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N.C. school chief says students are being improperly promoted. School leaders disagree.

RALEIGH — State Superintendent Mark Johnson charged Wednesday that thousands of third-grade students have been improperly promoted to the fourth grade when they aren’t proficient in their reading skills.

But local school leaders argued against making policy changes that would force them to hold children back.

Johnson said “rogue” former staff with the state Department of Public Instruction have “gutted” the Read To Achieve program to allow social promotions to continue. He made the same accusations in a December memo.

Wednesday, during a State Board of Education meeting, he called for changes to how the Read To Achieve program is implemented.

“There was a law passed by the General Assembly,” said Johnson, who participated in the meeting by phone from out of town. “There were bureaucrats at the Department of Public Instruction who did not agree with that law. Through policy, they shifted what the law was intended to do.”

North Carolina passed Read To Achieve in 2012 with the goal of ending social promotion by requiring third-grade students to be proficient in reading before they could advance to fourth grade.

Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden, who was the main backer of the Read To Achieve program, echoed Johnson’s concerns on Thursday. Promoting a child to fourth grade who cannot properly read is one of the most harmful and cruel actions the education bureaucracy can take, Berger charged.

“Administrative resistance to ‘embarrassing’ students, and the education bureaucracy’s refusal to explain why a child is unable to read, has been allowed to trump providing children with the basic skill necessary for success,” Berger said in a statement. “It’s nothing short of malpractice and another example of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations.’”

State Board of Education members asked local superintendents and teachers at Wednesday’s meeting to describe how they implement the program. They argued they’re following the law while taking advantage of its flexibility to decide whether to promote students.

“You have to have both flexibility and accountability,” Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore told state board members. “If you have one without the other, then you’re losing the impact of the ability to actually make a difference individually with children. So you need to find a way to do both.”

Ending social promotion with Read To AchieveRead To Achieve has been in the spotlight in the past several months because reading scores have declined since the program began. Additionally, there’s been controversy over the awarding of a multi-million dollar state contract to evaluate the reading skills of K-3 students under Read To Achieve.

When Read To Achieve was passed, there was considerable fear that the new program would cause thousands of third-grade students to be forced to repeat the grade.

Under the legislation, third-grade students who can’t pass the reading exam at the end of the school year or qualify for an exemption are “retained” for the next school year.

The retained students are placed in an accelerated reading class or a transitional 3rd-grade/4th-grade class.

Johnson says the law was violated because many third-grade students classified as retained were placed in fourth-grade classes. He said districts then promoted many of those retained students to fifth grade, despite not passing the fourth-grade exams.

“This is the guidance that superintendents and principals were given,” Johnson said. “This is not something that we blame them at all for.”

Tensions with state board

Johnson has feuded with the state board since he was elected in 2016. He attacked the board in the December memo but said Wednesday he is not blaming the board for the issues he says have occurred with the Read To Achieve policy.

Johnson said a task force of superintendents will begin meeting this month to develop potential changes to Read To Achieve. He said the goal would be to avoid making changes that cause mass disruption.

But local school officials repeatedly said Wednesday that principals need to retain their authority in deciding whether to promote students at the end of the school year.

Mariah Morris, the 2019 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, pointed to how state law says proficiency is only one factor in determining whether a student is promoted.

“It is important that teachers have a voice in whether a student is retained in a third-grade class, working in conjunction with the parents, the administration,” said Morris, a former Read To Achieve coordinator for Moore County Schools.

Greene County Superintendent Patrick Miller warned that if the retention policy is “hardened,” more students of poverty and color would be disproportionately retained.

“Teachers, parents and administrators at the local level should have a voice in whether or not a student is retained,” he said.

Berger responded to those who argue that low-income students would be disproportionately held back by the policy.

“There is no better guarantor of intergenerational poverty than failing to educate a child. If a child cannot read properly by fourth grade, that child is significantly less likely to succeed,” Berger said. “To ignore that reality is to risk that child’s potential and perhaps sentence her to a lifetime of underachieving. It’s cruel and it must stop.”

Guilford health director plans to step down

GREENSBORO — Guilford County Health Director Merle Green has led her multifaceted agency to a point where she believes it’s time for new energy and new leadership.

So she will be retiring at the end of February from the post that she’s held since July 2005.

“The time has come. I’ve been thinking about it for several months,” she said. “All the stars aligned, as they say.”

It’s been a productive stint for her as leader of the sprawling department that handles everything from infectious disease to childhood immunizations, environmental health, well and septic permits, restaurant inspections, dental care, and rabies treatment for people with animal bites.

