Working to help teachers help teachers

By Todd Cohen

CARRBORO, N.C. — High-need public schools — those with a large percentage of students living in poverty — typically lose at least half their teachers every year, compared to a loss of 15 percent of teachers at the average U.S. public school.

To help reduce teacher turnover, the Center for Teaching Quality in Carrboro has begun working on a pilot project with 12 high-need public schools in South Carolina to make it easier for excellent teachers to share their teaching strategies with colleagues.

“Not just in the U.S., but in the best-performing systems of education around the world, you will find very sophisticated systems of teacher development,” says Barnett Berry, founder and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality. “We know that the systems that work the best create opportunities for teachers to develop and use their knowledge of children to solve their problems of practice.”

Founded in 1998 as the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, at the time an arm of General Administration of the University of North Carolina System, the Center in 2005 became a separate nonprofit and got its current name.

It operates with an annual budget of $3 million and a staff of 15 employees, and is shifting its business strategy to at least double, from 15 percent now, the share of revenue it generates from fees for services, and to reduce, from 85 percent now, the share it gets from foundation grants.

The Center works with state education agencies, schools districts, other nonprofits, businesses, and networks of schools to find ways to help good teachers become leaders in efforts to improve public schools.

The Center supports professional development of teachers that helps them measure their impact and share their knowledge with other teachers and administrators in “virtual communities of practice” and through systems of “collective leadership,” Berry says.

“Most teachers are very much siloed from each other, with very few opportunities for even our our best teachers to share their expertise with their colleagues,” he says. “We have excellent teachers and excellent teaching going on, but it doesn’t spread from classroom to classroom.”

Realigning education resources to support more professional development also is  critical, Berry says.

In Singapore, with a school system that ranks among the best in the world, teachers have 15 hours a week to plan with their colleagues, Berry says. In the U.S., most teachers get less than two hours a week for planning.

And for every 100 educators in the Singapore schools, 75 are teachers, compared to 45 to 50 in the U.S., he says.

In Jefferson County, Ky., the Center has worked with 30 effective teachers to create online study groups to share their teaching expertise with 1,500 other teachers in the school district, which includes 180 schools, 6,000 teachers and 100,000 students.

And two years ago, the Center worked with teachers in 15 schools in the Daytona school system in Volusia County, Fla., to improve their own teaching practices and those of their colleagues. In just one year, Berry says, student achievement in those schools improved 10 percentage points.

But metrics alone will not be enough to persuade elected officials, educators or the public about the value of shifting resources — such as reorganizing the school day and making more time for teachers to lead — to enable good teachers to teach another, Berry says. Also critical, he says, is finding ways to help good teachers use technology and social media to raise awareness about their work and its impact on students.

“We’re certainly cognizant of the mountain we’re trying to climb,’ Berry says. “We cannot do this alone.”

Connecting families and schools to support kids

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — What are schools serving for lunch? How nutritious are the meals? Who makes up the menu? How do they decide which foods to serve?

Recognizing that children do better in school when their food is more nutritious, the North Carolina PTA is working with the Wake County School Health Advisory Council to find ways to get parents to work more closely with schools to make sure children eat healthier food, both in school and at home.

A key goal is to help parents better understand how their kids’ schools make the decisions behind the meals their cafeterias serve. The effort also aims to help parents see the impact of nutrition on academic performance, get them more involved in the food decisions schools make, and offer classes on preparing healthier meals at home.

Improving connections between families and schools is critical to helping students succeed, says Virginia Jicha, president of the board of directors of the state PTA.

“Research shows that in schools where the community and parents are involved in the education of their students, the students are more successful,” says Jicha, a fourth-grade teacher in Fayetteville.

Founded in 1919, the state PTA works as an advocate for 130,000 members of local PTAs that represent 40 percent of North Carolina’s public schools. Its top priority is school funding, particularly an increase in per-pupil spending, which Jicha says has not kept pace with rising public-school enrollment and costs.

The state organization operates with four full-time employees and an annual budget of $500,000, with member fees generating half the revenue, and grants to support health initiatives nearly the rest.

