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NC Education Watch: Who’s Been Naughty or Nice?

By, Lisa Baldwin – With Christmas around the corner, North Carolina Students First, launches its second annual Naughty & Nice list, chronicling some of the excellent actions – and poor decisions – made by the North Carolina General Assembly and Buncombe School Board in 2016.

Nice! School choice is increasing in North Carolina. All Buncombe County high schoolers (even those homeschooled) can take advantage of free classes at AB Tech for 16-18 year olds and get college credit! Opportunity Scholarships mean $4,200 to attend a K-12 private school, if the public school is failing to meet student needs. More students apply for these (applications open on Feb. 1, 2017) than are available, making a lottery system necessary. Five charter schools, including two with high schools, attract many more students than they can accommodate. Buncombe also has more homeschoolers per capita than any other county in North Carolina. More than 10% of Buncombe students are homeschooled. Public schools must respond to the competition by upping academics and vocational programs.

Naughty! The Buncombe County alternative school, Community High, will be torn down and rebuilt in Swannanoa, a less than ideal location in the eastern part of the county. Students have to be bused to their “home” high school and then to CHS, shortening their school day by over one hour. It would make more sense to use Woodfin Elementary, centrally located just north of Asheville. This tiny school of 150 students could easily be redistricted, allowing these students to fill empty seats in nearby K-4 elementaries, giving them access to more learning resources. Alternatively, the Community High students could attend special vocational programs at their home high school; “schools within a school” are the norm in North Carolina. There are many options not being discussed by the school board.

Naughty! In October, the news broke that Buncombe’s school superintendent, Tony Baldwin had failed to disclose conflicts of interest. He appropriated money and contracts to his sister’s organization, WRESA. Again, without reporting his conflict of interest to the school board, he recommended hiring his son at A.C. Reynolds High School and then moving him to the STEM High. He also gave contracts to two companies that employed his other son. Supt. Baldwin should have stepped aside and allowed the asst. superintendent to make the recommendations. He went further to give Erwin High and Community High education contracts to the math specialist’s lesbian partner, Peggy Baker. Ms. Baker’s background includes serving as a locomotive mechanic, union staff member and community liaison in the Commission on Human Relations under the late Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago.

Nice! The federal Common Core standards were “repealed and replaced” by the North Carolina legislature but it hasn’t happened. Common Core-based curriculum is still in place. However, President-elect Trump’s selection for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, said that putting “kids first” means “expanding choices and options to give every child the opportunity for a quality education regardless of their zip code or their family circumstances. This means letting states set their own high standards and finally putting an end to the federalized Common Core.”

Naughty! Enrollment is in decline but the Buncombe County school board, with county commission approval, continues to build additional schools. No one can say ‘no’ to spending when it’s “for the children”! The real beneficiaries seem to be the real estate industry and construction contractors. Four of the 6 county school districts now have intermediate schools, taking 5th graders out of the elementary schools and 6th graders from the middle schools. The weak argument is “over-crowding”, in spite of a district loss of over 1,000 students. According to state guidelines, none of the Buncombe schools is over-capacity. But the state doesn’t account for band rooms that hold 60 students and special ed classrooms with only a handful. Taking this into account, Avery’s Creek Elementary is the only school that might be considered crowded. The Roberson District actually could have used a fourth elementary school, not an intermediate. The best solution to unbalanced school populations is to re-draw attendance lines at the kindergarten level, so older students don’t have to change schools mid-stream. The costly intermediate school model has failed our children with too many transitions to new schools and parents not vested in a two year program; the short timeline makes it nearly impossible to build a sense of community. Construction money can be spent on learning rather than brick and mortar with permission from the legislature.

Nice! On the Nice List are hardworking teachers, who deserve a round of applause. Many put in extra hours daily to ensure every child receives a year’s worth of learning. Although they are not paid bonuses for extra duties like administrators (as much as $16,000 for some principals), they show their care and concern for educating our children on a daily basis. The state-approved raises for all teachers and administrators, upped North Carolina to number 7 in the country for state-funded teacher pay, adding an additional $1 billion since Republicans gained control of the legislature. The Buncombe County Commissioners also voted unanimously to raise the county teacher pay supplement. As a school board member, I repeatedly asked the board to stop blaming the state and ask the commissioners to increase the county portion of teacher pay. They finally did it.