The department’s reputation extends well beyond Guilford’s boundaries as one that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tapped on more than one occasion as a research partner.

Its roots go back to 1911, when the health office was formed by local authorities responding to a petition from residents seeking someone who would “give his entire time to looking after the health of the county.”

But the modern-day department, with its Greensboro headquarters on Maple Street, was at a low ebb 15 years ago when Green was elevated from assistant director to the top slot.

Her appointment followed a scandal triggered by a DWI case involving then-director Ramesh Krishnaraj, a physician who had been stopped by sheriff’s deputies at 3:15 a.m. one wintry night in 2003 after driving his convertible, top down, through the Stoney Creek golf community honking the horn.

Green said in a recent interview that her first significant hurdle after being installed as director involved a pressing need to widen the skill set of the medical staffers in the department’s various clinics.

“We were specialized to a fault,” she said.

One small nucleus of caregivers focused on pediatrics, another on infectious disease or tuberculosis, others on asthma.

These limitations came to a head one day early in her tenure, Green said, when all the childhood specialists were at a conference and nobody was on hand to treat kids.

She launched a months-long effort to get the department’s medical personnel cross-trained in enough areas that it would always have someone available to treat the more common human health issues.

“So if you were doing asthma only, we were going to refresh your TB skills,” she said. “The whole thing took about 18 months because you don’t learn health care overnight.”

The department is still structured around that multi-disciplinary approach and it continues to produce results, she said.

“Every day of the week, no matter who walks in, we have people who can address their problem,” Green said. “TB, influenza, your child needs a vaccination, we can take care of you.”

Her impending departure already has triggered a nationwide search for her successor. Green’s salary is $174,583, according to county records, and Guilford leaders are hoping to hire the next director in a salary range between $130,000 and $170,000.

Guilford began advertising the opening widely last week in professional publications and other forums online, seeking someone capable of leading “highly skilled teams comprised of over 400 employees (who) care deeply for their patients and offer many programs and resources that are not typically available.”

County leaders haven’t set a deadline but they hope to have Green’s successor chosen by the end of April, said Deputy County Manager Clarence Grier.

He said that final details have not been worked out yet about how the search will be conducted, but that for such “high-profile” positions the county typically forms a panel of senior officials led by County Manager Marty Lawing to interview promising candidates.

Guilford Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston, who sat on the health board that selected Green in 2005, said her performance in the years since then has lived up to all his hopes and expectations.

During her years running Guilford County’s large and complex program, she has built a reputation for following through in every detail of what she promised and keeping the commissioners well informed, Alston said.

“That’s something that not only me, but a lot of other commissioners have noticed,” Alston said. “When she has told us something, we knew we could take it to the bank.”

Green, 62, is not a medical doctor but she holds master’s degrees in public health from UNC-Chapel Hill and in business administration from Elon University. She obtained her bachelor’s degree at N.C. Central University in health education.

She lives in McLeansville with her husband, Charlie Green, owner of L&J Fashions and Tailoring, a clothing store in Burlington.

Alston said that as a commissioner, he also appreciates her ability to work within the realm of what is possible. As an example, he pointed to the way she led the department’s recent effort to expand the limits on tobacco usage in government buildings and other properties.

The department’s goal was to modernize an outdated policy that prohibited smoking and snuff use in county buildings, but that did not address vaping and e-cigarettes. Green and other department officials sought both to add those practices to the ban and to expand the no-tobacco rule outdoors to public parks, golf courses and similar government-owned venues.

But the proposed outdoors prohibition sparked a controversy that threatened to derail the whole plan.

“She was the one that came up with a compromise for us to consider to make sure it wasn’t too overwhelming,” Alston said. “It could have been a big issue within the community with a lot of confusion and disagreement.”

The revision that was adopted did add vaping and e-cigs to the list of banned tobacco uses, but it scrapped the outdoors component.

Asked about the compromise in a recent interview, Green said essentially that half a loaf was the best option.

“So we don’t do it in one fell swoop. Maybe we do it in smaller increments,” she said.

Perhaps somewhat ironically — or maybe not, given that this is, after all, North Carolina — Green grew up on an Orange County farm where tobacco was the cash crop.

Her grandfather was a former sharecropper who amassed enough wealth to buy 87 acres where the family also grew cotton and raised hogs and cattle.

But the scientific evidence that has emerged since then about tobacco and its health effects has dramatically changed her attitude toward the golden leaf.

“I look at it as your lungs are going to be affected. I’m a public health director,” she said.

