be the ones to make the decision,” she said. "I really think there is so much potential to be a regional school.”
She believes that there is great potential for ENCSD to be a regional school to serve as career center, a hub for math and science initiatives and a place where an immersion program can be used for both deaf, hearing impaired and public school students who want to learn more about deaf culture.
"I think it would be an enriching experience for students,” she said. "I see the eastern and western schools as models for the state and the nation.”
Atkinson said while it will take work, she believes that it will happen.
While Atkinson believes in saving the schools to further education for students, she took a different approach when dealing with both sides of the aisle in the legislature.
"I looked at it from a business point of view,” she said.
She said when she saw the budget and the underutilization of the residential schools, she believed there was some way to drive down costs, use the facilities, generate revenue and keep the doors open for students’ educational needs.
"There has to be a win here for everybody,” Atkinson said she told herself. "I started talking to the legislature.”
The plan received strong support from the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee in January. In July, the General Assembly restored $4.7 million of the $5.5 million for the residential schools, which includes ENCSD.
Atkinson said Tedesco has said that as superintendent he would give more local control to school districts.
"He’s not done his homework,” she said. "The state superintendent does not make that decision. The decision is made by the General Assembly.”
She said Tedesco also doesn’t have a record of working with any General Assembly.
"I have a record of working in collaborative effort with the Assembly,” she said.
Atkinson said Tedesco has only served as a Wake County school board member and doesn’t have the expertise in education.
"You don’t ask people for advice when they don’t have the expertise in the field,” she said. "He has created a cloud of chaos in Wake County. I have created a sense of collaboration.”
And no matter who becomes governor on Tuesday, Atkinson said she will continue to work on education as she’s always done. She said her record reflects that she can work with both Republicans and Democrats.
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