WS/FCS Superintendent Shares Vision For Improving Equity, Accelerating Learning
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools has been navigating a pandemic with a new superintendent. Tricia McManus has been at the helm since November. She’s had a full plate, with decisions about reentry and figuring out how to get struggling students back on track.
But her biggest focus is on advancing the district’s equity plan. She came to Winston-Salem after 30 years with Hillsborough County Schools in Florida addressing this same issue. She says her strong desire to fight for social justice is what led her to her new position.
One of the things that set the district apart from others is its school choice program, which has a lot of implications for diversity and equity. At its core, it allows students to opt-out of their neighborhood school to attend another one in the district, the idea being that it gives students more options if their residential school doesn’t meet their needs. But there are many parents and community groups who say this process has led to more segregation in schools.
The numbers paint a complicated picture. According to the school system, nearly 42 percent of students choosing to attend outside of their residential school are Black, 36 percent are white, and 35 percent Hispanic.
McManus says she’s still learning about the issue, and in the process of surveying district parents, specifically reaching out to underrepresented communities.
“So right now what we are also trying to figure out is where are most of the students choosing out of and if it’s a school that’s underperforming, that’s really our focus right now," says McManus. "We are working to create, to make all of our schools high performing.”
The pandemic has exacerbated another challenge that falls along the lines of equity — the achievement gap.
McManus says one way to tackle the problem is through improving literacy skills for students. According to the most recent end-of-grade testing data available, around 54 percent of third through eighth graders are reading at grade level. That was before COVID-19. McManus says the data also show disparities by race, with many Black and Hispanic kids representing a much smaller percentage of proficiency.
“That kind of achievement gap is what we have that we are paying close attention to and so as we are designing interventions for schools, designing supports for schools around literacy coaches, around people pushing into schools to help, we are resourcing differently to schools with bettering some of our higher needs schools," she says.
Her gaze is on infrastructure and resources, as well. There are school building improvements in the works, which include updates to HVAC systems and replacing water fountains with touchless systems. Investing in more technology and devices for students and providing more support for educators are also priorities.
“To truly be advocates of equity you’ve got to address it in everything that you do. So equity isn’t standalone, it’s not a program, it’s not a box you can check," says McManus. "You have to look at all of your policies and make sure that they are designed to achieve positive outcomes for every student in your system.”
One of the policies the district is evaluating is around discipline. According to data from the North Carolina Department of Instruction, short-term and long-term suspensions are down overall in schools. But students of color had some of the highest suspension rates, particularly Black males.
“We have recently started a contract with a group called Engaging Schools and we are looking at our disparities and suspension rates and we are basically about to revamp our entire code of conduct and any of our policies related to discipline," says McManus. "And we are working, pushing into all of our school to just really work on restorative practices and how are we creating restorative culture so that exclusionary practices wouldn’t even be an option. Like what else do we do? What else can we do in our schools?"
These questions weigh heavy on her mind. She's proud of what the district has been able to accomplish given all of the hardships educators, parents, and the community has had to face over the past year and a half.
“Education is a game-changer and if we as educators — and we can’t control what happens outside of everything else — but we have a lot of control about what our kids experience and over what they learn and over how successful they feel every day and what they can become," says McManus. "And so, what drives me every day is to actually prove it. Like our kids are all equally capable so the results should show that."
She says doesn’t want to sugarcoat it — there is a lot of work ahead. Enrollment is down, more students need to be involved in pre-k, and achieving true equity is a tough job. But she says in a full school year, she thinks the district’s work will bear fruit and the results will back it up.
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