WS/FCS Superintendent Reflects On First Three Months, Sets Goals For District
The new leader of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School system is just a few months on the job and faces major challenges — low test scores in some schools, buildings in dire need of updating, and the racial and economic inequities that persist across the district.
Before coming here as superintendent, Angela Hairston spent more than 30 years in public education in Virginia and Georgia. She’s the first African-American and second female to officially serve in this role.
WFDD’s Keri Brown recently spoke with her about her plans.
The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School system recently made a list it doesn’t want to be on. The district has eight schools that qualified for the Innovative School District. The rankings are based on low test scores. The program allows the state to gain control over these low-performing schools and turn them over to charter school management companies.
Superintendent Hairston is confident all of those schools will be off that list in three years. She has a strategy but says it will also take a lot of support from the community.
“The first thing we are looking at is our kindergarten early readiness score. You have to look at the score to realize that some of our children entering kindergarten are ill-prepared. They’re just not school-ready,” says Hairston.
“Working with United Way, working with our community agencies, our local churches, our local daycares, we need to really work to improve language skills, and so we start there. And then we have to be sure that the curriculum for those schools is taught. And then we have to really embrace the concept of wrap-around services,” she adds.
School Choice And Segregation In Schools
In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools, there’s a relatively unique system for providing options for students. Not happy with your nearby residential public school? In theory, you’re guaranteed enrollment at one of three others within your zone. WFDD reported recently that this limited school choice has actually exacerbated issues of segregation since its implementation. A majority of the schools considered low performing on the state’s recent list have higher minority populations and face several poverty challenges.
Hairston says she values the choice options in her district and has no plans to change the zoning process right now, but she’s looking into the issue.
“I have not looked at the demographics other than visiting schools to understand the rationale behind it, so we did enlist the support of an agency to look objectively at how our choice program has impacted our school attendance. There may not be any changes, we just need to understand it,” says Hairston. “But people don’t get into those conversations too much when every school is high quality and able to deliver services to children appropriately. That’s our goal right now. We need to understand the why. But I believe in quality schools for every child regardless of the choice they make or the zone in which they live.”
Hairston also wants to give students more choices with class selection. She conducted student surveys and urged the school board to support her proposal to expand the district’s infusion program, an alternative to a mandated African American studies class that some community members wanted. Hairston says the issue could come up again, but for now, it’s a good place to start.
“The children indicated to us we were more likely to take African American studies, Latin American studies, Native American studies, other ethnic studies courses if they were full credit. So based on their feedback, we moved the courses to full credit,” says Hairston. “There are tons of courses we can require children to take but I think oftentimes, we fail to have faith in our children. So I want to demonstrate faith in our children that they will take the course that’s most appropriate for them to receive information about diversity, history of various minority citizens.”
The school system is the fourth largest in the state and like many districts, capital needs are a big concern. There are older school buildings like Ashley and Brunson Elementary that have had mold and other issues. The booming western part of the county is also creating challenges for schools like Meadowlark Middle and West Forsyth High School. Hairston says she’s visited schools across the district and sees the need for more investments.
“We will prepare our bond packages for the next bond referendum, our request to our taxpayers. We will start working on that information in the spring, keeping in mind that anybody who is in a mobile trailer we want to try to address that,” Hairston says. “But also I want everyone to understand that class sizes by law will be decreased in the next year to two years. We will not ask for waivers. We will actually be decreasing those class sizes, so we look forward to having some conversation with our community about what the impact might look like to them.”
Hairston just finished up a community listening tour. She plans to continue conversations with employees, including teachers, administrators, and bus drivers district-wide.
Follow WFDD’s Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news