More pay, more mental health services top list for NC education group

RALEIGH, North Carolina — Student and teacher well-being was the dominant topic at the North Carolina Public Schools Forum’s annual Eggs & Issues breakfast on Tuesday morning.

The topics fueled the conversation around priorities that the Forum and many educators and advocates across the state will be pushing for in the coming year, including during the state’s new legislative session.

The Public Schools Forum officially unveiled his top five educational challenges for 2023, largely focused on teacher recruitment and retention as well as student health and academic needs.

“We know that salary isn’t the only thing,” Lauren Fox, senior director of policy and research at the Forum, said over breakfast at the University of Washington’s McKimmon Conference and Training Center. North Carolina State. “But we won’t improve recruitment and retention or address teacher vacancies without significantly improving salaries.”

A living wage in North Carolina exceeds $48,000, she said, while the starting salary is less than that.

Many educators who spoke acknowledged a difference between the solutions they offered and what the North Carolina General Assembly might offer this spring. Only a few education bills have been tabled in the week since lawmakers began tabling.

North Carolina serves 1.5 million public school students, many of whom are always working to overcome the slowing pace of learning caused by disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Test results from last spring showed a drop in student performance in all subjects, although schools have since stepped up initiatives to accelerate student progress.
  1. “Fair and competitive” compensation and benefits for educators, including a 24.5% salary increase to make compensation similar to other fields requiring a bachelor’s degree
  2. Address mental health and school safety crises by providing more counsellors, psychologists, nurses and social workers in schools
  3. Develop and diversify the pool of incoming teachers and retain teachers here
  4. “Preparing students for the world in which they live.” This includes teaching students soft skills, such as communication and empathy, and ensuring the curriculum covers history, perspectives, and content from diverse backgrounds.
  5. Implement the recovery plan in the Leandro trial
The lawsuit known as Leandro was filed in 1994 by five low-income families and school boards, alleging that the state was not providing all students in the state with an adequate education, as promised by the North Carolina Constitution. The state Supreme Court is on the side of families and school boards, but a solution has yet to be implemented.

Increase teachers’ salaries

Dozens of educators, many of whom are no longer teachers, raised their hands when asked if they worked in parallel or in multiple while teaching.

Nadja Young has been a trainer, worked at a pet store, and worked at a summer camp. She recalls taking a $6,000 pay cut when she moved from Colorado to North Carolina while still a teacher in the mid-2000s.

Eugenia Floyd, former state teacher of the year and current teacher at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said she doesn’t feel financially secure as a teacher.

“As a student at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City schools, I also lived in poverty,” Floyd said. “Education was supposed to be my way out of poverty. But I am at a devastating event of poverty. And that’s a reality, not just for me, but it’s a reality for many, if not statewide, educators.

The salary has increased since then but remains too low, Young said. Mississippi raised the starting salary to $41,000, she noted, well above North Carolina’s official starting salary of $37,000.

Young no longer teaches. She is now Director of Education Practice at the SAS Institute.

“I just encourage us as a legislative body and the business community to keep moving forward, to keep pushing,” Young said.

Senator Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the state now provides a $175 million supplement to his base salary which varies by district, for the purpose of raising wages in more or less wealthy counties in the same way that larger counties were able to supplement wages.

To recruit more teachers, Lee wants to increase “residency programs,” or more intensive teacher training and support programs for beginning teachers.

Union County Schools Superintendent Andrew Houlihan said leaders need to market the teaching profession to students when they are in middle school. They also need to find ways to attract more students into the teaching profession without having to take out large student loans, he said. This could involve working with a community college or expanding programs that offer scholarships or tuition reimbursement to prospective teachers. Union County Schools plans to do some of that soon, he said.

Young people today fear college debt, he said, and appreciate being able to make a difference quickly.

“This generation wants immediate payback,” Houlihan said.

Union County schools — once relatively immune to ongoing teacher shortages — have struggled to hire teachers for the past two years, Houlihan said. Many schools have offered retention and signing bonuses using federal pandemic relief dollars.

“That money is gone in a year and a half,” Houlihan said. “I’m not sure there’s a district in the state that has a stability plan to continue those funds… (to) continue the strategies that are having an impact now.”

Make schools safer

Leah Carper, the current state teacher of the year and high school English teacher at Guilford County Schools, said she thinks about student safety every day.

“When I hear a balloon pop in the hallway, I don’t think, ‘Oh, it’s someone’s birthday!’ I think, ‘What should I do now?’ Carper said. “That’s where we are right now.”

Wake County Public School System Superintendent Catty Moore noted that the state now requires each school system and charter school to have its own plan to address and improve student mental health and safety.

Moore said it was an important step but not enough.

Schools need resources to implement the plans they think they need, she said.

“Let’s resource what we expect,” Moore said.

Carper said teachers are overwhelmed with responsibilities that always increase and are never taken away.

“We’re at a buffet and we’re not hungry anymore,” Carper said. Schools want to train teachers to deliver culturally appropriate teaching and trauma-informed teaching practices. Teachers can worry about doing these things and simultaneously feel overloaded, she said.

“We think, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore,'” Carper said.

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