If parents and taxpayers take the time to attend school board meetings, speak in public comment or email school board members, the Nice List can only get longer. It takes an engaged public to ensure students come first. Stay up-to-date at https://www.facebook.com/buncombestudentsfirst/ or email lisabaldwin4kids@gmail.com.

Buncombe’s Intermediate Schools Fail To Measure Up

Buncombe’s Enka Intermediate School for 5th and 6th graders was not built for the students, but for the self gratification of politicians and bureaucrats.

Throwing reason, common sense and self-control aside, the Buncombe County School Board and County Commissioners unanimously voted to move ahead with constructing the school, using valuable tax dollars that could have been spent on teaching and learning.

Driven by feel-good emotions, these overseers of the public good ignored an important fact: Enrollment in Buncombe County’s traditional public schools has been in rapid decline. The school board proclaimed that the 5th-6th grade school was supposed to solve an overcrowding problem; however, this was a problem that no longer existed. Yes, Enka Middle School was NOT overcrowded. From 2011-2015, the middle school’s enrollment declined by 150 students. The published brick and mortar capacity (not including modular classrooms) of the school is 1,018 students (1,190 according to the state formula.) This past school year there were only 910 middle school students. But this year, the 6th graders from the middle school will be moved to the new intermediate school, so the middle school will only be at 50% capacity with about 600 students.

This fourth intermediate school (5th-6th grades only) in Buncombe County, was dedicated last Thursday and opened on Monday to students. There is only one other school like this is in the state, and for good reason: This education model fails every test for academic excellence.

In a day and age when schools that span six to nine, or even thirteen grades, continue to prove themselves as superior models, Buncombe takes multiple steps backwards. By chopping up education into small segments, research shows students lose up to 6 months of learning every time they transition to a new school.

The four Enka elementary schools will now house Kindergarten – 4th grades, with all feeding into the Enka Intermediate School for 5th-6th grade. Because band and other electives start in 6th grade, great expense is incurred (an extra $2.2 million had to be obtained from the county commission) to hire these vocational, foreign language and music/arts teachers for the 6th graders at the intermediate school. Then just as students adjust to the intermediate, they are wisked off to Enka Middle School for 7th-8th grade (where more elective teachers are needed), and then 9th-12th grades at Enka High.

Buncombe’s other three intermediates have shown that academics suffer. All three have posted failing school performance grades (below a 70.)

Parents are not vested in two-year schools. Getting PTO’s (parent-teacher organizations) started has been difficult. When Koontz Intermediate opened, the school superintendent’s sister had to be recruited to lead the PTO.

Any unbalanced school populations at the elementary level could have easily been solved by adjusting attendance lines at the kindergarten level. So as kindergartners enter school, some may be shifted between Pisgah Elementary, Hominy Valley, Candler and Sand Hill-Venable elementary schools. Many districts re-draw these attendance lines at the elementary level every four years to maximize space and free up tax dollars for teaching and learning. Building more and more expensive schools that have high operating costs is not the answer.

At the Intermediate School’s dedication/ribbon-cutting, there were multiple “pat ourselves on the back” speeches. The school superintendent (whose salary/benefits are costing taxpayers in excess of $230,000 per year) said the $30+ million Enka Intermediate School is “designed to pay homage to the traditions and history that have made this community great.” As a reminder of the old American Enka plant that provided livelihoods for thousands, some of the old bricks from the plant were used in the construction. A “clock tower” and slanted roof lines mimic the industrial complex.

The school is located in the Enka Commerce Park with other factories and the landfill that reminds us of another legacy left behind by American Enka – coal ash and toxic chemical waste. The landfill waste threatens Hominy Creek and presents safety concerns for humans. Chemicals have self-combusted on the property and several exceed maximum safety levels. Thirty tons of coal ash from Enka’s electric power plant was buried there daily. A lawsuit has been filed in an attempt to stop the landfill from being used for youth softball fields. Of course, your gracious commissioners donated $1.3 million taxpayer dollars to the private developers of the athletic fields…

To recap, the new intermediate school (5th-6th graders) will only have 610 students and Enka Middle will be at 50% capacity with only 7th-8th graders. This is one of the worst education models for students. Breaking up their schooling into segments is the antithesis of building a school community with consistency. Ironically, the Franklin School of Innovation (a public charter school across the street from the new intermediate) is housed in modular classrooms, yet parents, who want a more science-oriented curriculum for their children, are applying en masse. No one seems to care if the 6th-12th grade school is bright and shiny new, but as one of the guest speakers at the Enka Intermediate dedication intoned, “People are the heart and soul of the school.” Many parents are fed up with the status quo and common core standards which have dumbed down teaching and learning. School “empire building” is not the correct response to competition from charter schools and opportunity scholarships, instead, adopting models like the expeditionary learning style at Franklin School or a classical education model is the answer.

