This year we have New Hanover County School Board elections. There can be no doubt education is a topic of great importance in our area. We seem to be grappling with a series of issues: New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Dr. Markley had a memo to the school board leak earlier this month, laying bare the failures of under-preforming neighborhood schools. This on the heels of our schools having to provide an action plan for increasing diversity. In short, a serious discussion about the future of this community is timely and essential.
Part of what makes the conversation so difficult is that education should serve all students equally—but all students do not arrive on the first day of school with the same tools. Providing a quality education that meets the needs of our students and creates the greatest hope for the future of our community is an enormous challenge and responsibility beyond just one person. We as taxpayers all have a stake in the school system. We as community members all have a stake in the future of our community. There are relevant questions about how our community functions, which are specifically applicable to the school-board race.
encore sent the same questions to all of the New Hanover County (NHC) School Board candidates. This week we introduce our fourth candidate, Ms. Janette Nichols.
encore (e): What was the moment (realization, situation, instance) that made you decide to run for school board?
Janette Nichols (JN): After more than 35 years in the field of education, I was at the threshold of retirement, but knew I was not ready to leave the classroom unless I could continue in a role to help ensure all children in our school system received a high-quality education. I decided it was time for someone who had worked in the trenches to serve as a member of the board, so I became a candidate and was honored by the voters who elected me to serve on the NHC Board of Education. That honor has been bestowed upon me in the last three elections, and I am hopeful voters will recognize my experience and dedication as an educator and board member (who has never missed a meeting) and allow me to continue serving our children.
e: Have you worked in the classroom?
JN: After graduating from New Hanover High School, I attended East Carolina University by working and paying my own way because I was determined to become a teacher. My first year teaching was at Camp Lejeune, NC, in 1956. The following year I married and moved to Quantico, Virginia, where I taught for a year before returning to teach at Camp Lejeune. Also, I moved to Camp Pendleton, California, and taught for one year before starting my family. When my children became of school age, I re-entered the field of education by writing and teaching an elementary mathematic series for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Educational Television Station, coordinated and directed the school of mathematics for teacher training and taught in the system until 1971, when we moved to Cherry Point, NC. I taught a variety of grade levels, as well as accelerated science and mathematics programs for the Craven County School System until 1974. We moved to Twentynine Palms, California, in the Mojave Desert, where I taught gifted students. Three years later we moved to Fairfax County, Virginia, and obtained a teaching position and my masters of education in administration and supervision from George Mason University. I first was a vice principal, and six months later the curriculum coordinator for elementary social studies. In 1986 I returned to Wilmington and taught at Alderman Elementary School. I was honored to be Alderman’s Math Teacher of the Year and NHC Schools Educator of the Year.
e: Who was the teacher who changed your life? In what ways?
JN: By fifth grade, I had attended four different schools. While my language-arts teacher, Ms. Fennell, was not my favorite teacher, she was the teacher who held high expectations for all students—no matter our home environment. She instilled in me the need to read for knowledge, to speak and write correctly, and to set goals beyond what anyone else expected of me. I often think of how much I learned in her class. Whether it was out of fear or respect for her, the skills that I achieved still serve me well. When I became a teacher, I, too, held all my students to a high level of achievement but did it with a more nurturing approach. I often see or hear from former students or parents, and am proud to know they still think of me with appreciation.
e: What is the first issue you want to see improved upon/changed within the system?
JN: Focus will be to offer pathways to meet the needs of all students. The 2016-2020 strategic plan clearly defines goals and objectives that will ensure students receive education and skills they need to be productive citizens. My focus is to support programs that address the needs of individual students by offering pathway options that will keep them in school and prepare them for employment opportunities. The funding for the proposed regional Career-Technical Education High School that would operate in collaboration with Cape Fear Community College is paramount so our students will be able to receive a high school diploma, credentials from CFCC, and the knowledge and skills to meet the current job demands after graduating. Therefore, the board of education and citizens of this region must continue to seek funding and support to open a CTE high school long past due.
e: Several programs within NHC schools are desirable to participate in (Lyceum, Spanish Immersion, etc.). What is necessary to make the application process transparent and accessible to all students and families?