This fall, to diversify its funding, the state PTA will kick off its inaugural annual fund campaign, which aims to raise about $5,000 its first year, and $10,000 to $20,000 a year within three years, Jicha says.

A key job of the state PTA, which in November marks the start of its 99th year, is to provide training, tools and support for local PTA affiliates, says Catherine Peglow, who joined the state PTA in July as executive director and general counsel.

Late this summer, the PTA hosted training sessions for new leaders of local PTAs on their roles, their affiliates’ operations, and programs the affiliates and statewide group provide.

Local PTA leaders earned how to use the state PTA’s membership database — both for electronic collection of membership fees, and as a tool to get information to members and communicate with them.

And leadership in getting families engaged in schools was the focus of a training session at the School of Business at Campbell University.

Throughout the school year, the state PTA offers 11 webinars on topics ranging from the role of a local PTA treasurer to raising money and serving as an advocate.

It also fields questions from local affiliates on topics like recruiting new members, or forming partnerships between families and local schools to identify student needs and find ways to address them.

In May, at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the state PTA will host about 200 members at its annual convention, held the past two years at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro.

The PTA also hosts a statewide arts competition, with students creating arts projects — based on a single national theme based on suggestions from students — in art forms ranging from dance, film and writing to music, photography and visual arts.

And the national PTA, which supported the introduction of school lunches throughout the U.S. in 1946, now is spearheading efforts to encourage parents to partner with local schools to make school meals healthy and to promote healthy behavior.

Making children’s potential a reality is the PTA’s mission, says Peglow, who most recently was director of continuing education for the North Carolina Bar Association.

Student success in school — including higher literacy and overall academic performance — depends on improving students’ health and wellness, she says.

A critical step, she says, is to get more parents more involved and active in working with schools to make sure children are healthy and ready to learn and succeed.

Working to help kids see that school makes sense

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — Odds are good that four in 10 young people in Durham are not on track to finish high school, complete a post-secondary education, or get a job by age 25.

To help find out why, a community-wide effort to help get kids back on track tasked 25 local high school students to identify the biggest barriers to success for young people.

Those barriers, the students found after a year of querying parents, teachers and other students, are inadequate counseling and racial bias.

“People with better economic resources have more exposure and knowledge about career opportunities,” says Meredythe Holmes, executive director of Made in Durham, a nonprofit that tasked the students and is guiding a community-wide effort to create an “education-to-career” system for young people ages 14 to 24.

The goal is to make sure all Durham kids finish public school and post-secondary study, and get jobs.

Made in Durham, founded in 2015, recruits partner organizations, and helps organize and coordinate the way students get career-related support from those partners — businesses, schools, government and nonprofits.

It raises money for the overall effort, supports its work, and tracks its impact.

Durham’s future depends on making sure more students are ready to take on jobs in a growing and highly competitive local marketplace driven by health and life sciences, says Holmes.

And that will depend on the active and connected participation and support of all its partners, she says.

Students succeed when they see the connection between school and work, she says. Connecting more businesses with students — in and outside school — will help more students see the real-world value of school.

And recruiting more companies to create more internships, apprenticeships and job-shadowing programs will help set more students on the road to good, local jobs, says Holmes, who was founder and CEO of Monarch Services, a Durham-based regional staffing agency.

Made in Durham was the outgrowth of two think-tank studies and a community-wide task force that identified marketplace hurdles young people face in Durham, as well as possible solutions.

Operating with five employees and a board, advisory teams and “action” teams that together field about 100 corporate and community leaders, the nonprofit raised a total of nearly $2.7 million its first three years, and aims to raise nearly $1 million this year.

In an early effort, in 2015, Made in Durham worked with the city, public schools and other partners to more than double — to 200 — the number of jobs in a city summer internship program, and to expand the program beyond mainly jobs in city and county government to include private-sector jobs.

Made in Durham also formed Durham Futures, a collaborative that now includes Durham Public Schools, Durham Tech and two other nonprofits that together provide alternative education for about 250 school dropouts.

