Dr. Steven Hill
Dr. Steven Hill, Superintendent of Pender County Schools, updated the club on the status of Pender County Schools and some of the challenges the school system faces with COVID-19 and burgeoning enrollments. The school system is under ever increasing scrutiny with the restrictions and threat of COVID-19 as the governor, state health department and state legislature try to manage school protocols that seem to change daily, along with parent and teacher concerns. Oftentimes directives from different state and county sources are at odds with one another. It becomes a real dilemma for the Superintendent to try to keep kids safe, parents and teachers happy and yet oversee the educational institution of learning.
By way of introduction to the Pender County Schools , Dr. Hill explained the geographical make up of the county. The entire county is increasing in population. The east side of the county with the Highway 17 corridor through the Hampstead area continues to grow as more and more people desire a ‘country’ life-style but the convenience of nearby medical and commercial businesses. Thus, a large school population lives in this area and it is difficult to keep up with the need for more classroom space and the new teachers to fill them. The housing boom nationwide often means that new teachers cannot afford housing in the county. With COVID -19 the teacher shortage is even more critical even with teacher supplements. On the west side of Pender along the I-40 corridor, agricultural use is predominant with mostly rural areas. But even in this rural area the population boom continues as people look for a better place to live and raise their kids.
Another dilemma facing Dr. Hill and the school system is the contrast in state school funding and student performance. As a school system, Pender student performance is 11th on standard measures of learning, yet the school system ranks 98 to 99th in state funding out of the 115 NC school districts. This puts tremendous pressure on the supportive county government leaders to weigh in on local tax increases but maintain responsible fiscal budgets. The result is the flat level of funding for pencils, paper, and other classroom supplies even though more and more kids are attending school in the county. State-funded Charter Schools also mean reduced funding and teacher allotments for public schools. Another caveat, state-mandated classroom size at the elementary level means fewer teachers in middle and high schools.
Another aspect of flat funding and COVID-19 is the need to offer alternative choices for learning in addition to the traditional classroom. Once the county school system in person learning was stopped on March 16, 2020, due to COVID-19, the school system had to quickly switch to online learning which was foreign to most school systems across the US. Now that in-person learning has resumed under strict health proactive standards, the school system still offers online learning at added expense.
Dr. Hill expressed great gratitude to the Pender Education Partnership for public support of Pender schools and to our Kiwanis Club for providing scholarships to graduating Seniors.