GCS Superintendent reaches out to the communityBy Yasmine Regester / December 12, 2016
After just a few of months in office, Guilford County Schools’ new superintendent has been diving right in meeting school faculty and students and hosting a series of Listen and Learn sessions to gain a better understanding of the school district.
Dr. Sharon L. Contreras was chosen by the Guilford County School Board out of a pool of 30 applicants on June 28. In an interview with the Peacemaker, Contreras explained how she plans to spend her first 100 days getting down to business leading Guilford County Schools.
“Walking into the schools just gives me an idea of the school. It’s not a deep assessment. I want the teachers, the students, building leaders, and bus drivers to know I’m here to support them. I’m not going to make decisions from my chair. I’m actually going to see what the working conditions are like and what the learning experience is like,” said Contreras.
With 25 years of experience in education under her belt, Contreras noted that having leadership skills is necessary to handle issues every district deals with, such as how to close the achievement gap between special needs students and non-special needs students, between Black and White, poor and non-poor. She added that districts are thinking critically about how to create career pathways for students, and how to engage parents effectively.
“Leadership is leadership,” said Contreras of what is needed to run a school district. “While school systems are nuanced, they are very similar. It’s the same thing no matter where you go. The context is different but the issues are the same.”
She emphasized working to implement various initiatives, regulations, and statutes in a way that is as tolerable as possible for the educators experiencing it every day. She plans to engage a transition team of experts in various areas from operation efficiency, teaching, community engagement, and talent development. This team will make recommendations to Contreras and the school board and those recommendations will serve as a foundation for a strategic plan.
Contreras is the former superintendent of the Syracuse (NY) City School District (SCSD), a district with more than 20,000 students, which is a significantly smaller district than the 72,000 students currently enrolled in GCS. The largest district she has worked for was Clayton County Public Schools in Georgia, with 50,000 students.
She began her career as a high school English teacher and served as a principal, area superintendent, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer for school districts in multiple states. Contreras earned degrees from Binghamton University and the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a proud and active member of The Links Inc., and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
While at Syracuse, Contreras increased student access to challenging academic courses, expanded career and technical education options and improved low-performing schools. Under her leadership, Syracuse established 16 new career pathways for high school students, launched a school for gifted elementary students and opened two new high schools to provide students with the opportunity to earn associate degrees in electrical engineering technology, manufacturing technology and health-related fields.
Contreras also worked with the New York State legislature to secure $300 million in construction funding to create 21st century learning environments for students and negotiated a landmark contract with the teachers’ union, making SCSD teachers the highest paid in the region over a five-year period. Contreras also worked to address students’ social and emotional needs by expanding partnerships with the community and helped to bring “Breakfast in the Classroom” and universal free breakfast and lunch programs to all Syracuse schools.
“I’ve followed Guilford for some time,” said Contreras, whose name came before the board in a nomination.
Although she wasn’t actively looking for a new job, she was impressed by GCS’s innovation, career, charter education, and service learning.
“I get calls from people asking if they can come visit our early and middle colleges. Some things we take for granted here, other people are looking at us as a model,” said Contreras.
The third largest school district in the state, some GCS schools have received national accolades such as The Washington Post’s America’s Most Challenging High Schools and U.S. News and World Report 2016 Best High Schools list. The Early College at
Guilford was named the best high school in North Carolina by Niche, a research company. Nine other GCS schools made the top 100.
However, many Guilford County parents have expressed concern that there aren’t enough high quality options for all families, especially for Black and Brown children. Many times, equity of resources in the schools plays a part in having high quality education options for students.
Charter schools are public schools of choice that are authorized by the State Board of Education, but operated by independent non-profit boards of directors. State and local tax dollars are the primary funding sources for charter schools, which have open enrollment and cannot discriminate in admissions, associate with any religion or religious group, or charge tuition.
“No parent should feel that they don’t have a good school option for their child[ren] to attend,” said Contreras.