Green said that among her proudest accomplishments at the health department’s helm was the 2011 opening of the Evans-Blount Community Health Center, a clinic the county built in southeast Greensboro to replace private medical providers who had moved elsewhere.

“We asked the community first,” she said of the clinic’s planning process. “The community said if you create a health center, ‘Yes, ma’am, we will use it.’ And they have.”

Green said that public health has expanded into areas that she never imagined when she first stepped into the job. A key expansion has been “family centered care,” where the department works with an entire household to provide necessary medical treatment but also to educate family members about the elements of a healthy lifestyle.

“We’ll even incorporate the children,” she said. “You don’t start at age 15 or 22, you start at age 3.”

Public health also has expanded to recognize violence as a public health threat and to view its prevention as part of the overall health-care mission, she said.

She said the next major challenge that looms is devising ways to prevent social media and the digital world from wreaking havoc upon the nation’s health by turning Americans into overweight couch potatoes with emotional problems that stem from too much screen time and too little face-to-face interaction with fellow human beings.

She also envisions public health expanding into programs that help people emerging from prison and group treatment centers break free from the behavioral cycles that have trapped them in dead-end lifestyles.

And she said administrators who come after her will have to focus even more attention on children in their first few years of life and on the increasing population of healthy retirees who want to stay that way.

Her own plans for retirement don’t include full retirement or what most people would consider that to be. She said she plans to help out in her husband’s business more, as well as seeing through to completion a new home that they are building in Graham.

She said she also plans to offer her services as a corporate trainer, providing guidance to companies and other organizations with motivational training programs that increase productivity.

But there will definitely be more time for leisure, she said, noting that she and Charlie have planned a trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands less than a week after her last day in her Maple Street office.

It’s also wonderful, she said, that her extended family has kept their Orange County farm intact for three generations.

“I just want to have more time to go back to the family farm and look at the deer,” she said.

On a crowded Super Tuesday, here's why N.C. is still a place for candidates to be

CHARLOTTE — When North Carolina lawmakers bumped the state’s presidential primaries to early March, they said they wanted the state to play a bigger role in the nomination process.

But will it matter as much as they hoped?

North Carolina’s March 3 primary is part of a crowded “Super Tuesday,” with 16 contests that include those in the delegate-rich states of California and Texas.

And Super Tuesday will come just three days after South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary, which itself caps a crucial February sprint through Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire.

“Certainly with both California and Texas the possibility is there that it will get lost in the shuffle,” said political scientist Josh Putnam, a Charlotte native who runs Frontloading HQ, a site that tracks the nomination process.

For years North Carolina’s presidential primary fell in May, often too late to impact the nomination. In 2016 it was in mid-March, two weeks after that year’s Super Tuesday.

In the past year most Democratic candidates have visited North Carolina. A handful have recently ramped up their state campaigns.

Former Vice President Joe Biden named a state director. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts announced senior campaign officials; she has a staff of 20. And former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who opened a state headquarters in Charlotte last month, has almost 100 staffers in the state, according to a campaign spokeswoman.

While most candidates are focused on Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Democrats say they can’t overlook the Tar Heel State.

Of all the Super Tuesday states, only Texas and California offer more delegates than North Carolina’s 110.

“They all understand it’s going to be a delegate race,” said Charlotte’s Ray McKinnon who, as a member of the Democratic National Committee will be one of the state’s dozen “automatic” delegates. “If campaigns aren’t already on the ground getting their message out they’re making a mistake.”

California dreaming

California is Super Tuesday’s biggest prize with 416 delegates, almost twice as many as Texas. But that doesn’t mean candidates will flock there after the early contests in February.

“The theory that everybody is going to come marching into California and spend all their time here and all their money, I’m not so sure that’s the best thing to do,” said Bill Carrick, a long-time California Democratic consultant and a S.C. native. “It’s a very daunting task to figure out how to run a campaign here.

“Candidates worry about California. Then reality sets in and they kind of disappear.”

Super Tuesday comes on the heels of the South Carolina primary, leaving a narrow window for candidates to focus on North Carolina or any March 3 state. But North Carolina has a couple of advantages.

One, it’s close to South Carolina. And two, unlike California or Texas, it’s a general election battleground.

Politico reported this week that candidates have reserved $4.1 million of air time for South Carolina, including over $1 million each for Biden and Warren. Some commercials are likely to air in TV markets that overlap the two states. And candidates will hit places such as Rock Hill and Greenville, S.C., where they’ll attract N.C. media.

As in South Carolina, a big proportion of North Carolina’s Democratic voters are African American. More than six in 10 S.C. Democratic primary voters are expected to be black; in North Carolina it’s 47%.