Until this happens, Buncombe will continue spending valuable teaching dollars on new buildings and their upkeep. Ironically, a new alternative high school in Swannanoa will be built next; it is for public school students county-wide who are struggling academically…

‘The Kite Runner’ Decision: A Bold Move To Attack Parental Rights

For Immediate Release: An Open Letter To The Media Regarding
‘The Kite Runner’ Decision
Contact: Lisa Baldwin 828-243-6590
July 2, 2015

At a special called meeting today, the Buncombe County school board accepted a school district review committee’s recommendation to keep ‘The Kite Runner’ on the reading list for all high schools in the district.

Cindy McMahon, school board member said, “I am grateful that this process has happened in our community and that so many of us have read this book and are talking about it. And this is what democracy is about.”

After making this statement, McMahon and the rest of the Board unanimously voted to keep the book on all high school reading lists which means the Board will not allow parents at any Buncombe high school to challenge ‘The Kite Runner‘. This decision was a slap in the face of democracy and parental rights; parents should have the right to offer input into their children’s education.

This decision is about more than a sexually explicit novel (graphic descriptions of child rape/sexual assault) written at a 6th grade reading level. It is about disregard for academic rigor and the proper guardianship of our children.Many academically rigorous books could have been chosen, such as NYT Bestseller, ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’, that address the Islamic culture but don’t contain sexually explicit details of child rape/sexual assault.
 
Some board members called taking the book off the list, censorship. This is not about book banning or censorship but judging whether a book is suitable for whole class instruction. The book has stayed in school libraries, public libraries and bookstores.
 
Other board members felt opting out was a fair option. In general, opting-out is not a good solution because there is great value in class discussion. This situation forces an unequal education, unless there is a significant group opting out. It can also set up the student who opts out to be ostracized and bullied. 

Sincerely,
Lisa Baldwin

-- 
Lisa Baldwin, M.S.
Buncombe Students First 
828-243-6590 
www.buncombestudentsfirst.wordpress.com

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. 
Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What The Asheville Citizen-Times Didn’t Disclose…

Buncombe’s School Board Policy allows parents to question supplemental materials used in the classroom. And that’s exactly what I did when my child told me he would be reading The Kite Runner in 10th grade Honors English class instead of the time-honored classic, All Quiet on the Western Front.

When I offered a compromise, the teacher and adminstration ignored my request. Below I detail how I asked to continue reading the classic, All Quiet on the Western Front, comparing and contrasting the WWI soldiers experience with that of modern warriors in Afghanistan/Iraq, using appropriate excerpts from The Kite Runner and other books.

Interestingly, when the teacher (and the administrative entourage) met with me, there were no lesson plans presented or any verbal explanations on exactly how the book in question, The Kite Runner, would be used in the classroom. The low reading level, mature adult themes (homosexual rapes of children, extreme cruelty and violence, murder, profanity demeaning to women, and suicide attempt) didn’t matter to the teacher, only that the book was about Afghanistan. I expressed concerns that the book description she gave didn’t fully disclose the adult themes nor did it ask parents to sign a permission slip. She expressed that this would be the first time she has taught the book in the classroom.

After the principal contacted the media, I followed up my response to the Asheville Citizen-Times reporter with the documentation below.

