REIDSVILLE – Catina Chestnut walked the halls of Moss Street Elementary School as a little girl, laying the groundwork for a life as an educator that would march her right back to the school’s principal’s office.
And from her desk this month, Chestnut will lead her alma mater, which has struggled chronically with low test scores, as it undergoes an academic metamorphosis under the guidance of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
UNC-G’s School of Education now operates the K-5 institution, which has long served underprivileged students. The wedding of the university with Moss Street is the result of a mandate from the state legislature that in 2016-2017 gave a green light to nine UNC system universities to reach into their communities, find partnerships with low-performing campuses, and help elevate them by establishing so-called laboratory schools.
With about 98 percent of its students living in poverty, Moss Street Elementary struggled in recent years with poor test scores and grim rankings by the North Carolina Board of Education. Assigned a letter grade D, the school’s need was grave with its statewide ranking of 1,218 out of 1,429 North Carolina elementary schools.
Educators and advisors at UNC-G feel confident, though, that they can pull that grade up significantly. And the university’s staff believe they can partner well with the imperiled school and its proud community to deliver insight and resources to make it thrive, said Dr. Christina O’Connor, director of Professional Education, Preparation, Policy and Accountability for UNC-G’s School of Education. She also serves as co-director of what is now Moss Street Partnership School, along with UNC-G education professor Dr. Carl Lashley.
“Often, there’s a mismatch between what’s being measured and what kids can do,” said O’Connor, adding that test results for MSPS “don’t really reflect what the children are capable of.”
The effort will be the first time that UNC-G has helped establish a laboratory school since the 1970s, when it operated such a learning center on its Greensboro campus.
“This is really a unique situation,” O’Connor said, describing the partnership with MSPS as the “right fit.” What was attractive to UNC-G was the school’s history and the strong community support.”
That local interest in the school’s success will make it easier to become “Better Together,” the school’s new motto, O’Connor said.
With an emphasis on hands-on learning and a robust arts curriculum, the elementary school now has full-time music, theater, art and dance teachers for its some 420 students. The revamped school will draw on resources from the UNC-G campus, staff and student teachers, while Rockingham County Schools will continue to provide school meals and bus services.
Our “aim will be to teach and learn by doing,” Chestnut said of the new strategy which highlights experiential learning and lots of communication between academic disciplines. A full Maker’s Space is available to students for inventing and building, and Chestnut’s staff will instruct children in different grade levels on common study units.
Bolstering teacher numbers with 27 K-5 educators and five enhancement teachers, Chestnut has arrived at a winning student/teacher ratio of 18-20 students per class, she said. Her teachers also will be able to place free school supplies into the hands of needy kids this year, through the partnership with UNC-G. Those teachers, including many veteran Rockingham County educators and newcomers from neighboring areas, applied for their posts and were hired through UNC-G.
“I’m really excited about an arts integrated curriculum and how we can reach out into the community and pull people in,” said Rebecca Ledford, 29, the new MSPS art teacher and a former instructor with the Thomasville City Schools.
Ethan Roberts, a UNC-G alum and MSPS’s theatre teacher, added, “I’m proud to carry theatre into the public schools.”
With workshops on the UNC-G campus, training sessions with Chestnut and a mission to bring creative new modes of teaching, the MSPS staff has high morale. “There’s lots of excitement. None of us have done this before.... we’re learning from our colleagues, building new friendships, coming together to make a difference for these children,” Chestnut said. “It’s such exciting work, it doesn’t feel like work!”
Benefits of the collaboration work both ways, O’Connor said. While MSPS enjoys cutting-edge educational resources from the Greensboro campus, UNC-G lands a rich training ground for its student teachers.
Plus, when new modes of teaching prove fruitful, educators from UNC-G can share the strategies within their university classrooms, as well as with other schools in Rockingham County and across the state, participants noted.
That kind of mutual benefit pleases Rockingham County School Superintendent Dr. Rodney Shotwell: “When you have a school system like ours and a university like UNC-G come together, great things can happen. What they’re doing there (at MSPS) may be things we can use in our other schools.”
The presence of university staffers as leaders at the school will also be “a way for students to have the idea of college in front of them from kindergarten, on,” Shotwell said.
Busy Monday morning at a teacher training session by Chestnut, the school’s social worker Johnette Walser beamed at the new opportunities ahead for the 54-year-old school. “My hope is that the university will have really innovative ideas. They are allowing for a lot of creativity and I think that will be really beneficial.”