GCS students narrow performance gap

Sep. 6—GUILFORD COUNTY — The academic performance of students in the Guilford County Schools still has not entirely recovered from the damage related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it showed gains in the 2022-23 school year, and fewer GCS schools qualified as low-performing.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction released Wednesday its 2022-23 report on school accountability grades and student test results, the second full year's results since the pandemic hit the state and prompted schools to end in-person instruction in early 2020.

GCS Superintendent Whitney Oakley celebrated successes in the report at a press briefing, including overall increased proficiency for each grade span — elementary, middle and high schools — and all student groups compared to 2021-22. Eighty-six schools increased their performance composites over 2021-22, and 28 schools had 2022-23 performance composites at or above pre-COVID levels in 2018-19, up from 20 in 2021-22.

Math proficiency on end-of-grade tests in grades three through eight increased for each student group and every grade; reading proficiency increased in grades four through eight; students in grade five increased their proficiency in science; and high school students had higher proficiency on their Math 1, Math 3, Biology and English 2 end-of-course tests.

In the performance grades assigned to each school, the number of GCS schools with a C or better was 61, compared to 53 last year. In High Point, the number of schools achieving a C or better grew from five to nine, but that still left 15 with a D or F. Statewide, nearly two out of three schools had a C or better, while in GCS it was a little better than one in two.

The percentage of schools countywide that were designated as low-performing fell from 50.9% to 44.3%.

The school system also put a spotlight on Principal Yajaira Owens of Kirkland Park Elementary in High Point because of how much that school improved over the 2021-22 results, when the school received a D grade and failed to meet its goals for student academic growth. This year, it received a C grade and exceeded its growth goals.

Owens said the success was partly a matter of creating a united culture that thinks of school differently, partly an issue of analyzing and applying data and partly a matter of delegation and leadership.

"I made sure ... our leadership team and our instructional team laid the groundwork ... to be sure our students got what they needed," she said.

While emphasizing the good news, Oakley acknowledged that the effects of the pandemic and the long gap in in-person instruction will take years to overcome.

"The pandemic is not entirely over, and our students are still feeling its impact," she said.

Proficiency, end-of-grade and end-of-course scores overall remain below pre-pandemic levels except for high school Math 3, where 51% were proficient in 2022-23, compared to 46% in 2018-19.

And the number of schools meeting or exceeding their goals for student academic growth was 75 in 2022-23, compared to 86 in 2018-19.

Oakley said she wants to continue focusing on the major ways GCS has addressed trying to get students caught up, including high-dosage tutoring, learning hubs that allow students more time each day for instruction, and summer learning programs.

One looming obstacle to that is funding. Federal pandemic-related programs are helping pay for all of them, and the money runs out in 2024. GCS officials unveiled last week the largest local funding commitment it has received so far toward plugging the gap, a challenge grant of $100,000 from the High Point Community Foundation toward a goal of raising $800,000 to underwrite a literacy tutoring program for students in public schools in High Point.

Countywide, the GCS tutoring program currently costs about $3 million a year.

The learning hub program began only in the high schools, and a $2.2 million federal grant is being used this year to expand it to the middle schools.

Oakley said Wednesday the summer learning programs, including continued tutoring, cost $6.2 million.

Oakley has mentioned the looming end of the federal funding but has not publicly dwelled on it. Wednesday she emphasized that students have embraced the extended learning programs, which are voluntary but have strong participation.

"What I am excited to see is the kids are taking advantage of the help," she said.