Will fresh ideas emerge, or will ship keep sinking?

On Saturday school officials did five hours of talking during an annual retreat, identifying problems that plague the Public Schools of Robeson County and tossing spitballs against the chalkboard to see if any stuck.

Here’s a memo for the Board of Education and schools administrators: The problems that were itemized on Saturday — student test scores that badly trail their peers across the state, difficulty recruiting teachers because of low local supplements, and a too-generous transfer policy that has crowded destination schools and left desks empty elsewhere, to name just three — are not new. They are chronic, and what has been absent is genuine outside-the-box leadership to attack them from a different flank.

Outside-the-box thinking is what presented this school board with a plan that would have given us 14 new schools while actually saving money, and although school consolidation was killed in Raleigh, we doubt the school board that existed in June could ever have grasped the genius of it and given it a thumbs up.

There is reason for hope: At the central office, there are three new assistant superintendents, all of whom seem well-qualified and capable of providing fresh ideas, and Superintendent Tommy Lowry has the experience that a single school year provides and remains eager to move the system forward if his hands are not bound.

There are three new school board members, including two with educational backgrounds who we believe are capable of providing leadership the board has lacked.

One, Brian Freeman, offered this observation during Saturday’s retreat that is actually a critique of the previous school board: “When you look at our data, we are like the Titanic and we need to throw our kids some lifesavers.”

During the retreat, one of the topics on which we believe time was wasted was the system’s dress code. Perhaps we can help. A dress code is in place, and if everyone agrees it is adequate, make parents and students aware it will be enforced. Then do so with mandates to teachers across the system that students who are in violation will not be admitted into the classroom.

That wasn’t hard.

Others aren’t so easily fixed, including test scores. Wherever there is poverty, test scores will lag, and our poverty ranks us among the worst not only in North Carolina, but in all of the country. Poverty will not easily surrender its grip, so poor test scores are with us for a while. But improvement can be achieved.

A teacher in every classroom would be a positive step, and better pay is needed to make that happen. So our school board is tasked with the challenge of finding a revenue source that can help the system attract qualified teachers. What about a local endowment? Yes, it would take years to build, but it would be a start.

Then there is the problem of excessive transfers, which is an easy fix but requires political courage. Given that the school board doesn’t appear interested in consolidation or even new schools, then it should enforce district lines so destination schools are not flooded with out-of-district students, undermining the concept of community schools that board members championed during consolidation talk.

The new school year begins Aug. 29, and the system has some fresh blood, both at the central office and on the policy-making board. We will be doing stories on the problems that the school system has self-identified, and are anxious to see new ideas emerge and if real change can be achieved.

Or will the Titanic continue to take on water and during the 2017 retreat there will again be talk and not much more about low test scores, the difficultly recruiting top teachers and excessive transfers?

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