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State puts school performance grades on hold

Nash County Public Schools and Edgecombe County Public Schools are still listed among the state’s nine low-performing school districts, but that designation is based on the state’s current holding pattern for school performance grades rather than on any new data.

According to Senate Bill 654, which recently was approved by the General Assembly, the regular “school report cards” used to determine accountability measures will not be released this year. Schools also will not be penalized for school performance data reported so far during the pandemic.

Thomas Holland, the new executive director of testing, accountability and data analysis for Edgecombe County Public Schools, summarized the provisions regarding low-performing school districts as stated in SB 654.

“The State Board of Education will not add additional low-performing schools based on data from 2020-21,” according to Holland’s assessment. “Schools that were previously identified as low-performing shall continue with this designation for the 2021-22 school year and shall continue to carry out the final plan approved by the LEA for the school units that were identified as low-performing following the 2018-19 school year.”

The State Board of Education released some annual testing results on Thursday, though it is not being released to the public with complete results or in the same form as in previous years prior to the pandemic.

“This year’s annual release looks a bit different than it has in the past as a result of a federal waiver North Carolina was granted due to the pandemic’s impact on teaching and learning during the 2020-21 school year,” Nash County Public Schools spokeswoman Christine Catalano said this week in a news release.

“One of the major changes is the release of participation data and the lack of School Performance Grade calculations,” she said.

In the background brief for the 2021 N.C. Annual Testing Results, the State Board of Education made clear that this year’s data release is for planning purposes only and not for comparisons. The report stated, “Given the various circumstances of the 2020-21 school year, comparisons to the 2018-19 school year, though provided as a reference point, are not recommended.”

Catalano said the recent report does show some positive results for Nash County Public Schools.

“Nash County Public Schools saw state test participation rates higher than the North Carolina average in many areas. District WorkKeys and ACT participation were higher than the state overall,” she said. “WorkKeys participation was at or above 89 percent in all Nash County high schools compared to the state participation rate of 67 percent. ACT participation was at or above 91 percent in all Nash County high schools compared to the state participation rate at 86 percent.”

Catalano also noted that some other areas saw improvement.

“Grades 3-8 reading and math end-of-grade participation was above the state average, higher than 93 percent in all Nash County Public Schools elementary and middle schools,” she said. “The school district’s four-year cohort graduation rate was 89.1 percent — higher than the state average of 86.9 percent.”

Nash County Public Schools also released some of the school district’s 2020-21 end-of-grade and end-of-course grade level proficiency rates. According to the data, Nash County Public Schools grades 3-8 reading proficiency rate was 30.5 percent. That means that roughly 30.5 percent of students in these grades tested at or above grade level in reading.

The math proficiency for grades 3-8 in Nash County Public Schools was 18.7 percent and the science proficiency for fifth- and eighth-grade science was 44.5 percent. In addition, high school proficiency included English II at 42.9 percent, biology at 23 percent and Math III at 23.2 percent, Catalano said.

Nash County Public Schools Superintendent Steven Ellis said he is pleased with the results in light of the circumstances of the past year and looks forward to growth in the future.

“We are proud that our families showed perseverance last year as evident in our high participation and graduation rates and feel strongly that our focus on high expectations for all this school year, combined with this perseverance, will result in growth for the 2021-22 academic year,” he said in the news release. “The availability of student performance data will assist our team in targeting resources and supporting teaching and learning across our schools.”

While Edgecombe County has not yet released details about the results released this week, Edgecombe County Public Schools Superintendent Valerie Bridges said she and her team are up to the challenge ahead.

“We recognize that school closure due to a pandemic coupled with unfinished learning has impacted our students, teachers and staff, but our responsibility is to work hard and ensure that our students are learning, growing and progressing,” she said. “Our focus is on student development, academic excellence, providing opportunities for learning and acknowledging our social-emotional needs.”

The Nash County Board of Education is expected to further discuss the testing and accountability issues next week. Normally, the school board meeting would be held on the first Monday of the month. However, because of the Labor Day holiday, that meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday.

The Edgecombe County Board of Education will hold its next meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 13.

Prep school grad returns to teach at alma mater

TARBORO — Mikayla Thompson remembers her days as a student at North East Carolina Prep School.

“I had so much respect for the teachers,” she recalled during a recent early morning interview in her classroom at the school. “Now I get to work with them.”

Thompson, who grew up in Whitakers and attended school in Greenville until she finished eighth grade, was a member of the school’s first graduating class in 2017.

Now she is a first-year teacher at her alma mater.

“It feels wonderful to be back,” she said with a wide smile on her face. “I was never in this building … but it is so good to be back.”

The building is the elementary school building where the school’s administrative offices are housed. She pointed out that she attended classes in the school’s still new-at-the-time two-story high school building.

It is now home to Thompson’s classroom and the place where she interacts with her students.

“I’m really excited about teaching … about being able to give back,” she said. “My mom works in Greenville, so I would ride with her and went to grades K through eight in Greenville. I knew about Tarboro, and I begged my mom to let me stay in Tarboro.”

So with her father’s business based in Tarboro, she was able to transition from Greenville to Tarboro for her classes.