And analysts say closely divided North Carolina — site of the summer’s Republican National Convention in Charlotte — will be prized by both parties in the fall.

“If you’re looking ahead to the general election, laying the groundwork for the fall campaign is a critical component to whoever gets the nomination,” said political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College. The top candidates “will need a strong infrastructure in the state post-primary.”

Bloomberg spending

The state’s biggest spender is the candidate bypassing the February contests.

Along with his growing staff, Bloomberg has spent nearly $5 million on TV ads in North Carolina, according to Advertising Analytics.

That’s part of a $170 million national ad blitz, the company says. On Saturday, the campaign will open new field offices in Asheville, Winston-Salem and Chapel Hill.

“When in our lifetimes have we seen that kind of investment in a North Carolina primary?” said Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson of Raleigh. Among Bloomberg, Warren and Biden, he added, “it seems like a three-way primary in North Carolina ...

“The question really is, what does momentum look like coming out of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina?”

It’s been more than three decades since Super Tuesdays entered the nominating process. In 1988 it was designed by Southerners to find a moderate nominee but resulted in a split decision with Jesse Jackson, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis dividing most delegates, with Massachusetts Gov. Dukakis going on to win the nomination.

That year Carrick ran the campaign of Democrat Dick Gephardt, who quit the race after capturing only his home state of Missouri.

“Everybody has theories about how they’re going to handle Super Tuesday,” Carrick told the Observer.

“The truth is that most of these theories over the years haven’t worked out for anybody. And you’re thrust into the reality that’s been created by the first four states.”

An interesting article in today's newspaper

Feeling blue: In a season that Tar Heels hoops fans want to forget, can it get any worse? Oh, yeah. Page C1

N.C. schools superintendent makes $928,000 'emergency purchase' to keep using Istation testing program as legal fight continues

RALEIGH — N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson has made an emergency purchase of more than $900,000 so that elementary schools can continue to use Istation while a legal fight continues over the program.

North Carolina elementary schools were left without a program to test students under the Read To Achieve program after a judge declined Tuesday to lift a stay that blocks Istation from getting a new three-year, $8.3 million testing contract.

Late Tuesday night, Johnson sent an email to the school systems in the state announcing that the N.C. Department of Public Instruction had executed an “emergency purchase” of Istation “in order to ensure the continuation of our obligations under the Read to Achieve legislation.” He told the systems to continue with the Read To Achieve assessments scheduled for this month.

The $928,570 contract runs to March 31.

“We are honored to be able to support the students and educators of North Carolina through this new contract with the Department of Public Instruction,” Ossa Fisher, the president of Istation, an education technology company based in Dallas, said in a statement Wednesday. “We are glad we were chosen to help DPI fulfill their constitutional obligation and continue the work we started earlier this academic year.”

Since the Read To Achieve program began in 2013, students in kindergarten through third grade have read out loud to their teachers while the teachers use Amplify Education’s mClass program to assess the students’ skills.

In June, Johnson announced that he was awarding the new Read To Achieve testing contract to Istation, which tests students on a computer program, with the results being provided to teachers.

The decision to switch programs has been controversial, with teachers across the state questioning the change.

Public records show an evaluation committee formed by Johnson had ranked mClass ahead of Istation. Johnson has accused the evaluation committee of “employing biased procedures” that benefited Amplify and of making false statements about Istation. He also said some committee members violated the confidentiality of the procurement process by discussing it with outsiders.

Johnson went on to form a new committee that recommended Istation.

Amplify appealed the decision to the N.C. Department of Information Technology, which granted the stay in August while it hears the appeal of the contract. Because of the stay, Johnson worked out a deal with Istation to train teachers for free in the new program. But that agreement expired in December.

On Dec. 9, Jonathan Shaw, the chief counsel for the Department of Information Technology, upheld the stay, saying there was sufficient information to believe that the DPI violated the law and “jeopardized the integrity and fairness of the procurement process.” Johnson responded with a blistering statement accusing Shaw of being incompetent and making “factual errors” in his order.

The DPI appealed to Superior Court, saying its ability to provide students with their state constitutional right to a sound basic education would be harmed if the stay wasn’t lifted. Judge Graham Shirley Wake County Superior Court issued a temporary stay on the DIT order on Dec. 23 that lasted until Tuesday’s hearing.

Superior Court Judge Mary Ann Tally said Tuesday that she didn’t believe she had jurisdiction in the case while it was still being heard by the DIT.

That prompted Johnson to say he was exploring other options to ensure that students, teachers, and parents continue to have access to a reading diagnostic tool this year.