JN: NHC schools offers multiple educational options for students who seek a non-traditional setting. Choices range from: magnet schools, such as the International School at Gregory; early college high schools; year-round calendar; online learning, as well as a defined signature program at each high school. Each school is responsible for providing information as to the enrollment process through the school’s website, parent orientations, public forums, curriculum guides, and assistance from counselors and administrators. In addition, the school system’s Student Assignment Plan is available at www.nhcs.net. Parents and students are encouraged to seek information regarding a specific educational program by contacting the school offering the program.
e: Since the system moved to neighborhood schools, we have effectively resegregated elementary schools. What are the steps to reintegrating?
JN: While parents have had opportunities to request a program or school assignment that would meet the needs of their children and a weighted lottery system was put in place to increase socio-economic diversity at year-round elementary schools, there has not been a major redistricting of students since the comprehensive plan was put in place in 2010. When the new Porters Neck Elementary School opens, it will be used as a swing school until Blair and Wrightsville Beach schools are completed; therefore, no major redistricting will take place until then. However, the system is already compiling data that will help guide the school board as it begins its study on redrawing the lines to alleviate overcrowding in schools throughout the county, balance socio-economic levels, and still try to honor parent requests to keep their children as close to home as possible. Redistricting is never an easy process; multiple redistricting plans and maps will be offered to the public and the school board for consideration and input before the decision is made as to how best serve all students.
e: How do you see the PTA most effectively working for school advocacy?
JN: The PTA is a significant partner in the education of our students. This past year more than 11,000 volunteers stepped up to provide support for NHCS children. The PTA brings parents, teachers, administrators and the school board together to improve the lives of all children. Each school’s PTA board works closely with the school and its members to understand the culture of the school in order to set goals and priorities. NHC PTA Council has created an advocacy committee that organizes an opportunity for citizens to meet with school leaders, superintendent, senior staff, and school-board members to obtain information, share concerns and suggestions. However, one does not have to be a member of the PTA to communicate with the school board. The board’s website provides contact information and the board provides a “call to the audience” opportunity at each of its regular meetings. All draft of policies are posted for citizens to provide input. Surveys, forums and meetings are often conducted to gain insight as to how schools and the system can work collaboratively with the community to provide a high-quality education for all students.
e: Where do you see NHC schools in five years? Ten years?
JN: Within the next five to ten years, the NC Department of Public Instruction predicts NHC schools will have a population of over 27,000 students. The school board will be challenged to find ways to accommodate growth and plan for the ever-changing needs of our students.
Within the next five to 10 years, there will probably be a need to build another traditional high school, and the acreage required by the state will be at a premium or nonexistent. The passing of the 2014 bond of $160 million will have completed 14 major projects that built and replaced elementary schools, improved facilities, increased security, and updated technology. The Career and Technology High School will be at full capacity, preparing students for the workforce or additional educational opportunities. The Mosley Performance Learning Center will have expanded to provide more students an opportunity to graduate. The JC Roe Center, designed to provide students alternatives to long-term suspensions, will be a model for other systems to emulate. Trask Middle School will be a ninth-grade center for Laney High School, and Trask students will attend the renovated facility on Sidbury Road.
Through advanced technology, teachers will no longer be information distributors but facilitators and mentors as they use a personalized education plan to monitor each student’s needs, skills and progress. Specialized programs will provide more opportunities for students to obtain college credits before completing high school. Graduation rates will increase and test scores will rise.
e: What is the future of arts in schools?
JN: Those who attend the annual Best Foot Forward productions visit the art displays at the mall, attend school performances and music competitions, including those at the Minnie Evans Arts Center, know the school board is most supportive of the arts. What our citizens do not know is the state does not provide art, music or physical education teachers at the elementary-school level. For years the system has been able to provide the much-needed enrichment with flexibility in assigning teachers. In addition, the county commissioners have provided funding to support the arts. This year the system will be challenged to keep those positions due to class-size reductions required by the state. However, I am confident the administration, the county commission, and the school board will find a way to retain those positions and will continue to fund the necessary supplies and equipment to ensure all students have an opportunity to participate and excel in the arts
e: What is your favorite book?
JN: While I can’t pick a specific book, one that has provided a world for me to escape into is “Heidi.” I was in the fourth grade, and living with my aunt and uncle in Florida when I was given the book. The story introduced me to a young girl in her grandfather’s care in the Swiss Alps. . . . I was inspired by the positive impact that Heidi had on those around her—always looking to make a difference and help people. I, too, wanted to be like Heidi and still do.