“So even though I only went to school here from grades nine through 12, it feels like home,” she said.

Thompson said she really had no idea what she wanted to do for a career.

“I think I always wanted to be a teacher, but I just didn’t know what,” she said. “When we started agriculture, I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

Thompson said she looked at the three schools in North Carolina that offered agriculture programs — the University of Mount Olive, N.C. A&T University and N.C. State University — and decided on N.C. State, where her dad went to school.

“So I applied to N.C. State but didn’t have the grades to get in,” she said. “I thought my world was ending. I went out to (Edgecombe Community College) and got serious and got the work I needed … applied again to N.C. State and was accepted the second time.”

Now, Thompson has students ranging from kindergarten through seventh grade whom she works with in the 14 different classes she teaches.

“That’s a wide (age) range and it is sometimes a challenge to keep them occupied, so I use topics that they can associate with and get them to interact,” she said.

Student interaction in class is something Thompson said came out of her own learning experience with former prep school teacher Robert Henderson.

“Mr. Henderson was my inspiration. He always played devil’s advocate and got me to ask more in-depth questions,” she said.

Thompson’s students have notebooks in which they answer questions about a particular topic — as well as the subsequent questions that follow to get them to dig ever deeper into the subject.

“I put sticky notes by what they’ve written,” Thompson said. “They like them because they get feedback. It helps them think of things they know but were in the back of their mind.”

Thompson said her goal is for all of her sixth- and seventh-grade students to create a project that they can take to competition in the science fair.

She understands that competition can be healthy and recalls her FFA days when she competed in the program’s Agriscience Fair.

“I did a project on aerial spray drift,” she said. “I placed second in the 11th grade and in the 12th grade, I finished first in North Carolina and third in the nation.”

And it’s topics like the drift of pesticides that her students are discussing.

“We talk about the impact on others and other crops and what we might look to do differently,” she said. “Things like growing more organic crops but still incorporating pesticides in the crop management plan.”

The school’s FFA program had such an effect on her that she said that after she graduated, she would come back to do some things with the chapter.

“I was at college when we started the chapter and I was president of the alumni group for two years before going to State,” she said.

Thompson said she was so shy when she entered North East Carolina Prep that she would cringe at the thought of getting up in front of a class to speak. Now, she readily talks about her passion for teaching and her love for the school.

“I want to be a role model and help everybody I can,” she said. “I want to teach as much about agriculture as I can.”

While schools all over eastern North Carolina were hiring teachers, Thompson knows why she is at North East Carolina Prep.

“It’s because of the environment,” she said. “The teachers I had made an impact on me. If it wasn’t for the prep school and because of the loving environment that I’m able to be who I am. I had to come here because I want my students to have the same experience I did.”

N.C. Wesleyan mourns death of student

Members of the N.C. Wesleyan College community are mourning the death of a student who died Thursday and has since been identified.

Matthew Clemmons, a 19-year-old psychology major from Supply, N.C., was found dead Thursday morning in his dorm room. The cause of death has not been released pending an investigation by a medical examiner.

Clemmons was well-known on the campus, not only as a student but also as a member of the college football team.

“He was a member of the Battling Bishops football team and highly thought of by the Wesleyan faculty,” college spokesman Stephen Mann said Friday in a statement.

N.C. Wesleyan Head Football Coach Jeff Filkovski spoke out about the loss in the statement issued by the college.

“It is with a heavy heart that I speak about Matt,” he said. “He is exactly what we look for in a student-athlete and if we had 100 Matt Clemmons on our team, we would all be better for it.”

Filkovski said the loss of Clemmons is keenly felt.

“I love Matt Clemmons. I once read a quote that said, ‘Grief is the price we pay for love,’” he said. “In the last 24 hours there has been a ton of grieving in our football program, as well as the North Carolina Wesleyan College community. We have a new angel looking down on us.

“Matt will surely be missed and never forgotten,” he said.

A candlelight vigil was held Thursday night on campus to honor the memory of Clemmons.

“An overwhelming presence of students, faculty, staff and board members gathered in the center of campus on the college’s Southern Bank Green at 7 p.m.,” Mann said in the statement. “Several students and teammates spoke about the impact Matt had on their lives, acknowledging how he always had a smile and was encouraging to others. As candles were lit in his remembrance, a wave of silence overcame the crowd and the evening closed with a moment of prayer by college chaplain, Rev. Edwin Ferguson.”

N.C. Wesleyan President Evan Duff said the campus is grieving together over the loss of one of their own.

“During this difficult time, our primary focus is to care for each other,” he said in the statement. “The college offers our sincere condolences to the Clemmons family. Our thoughts and prayers are with them, their loved ones and the entire North Carolina Wesleyan College community.”

All traditional classes were canceled Thursday and Friday to allow students, staff and faculty time to grieve, the statement said. In the wake of the loss, spiritual and personnel counseling and support services are being offered on campus to all members of the Wesleyan community.

Nash UNC Health Care mandates COVID vaccinations for staff

Nash UNC Health Care announced Friday that it will be mandating COVID vaccinations for employees as of Nov. 8.