GCS offers a variety of educational options for students through 46 magnet and choice schools; and 187 career and technical education courses in 50 schools. Although students may return to the public school system, after the 20th day of the school year, the charter schools get to keep the funding filtered to them via student vouchers. Critics of the funding process have suggested that parents be fined for switching back to the public school system during the year. Contreras disagreed.
“I would never advocate penalizing the parent for trying to get a great education for their children. For Black and Brown children, sometimes charter schools present the only option. Especially when
you feel that the public school system has not served your children well,” said Contreras.
TEACHER RECRUITMENT & RETENTION
Contreras noted that recruiting quality trained teachers and leaders in the classroom is a national crisis.
According to GCS Chief of Staff, Nora Carr, the district has had a hard time finding elementary school teachers since the state cut the master’s degree pay incentive and longevity pay. Just last year, GCS had more than 30 teacher positions open all year long.
“I think we have a shortage of people going into education. That never used to happen,” said Carr.
One year ago, Guilford County Schools became the first Say Yes to Education district in the South. Contreras comes from a Say Yes district, with Syracuse being one of the first to use the national program.
Contreras joined the Syracuse school district while they were in their third year of Say Yes, left while it was in its eighth year and stated, “We were still building it.”
Say Yes to Education is a model or a framework to support students around four pillars: legal support, emotional and health support, academic support, and financial support. Graduating high school seniors are eligible to receive last-dollar tuition scholarships to attend two- and four-year colleges across the state and around the nation. Say Yes Guilford raised $41 million in charitable donations to help students receive the support they need.
Contreras explained that success of Say Yes and its wraparound services are highly dependent on the resources provided by the community, local government, and local businesses.
“We realize that students come to school with many needs. They need varying levels of support. Our wheelhouse is teaching and learning, but in education we try to do more for the students. So to have a model that actually provides support so that we can do what we know best well, is extraordinarily beneficial,” said Contreras.
Say Yes also collects data on students to track students at risk and provide not just the students with services, but also their families.
SAY YES & UNDOCUMENTED STUDENTS
In 2016, GCS’ graduation rate reached an all-time high of 89.4 percent. It was also the first year students were able to apply to the Say Yes program. Undocumented students were not eligible for those last dollar scholarships because they cannot fill out a FAFSA form without a Social Security number.
North Carolina stands out from many other states because it charges undocumented students out-of-state tuition to attend public universities and community colleges which creates a big financial issue to a model that is based on in-state tuition. Private schools often offer a limited number of in-house scholarships for undocumented students, but it is often not enough to cover all the costs of a private school.
“As a Latina and as an educator, this issue is near and dear to me,” said Contreras on the plight of undocumented students. “These students did not ask to come here. Irrespective of what we may think of what the parents did by not going through a formal process to be here, the children are here. One of our core principles at GCS is equity. To not ensure a pathway for them to go to college I think is highly unfair and problematic in growing our state’s economy.”
Contreras suggested that GCS and Say Yes Guilford dig into the issue deeper to find a way to eliminate these barriers for undocumented students, who have the grades to attend college.
The Guilford County Board of Education placed this issue on the agenda to be sent to the state legislature.
SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICERS (SROs)
Greensboro Police Officers currently serve as Student Resource Officers in 17 Guilford County middle and high schools. Parents have expressed concern over the use of SROs to address disciplinary issues within in the schools.
The original purpose of SROs was to protect children from what could happen externally and brought into schools. However, school administrations have used SROs as disciplinarians. For example, if a student had an on-campus fight, the police would be called. A group called Parents Supporting Parents has called for the school board to remove SROs from all the schools.
“Having SROs is highly beneficial and simultaneously it’s highly problematic,” said Contreras, who noted that school personnel need to have a clear definition of the roles of the SROs and roles of the teachers. “I believe that with more training, the SRO program can really be beneficial. But I certainly understand why some parents would not want the police in our schools.”
Guilford County residents who wish to learn more about the school system may attend the board’s meetings which are held on the second Tuesday and fourth Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. Community members may also host a gathering to provide the superintendent with input or feedback on shaping the district’s strategic plan.
“I want the parents and students to know that I understand them. I believe that these are their schools and I want to know what they want for their schools,” said Contreras.