Made in Durham was instrumental in a decision by Durham Public Schools, starting with ninth-graders this school year, to require that all students graduate within four years with a career plan and high school diploma.

It also secured funding for two career counselors to work with students served by the four Durham Futures partners serving dropouts.

And it is working to recruit more partners to serve more students , including more companies to send more representatives to schools to talk about careers, and to increase the number of corporate internships, apprenticeships and job-shadowing opportunities.

All those efforts depend on the community collaboration that Made in Durham coordinates, Holmes says.

The year-long study by students on barriers to success, for example, as well as feedback from career and technical-education staff in the public schools, underscored the fact that students have been “falling through the cracks” in a system that could make more effective use of research that shows the value of career advising for all students, she says.

That value can added through requiring career counseling in the schools, and expanding the network of community partners, she says.

Virginia and Colorado have enacted laws requiring career advising, and Made in Durham would like to introduce similar legislation in North Carolina.

For students exposed to career options, and educated about them, schools are relevant, Holmes says.

Without those resources or other motivation, “schools become irrelevant, so many drop out,” she says. “Our goal is to make school relevant.”

Aquarium Society casts wider net for donors

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — In 2008, the total number of students visiting North Carolina’s three aquariums and a facility at Nag’s Head peaked at 70,000.

Last year, in the face of cuts in spending by local public schools, that number had fallen to 50,000, and many of those who did visit were from more affluent communities or schools with strong parent-teacher associations able to raise private funds to support field trips, says Jay Barnes, director of development for the North Carolina Aquarium Society, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that generates private support for the state-run aquariums.

“Schools that were left out were poor schools across the state,” says Barnes, who served for 20 years as director of the aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores before joining the Society as development director in 2009.

To help more students visit the aquariums, or to bring aquarium programs to schools or offer them through distance-learning technology, the Aquarium Society this year launched an “Aquarium Scholars” program to raise $800,000. The campaign so far has raised over $400,000 that will be used, starting by next spring, mainly for mini-grants to teachers in the poorest schools for field trips to an aquarium, or for am aquarium to bring its programs to schools.

“Many of these programs we offer are STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs,” Barnes says. “We’ve got live animals and technology, and our facilities are located on a beach or sound or marsh or coastal habitat, making the aquariums wonderful destinations.”

Formed in 1986, the Aquarium Society in 2016 generated $7.4 million for its facilities, which are located at Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores, Roanoke Island, and Jennette’s Pier at Nags Head.

The Society generates revenue from sales at gift shops it operates at the facilities; from about 21,000 household memberships; from concessions such as food and photography vendors; from in-kind support and private support; in lease revenue through an arrangement with the state that helped finance expansion and renovation of the aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores; and in investment income.

From 2000 to 2011, the Society raised a total of $15 million in campaigns that were part of a $100 million effort to renovate all three aquariums, nearly tripling their size, and to reconstruct Jennette’s Pier at Nags Head.

Now, for a new round of renovations, the Society raised $5.6 million for the Roanoke Island aquarium, and is planning to raise at least that much for the Fort Fisher aquarium.

In 2013, working with consulting firm Capital Development Services, the Society also launched its “Living Treasures” campaign, an ongoing fundraising effort that includes an annual fund, planned giving, memberships for small businesses, a donor-prospecting program, and a range of sponsorship opportunities.

The Society over the past three years more than doubled the number of total individual, corporate and foundation donors, Barnes says, and last year received a total of about 1,000 donations.

It has received five commitments for planned gifts, and enlisted about 45 small business members.

It also hosts three “Under the Sea” events a year for prospective donors, typically held in private homes in locations from Raleigh and Greensboro to Figure Eight Island and Duck, with another scheduled for October 19 in New Bern.

“These Under the Sea events are helping us to grow a broader base of support for the aquariums for the future,” Barnes says. “The aquariums’ value to the state is beyond just the educational impact and the environmental stewardship they promote. They also serve as an important part of the state’s tourism economy, with more than 1.3 million annual visitors.”