The health care system is one of the first and largest employers in the Twin Counties to issue such a mandate.

The Nash UNC Health Care Board of Commissioners voted Thursday to add the COVID-19 vaccination to the list of vaccinations that the hospital requires for staff as a condition of employment. Current required vaccinations include influenza; the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, also known as MMR; hepatitis B; and tuberculosis.

“Caring for our community is a precious gift and significant duty we all took on when we entered the field of health care,” Nash UNC Health Care President and CEO Lee Isley said Friday in a news release. “We feel that the COVID vaccine has proven to be safe and effective at reducing the spread and severity of COVID. We want our patients to feel safe and secure when coming to the hospital as well as provide a safe working environment for our staff.”

While many health systems mandated the COVID vaccine for staff several weeks ago, Nash UNC officials said they wanted to allow time for staff and other area residents to give input on the decision. Hospital spokeswoman Dorsey Tobias said in an interview Friday that most of the other hospitals in the UNC Health System have adopted some sort of COVID vaccination mandate in recent weeks.

However, the new policy developed by Nash UNC Health Care is unique to that health care entity.

“Management and the board have taken this evaluation very seriously,” Isley said in the statement. “We asked the community, employees, medical staff and infectious disease experts to share their thoughts and opinions on this matter before we made this decision to include the COVID vaccination as a condition of employment at Nash.”

Input from staff was shared and discussed with the board, the board’s executive committee and medical executive committees as the health system evaluated the decision, the news release said.

The policy will go into effect Nov. 8 and will require that all employees, medical staff, contract staff, volunteers, vendors and students who work or provide services on-site are fully vaccinated by that date.

Medical or religious exemptions will be reviewed and determined by the medical exemption committee and religious exemption committee. Employees granted exemption due to medical or religious reasons will be subject to additional precautions including weekly COVID-19 testing, the statement said.

“We will continue to maintain universal safety measures for all team members, including universal masking, self-monitoring and occupancy restrictions in all break rooms and gathering spaces,” Isley said. “Our goal is always to provide a safe environment for our patients, staff and community.”

Roughly 58 percent of hospital employees have been fully vaccinated. These numbers align with percentages at most rural hospitals in North Carolina, Tobias said in an interview. Urban hospitals usually have higher vaccination levels, she said.

“Our staff vaccination rate is slightly higher but fairly in line with the vaccination rate of our community,” she said.

According to information provided by the state Department of Health and Human Services, 47 percent of Nash County residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID while 39 percent of Edgecombe County residents have been fully vaccinated.

Tobias said that vaccine hesitancy continues to impact hospital staff members in much the same way it impacts the rest of the community. The recent survey of hospital employees revealed something about the concerns hospital officials and local health officials are hearing from members of the community.

“We collected feedback from our staff through an anonymous online feedback tool and received more than 300 responses both in support of and concerns with requiring COVID vaccination,” she said. “The themes from those who support the requirement center around safety of environment and doing the right thing for our patients and community.”

Tobias said the most prevalent concerns were personal choice, FDA approval — as the survey was conducted prior to the FDA approving the Pfizer vaccine — and medical and religious reasons.

“Management and the board used this feedback to develop our policy and exemptions,” she said. “We will continue to adapt our policy as needed as more information is available to guide our ability to provide a safe environment for our patients, staff and community.”

Hospital officials continue to strongly encourage local residents to get vaccinated as well.

“More than 90 percent of our COVID patients over the last month have been unvaccinated,” said Dr. Priyank Desai, medical director for pulmonology and critical care at Nash UNC Health Care. “We have yet to have a vaccinated patient in critical care, which suggests the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing severe illness.”

Area man charged with heroin trafficking

A Rocky Mount man with a prior record recently was charged by the Nash County Sheriff’s Office with two counts of felony trafficking in heroin after a traffic stop, authorities and records said.

Christopher Lewis on Aug. 26 possessed and was transporting more than one-tenth to four-tenths of an ounce of the opioid, Nash County District Court records said.

Lewis, 26, had been in a Honda Accord when the driver was halted by the narcotics division of the sheriff’s office for a vehicle registration violation, Chief Deputy Brandon Medina said in a news release.

A K-9 officer was deployed and gave a positive indication for the odor of narcotics inside the car, Medina said.

Deputies noticed a plastic bag near Lewis’ front waistband and also found out Lewis was concealing a plastic bag in his waistband, which contained roughly 250 dosage units of heroin, Medina said.

There also was already a warrant from Edgecombe County for the arrest of Lewis on a charge of misdemeanor shoplifting, Medina said.

The driver of the car was released and Lewis was jailed under a $26,000 secured bond in the Nash County Detention Center, Medina said.

Lewis posted bond after his first appearance the next day in Nash County District Court, Medina said.

Nash County District Court records said that the court appointed attorney Kirkland Bass to represent Lewis and that Lewis is due back in court on Sept. 9.

State Public Safety records said Lewis was convicted of larceny in 2014 in Nash County.

Lewis had listed an address in the 700 block of Mill Street, Nash County District Court records said.