Schools adjusting to diversity

As Catawba County's child population becomes more racially diverse, Newton-Conover City Schools (NCCS) leaders say they are emphasizing the development of strong reading skills at the elementary level.

Fifth-graders are helping third-graders with reading at Shuford Elementary. High school students are scheduled to work with Thornton Elementary students on vocabulary and reading skills. Second-grade students at South Newton Elementary are grouped into science classes based on their reading levels.

"It's so important in K-2 that we have that literacy instruction above all else," said Dr. David Stegall. "Students who don't speak English have a hard time learning science and other concepts."

According to 2010 census numbers, 8.4 percent of Catawba County is Hispanic.

Census information shows North Carolina's Hispanic, or Latino, population has more than doubled from less than 400,000 to more than 800,000 since 2000.

NCCS elementary schools report increasing Hispanic populations. At South Newton, 20 percent of students are Hispanic and 48 percent are white. At Shuford, 23 percent of students are Hispanic and 53 percent are white. Thornton's student population is 32 percent Hispanic and 44 percent white.

"We are very diverse. It's a unique situation when you walk into our classrooms," said Thornton Principal Tammy Brown. "We don't care what color our kids are, where they come from or what they wear, we want to give all of our students the best education."

The system's elementary school principals presented school improvement plans to the NCCS Board of Education on Monday night. The presentation sparked a conversation about the diversity in the schools.

Board member Kyle Drum asked if the school principals knew Spanish.

"Un poco," Brown said, which is Spanish for "a little."

South Newton Principal Julie Styers and Shuford Principal Shane Whitener said they do not know Spanish. Brown said Thornton's staff includes one person who is fluent in Spanish. Styers and Whitener said their schools do not have staff members fluent in Spanish. Several board of education members asked school leaders to explore possibilities for staff development in learning Spanish.

During the 2010-11 school year, reading scores improved at all three of the system's elementary schools from the previous year. At Shuford, 74.7 percent of students were reading at grade level. At Thornton, 68.1 percent of students were reading at grade level, and at South Newton, 65.1 percent read at grade level last school year.

Brown said the schools are helping students learn science concepts, for example, through a "Science A-Z" program that integrates science and reading and by integrating science into reading texts.

"If they don't have separate time for science, they still get science during their reading time," Brown said. The schools are also utilizing more tutors and small groups to improve reading skills.

"When you factor in the changing population, it's amazing what you're doing," Superintendent Dr. Barry Redmond told the principals.

"You will find less diversity in our high school and middle school," Redmond continued. "If you fast forward five or six years, you will see the majority is the minority."

School leaders did not speculate why the population is less diverse at the higher levels of education in the system.

In other business at this week's meeting, the board recognized member Mark Murphy for his service since 2006. Jeanne Jarrett was voted into Murphy's board spot in the November election, and Jarrett took her oath of office Monday night. As Murphy exited his board seat, he thanked his fellow members and the community.

"I may be a Yankee by birth, but I'm a Newton-Conover resident by choice," Murphy said. "This is a wonderful community, and I feel good with what we've done."

Jim Stockner and Scott Loudermelt took oaths of office to retain their board seats. The board voted to keep Loudermelt as chairman and voted to make Betty Coulter the vice chairwoman.