Harvesting books to boost child literacy

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — Growing up in Atlanta, Ginger Young became a “voracious reader who thrived in childhood because of books, and took great comfort and solace and inspiration from books.”

Then, starting in the mid-1990s and living in the Triangle, she says, she took her own children to the public library once a week so they would have a “childhood full of books and reading and vocabulary development.”

But she also saw a troubling gap in kids’ access to books based on their parents’ income.

Children’s opportunity to get books “should not be connected to how much money their parents make,” she says. “There is no reason every child in our community can’t grow up in a book-rich home.”

So in 2011, Young tested an idea: She asked friends and colleagues to donate their own children’s books. In return, she promised to distribute them to children who otherwise might not get a chance to read or own a book.

Within two weeks, her garage was stocked with bags and boxes filled with 6,000 books. By the end of the month, donations had grown to 10,000.

That was the start of Book Harvest, a Durham nonprofit that now has distributed nearly 700,000 books through home visits to families with newborn babies, and through schools, nonprofits and other partners.

Operating with an annual budget of $728,000, eight full-time employees, and nearly 500 volunteers, including 100 who volunteer regularly, Book Harvest works to get books into the hands of children up to age 18, and to promote literacy for kids and families.

It operates four programs in the Triangle that provide a “continuum” of books and literacy support based on a child’s age.

It also is developing plans to serve more people with its own programs, and find ways for other communities to adopt those programs.

And it is heading a collaborative effort in Durham that is part of a national initiative in over 300 communities to improve reading proficiency by the end of third grade.

In Durham, the effort aims to increase to 70 percent in 2025 from 45.7 percent in 2016 the number of children who read on grade level at the end of third grade — and to 66 percent by 2025 from 33.2 percent in 2016 the number from low-income homes who read at that level.

Key to the developing the most effective local strategies to inspire children to read will be parental leadership, says Young, founder and executive director of Book Harvest.

“The people who can best chart that path are the parents,” she says.

Book Harvest gears its delivery of books and literacy support to a child’s age.

Its Books Babies program, for example, is based on research that shows 80 percent of the brain is developed by age three, “which means we have to really front-load book access for families where there’s a newborn,” Young says.

So, through referrals from partner agencies such as Durham Connect, a nurse home-visiting program, Book Harvest enrolls newborns and their families starting six weeks to two months after birth.

It provides them with books. And three to four times a year for the first three years, and then two to three times a year for the next two years, it visits families’ homes and offers literacy coaching for parents.

Currently, 260 families are enrolled, each getting 20 books a year.

To address the challenge of summer “learning loss” for students while school is out, Book Harvest offers Books on Break, a program that provides 10 free books at the end of the school year the children select themselves — a total of nearly 71,000 books this year — for nearly 19,000 students at 44 public schools in Durham, Orange and Chatham counties and Chapel Hill-Carrboro public schools.

Once a week, through its Community Book Bank, it also stocks shelves it has set up in the waiting rooms of about 65 partner organizations– such as social service agencies, health clinics, and after-school and tutoring programs, mainly in Durham and Orange counties — where children can select books and take them to build their own home libraries.

That effort, which was Book Harvest’s initial program, this year will distribute just over 100,000 books to children.

And at Books to Go events it hosts three times a year, teachers and officials from about  80 schools and nonprofits that work with middle-school and high-school students can visit Book Harvest to pick books the students then can select and keep for their home libraries.

This year, that effort is expected to put at least 30,000 books into the hands of students.

This year, Book Harvest also launched a service that twice a week sends text messages to parents who subscribe, offering tips on reading to children, and on summer reading opportunities at libraries and other locations.

Partnerships are central to Book Harvest’s work, Young says.

In partnership with the Durham Housing Authority and Durham County Library, for example, Book Harvest aims to “make sure every child that lives in each of DHA’s eight housing communities, has a big stack of books next to their bed.”

It also provides “literacy-enrichment activities” for those children through after-school and summer programs in those eight communities.

