Last Thursday, Macon County Schools’ new superintendent, Dr. Chris Baldwin visited the League of Women Voter's monthly meeting to give those in attendance an update of the current state of schools in the county.
Baldwin is a native of Nantahala and has been a lifelong educator. He officially took on the role of superintendent on July 1 of this year. He graduated from Nantahala School in 1986 and returned to teach at the small school. Before becoming superintendent, he served as a teacher and principal in Nantahala. He has served as principal of Franklin High School for the last two years. In 2005 and 2008, he was named Principal of the Year.
Of the highlights detailed about the county schools, Baldwin noted that the high school currently graduates 86.1 percent of its students and in doing so produces the highest reading scores in the western part of the state.
“The graduation rate is the highest that it has ever been in Macon County,” he said. “We developed three goals, the first being to improve literacy rates, the second being to increase graduation rates, and the third is to make our schools bully free zones.”
One of the strengths at Franklin High School is its strong vocational programs.
"We have a very strong vocational program," said Baldwin. "We produce a workforce, ready for employment when they graduate. I've spoken to Mr. Pickens who teaches welding at FHS and he has told me stories of former students making 80, 90, sometimes over $100,000 a year."
He also discussed a group at FHS called SWAG, or Students With Awesome Goals.
"At Franklin High School we just have such caring and compassionate students. We have great counselors that along with a group of students have created a group called SWAG. They try to promote positive interactions between students at the high school. They have high-five Fridays and anything else they can think of. It's been a really good program for the high school."
Baldwin said that local schools are, for now, holding on to good teachers despite pay discrepancies compared to surrounding states.
“We thought we had a counselor coming in to fill a position. She was very qualified for the position and we had offered her the job, but when she got home she did some research and called us back to say that she couldn't take it because counselors were making $20,000 more in Alabama,” he said. “We're seeing more teachers starting to leave. We had a principal go to Georgia because they paid $15,000 to $20,000 more a year.”
Concern is beginning to mount among school officials and others in the community who worry about losing these effective teachers to better paying jobs elsewhere.
“In 2011-2012, the last year that data was kept, Macon County produced four Schools of Distinction,” said Baldwin. “That means that at least 80 percent of the students testing were at a mastery level. That means they were scoring As on these exams.”
The N.C. General Assembly has enacted changes to public education in the last congressional session. Among the many changes was the elimination of tenure among teachers. In years past, teachers were able to build tenure —meaning they were somewhat protected and unable to be terminated without due process.
“The thing is, under the old law, we were able to get rid of teachers who had tenure,” said Baldwin. “It had to be done right, but if there was a reason to do it we could. Now teachers are going to be able to be dismissed for any reason. Teachers were able to speak their mind if they didn't agree with something and we may stop seeing that now. Politics very well could play into things and that's unfortunate. I think it's just another slap in the face of the teachers.”
Other hindrances to the school system could come in the form of budget cuts. Applauding a committed and dedicated workforce along with a good group of students, he said that despite the budget cuts trickling down from the state, local schools are still effective. During the budgeting session this past spring, the Board of Education was left scrambling to find funds that would help them keep teachers. With help from the board of commissioners, most positions that were on the brink of being cut were able to be saved.
“I'm just thankful for people like you all,” said Baldwin. “You're the ones that understand that the future of this country, not just here in Macon County, depends on our kids and the investment that we put into them.”