The article in the newspaper :http://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2015/05/01/school-suspends-use-kite-runner-following-complaint/26736581/

From: Lisa Baldwin <lisabaldwin4kids@gmail.com>
Date: Fri, May 1, 2015 at 4:32 PM
Subject: The Kite Runner Issue
To: Julie Ball <jball@citizen-times.com>
Cc: Joshua <jawtry@gannett.com>, “Ponder, Brian” <bponder@ashevill.gannett.com>

Hi Julie,

Thanks for calling today; I wanted to follow-up before you finished the story. Please include that The Kite Runner is a 6.8th grade reading level (lexile) book but is classified as an adult book, not a young adult novel like All Quiet on the Western Front (9th grade reading level.)
Emails below include:
  1. The compromise I suggested.
  2. Request for full disclosure to parents of the adult themes in The Kite Runner. I also requested that a permission slip be sent home to parents; an “opt-in” form rather than an opt-out form.
  3. The link to an article about the situation from Andrea Dillon’s blog at the bottom which details the meeting with the teacher (Ms. Sellers, the principal, and Eric Grant, ELA Specialist, also attended.)
While I understand All Quiet on the Western Front has profanity and wartime violence, it is not in the same category as The Kite Runner (homosexual rape of children, sexual profanity demeaning to women, graphic descriptions of extreme cruelty and violence, including murder, beatings and a suicide attempt.) 
My best,
Lisa Baldwin

Compromise on English Honors II book, The Kite Runner

April 30, 2015

Dear Ms. Sellers,

I am concerned by your silence when I asked for transparency and full disclosure to parents of the issues involved in replacing a classic young adult novel in the English Honors II curriculum with an adult-themed book written at a low reading level.
Perhaps you are still mulling these facts over, trying to make a good decision. I have been thinking, too, and have a suggestion that may help.
Has the question been asked as to why students can’t continue to read the time-proven classic All Quiet on the Western Front, comparing the WWI soldiers’ experience with the modern war in Afghanistan/Iraq? Appropriate excerpts from The Kite Runner could be used along with excerpts from other books like The Lone Survivor (http://amzn.to/1EFSorK) or the bio of Malalai Joya (: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malalai_Joya), a courageous woman elected to Afghan’s parliament 

As a parent, my main concern is that classic novels are being removed from reading lists without parent input. Sometimes the classics are not easy to read but teach us perseverance and other lessons.
I know ACRHS has always had high standards for Honors English. I would support using appropriate excerpts from modern literature while continuing to read and examine the classics.
The compromise I have proposed doesn’t lower the bar but would enrich the class discussion for all students.
Thank you for considering my thoughts and I hope to get a response soon.
Lisa Baldwin
On Wed, Apr 29, 2015 at 10:06 AM, Lisa Baldwin <lisabaldwin4kids@gmail.com> wrote:

Ms. Sellers,

I remain concerned about the disingenuous process used to let parents know about the change from a Young Adult to an Adult fiction book for Ms. Bowman’s 10th grade Honors English students (from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Kite Runner.) No mention of this was made at the Open House and it was never posted on Ms. Bowman’s website. I understand she was not certain the book would be approved (for obvious reasons) but important information has not been disclosed to parents.
I am asking that you please contact parents immediately with:
  • a revised form, asking for parents’ permission for their child to read the book (opt-in form), and
  • full disclosure of the reading level (grade 6.8), the name of the 9th grade reading level book being replaced (All Quiet on the Western Front) or give parents a choice (All Quiet on the Western Front or The Kite Runner); include The Kite Runner’s graphic descriptions of extreme cruelty and violence, including more than one episode of the homosexual rape of children. The Kite Runner also includes profanity demeaning to women, murder, beatings and a suicide attempt. Let parents know this is an adult book, not a young adult book.
Please do the same for Ms. Latini’s class; I understand there are adult themes in the A Thousand Splendid Suns book as well. My letter is posted below with the details of our meeting and a request for the names and positions of all those on the MTAC committee who approved this book.
Sincerely,
Lisa Baldwin
Andrea Dillon’s blog about the meeting I had with the administration: http://ladyliberty1885.com/2015/04/30/another-nc-reading-assignment-questioned/

Another NC Reading Assignment Questioned

Lady Liberty 1885

Former Buncombe School board member, Lisa Baldwin, recently raised an issue with school staff at her child’s high school.

The reading assignment was the book, The Kite Runner, and was given to her child in their 10th grade Honors English class.

The book, according to Baldwin’s research, apparently has a lexile score of a 6.8th grade range, yet it contains a number of sexually explicit scenes and accompanying strong language.

I’ve read this book. If you haven’t, you didn’t miss anything but here’s the Cliff’s notes.

Rape is consistent and recurring theme. It’s violent. It’s depressing. If they are using this for ‘cross-curricular’ purposes with AP World History, to which one has to ask, exactly what purposes?? Other than being set in Afghanistan, I’d like to hear this…

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