Ultimately, Young says, improving child literacy depends on raising community awareness of the need, and getting the community involved in addressing it.

“It’s all about civic engagement and the public narrative about what is acceptable for our children,” Young says.

“There are hundreds of thousands of books, and thousands of book donors and volunteers who are well on their way to creating book-rich environments throughout our community,” she says. “What we are going to do next is to take that transactional experience of book provision, which is what we started with, and turn it into how we transform outcomes for children, to go from transactional to transformational.”

Students find hope at the WELL

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-May, at the Wade Edwards Learning Lab in Raleigh, the families and friends of 19 Wake County high-school seniors attended a “Senior Signing Day” to celebrate the students’ hopes for the future.

Unlike signing events at which professional sports teams announce their “picks” of top college athletes, the WELL event underscored the high-school students’ academic achievement: All will graduate this year, with 17 going to college — roughly half will be the first in their families to move on to post-secondary education — and two entering military service.

Over the past four years, all 19 students participated in programs at the WELL, a nonprofit that provides after-school and summer support in academics and youth development to students facing challenges in school and life.

“Schools cannot do this all by themselves,” says Betsey McFarland, executive director of the WELL. “There are not enough teachers, not enough hours, not enough money. They need community programs like ours.”

Formed in 1996 by the late Elizabeth Edwards, who was married to former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, the WELL is named for their son, Wade Edwards, who was killed in an automobile accident in April 1996 at age 16 while a student at Broughton High School.

At first, the WELL provided only a computer lab, tutoring and career workshops, and only for Broughton students.

But in the five years McFarland has headed the organization, it has added programs and expanded beyond Broughton.

In the school year that ended a year ago, the WELL served over 900 students — triple the number five years ago — from 22 high schools, mostly in Wake County.

Operating with an annual budget of $345,000, a staff of three full-time employees, and 13 volunteer tutors, the WELL gets 40 percent of its operating funds from the Lucius Wade Edwards Foundation, a charitable foundation that had $1.87 million in assets in 2015, according to its 990 annual return on file with the IRS.

Catharine “Cate” Edwards, the daughter of John and Elizabeth Edwards, serves on the boards of the Foundation and the WELL.

Located across St. Mary’s Street from Broughton, the WELL houses a 21-desktop computer lab, open weekdays from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., that typically attracts 20 to 25 Broughton students at any given time.

Over the past school year, by appointment, about 120 students from throughout Wake County also worked with volunteer tutors from the WELL.

About 150 Wake students enrolled in a one-day prep course the WELL offers one or two Saturdays a month throughout the school year on the SAT and ACT exams many colleges require for admission.

Another 50 to 60 students participated in Hi-Tech Teens, a workshop the WELL offers one or two Saturdays a month that focuses on computers and computer programming.

To boost youth development, the WELL also offers a weekly program on life skills such as professional etiquette, and a weekly discussion session on social and emotional issues.

It also connects students to community service projects, and assigns them to host is own events and lead tours of its computer lab.

Now, aiming to make its programming more accessible, the WELL hopes to raise $20,000 to $30,000 for a vehicle to pick up students throughout the county and bring them to its offices, or $35,000 to $40,000 to offer its programs in partnership with another organization that serves teens but does not focus on academic support.

To help raise those funds, particularly from individual donors and corporations, it has created a strategic fundraising committee, chaired by its board chair, Jaime Kulow, a vice president at Bank of North Carolina.

“The goal is to encourage more individual donors and more corporate participation around our mission,” MacFarland says.

And with the challenges growing both for schools and at-risk students, advancing that mission is critical, she says.

While the graduation rate in Wake County totals 87 percent, for example, only 65.8 percent of students who graduate enroll in college, she says.

“There’s so much focus on early childhood education and third-grade reading, which is absolutely important,” McFarland says. “But if our students continue to live in poverty, continue to be subject to crises in their life, continue to be in schools that can’t serve some of their greater needs, they can pass all the third-grade reading tests they want, but they’re still going to get to high school and they’re still going to be behind.”