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Educational leaders share thoughts on challenges and solutions in K-12 schools and community colleges

By Linda Coutant

BOONE, N.C.—Decreased funding, increased accountability measures that take time away from teaching and shifts toward greater business-like operational models are among many challenges facing education, according to regional educational leaders. Yet, the leaders say they are finding strength in meeting those challenges through collaboration – whether between public and private schools, high schools and community colleges, or other creative solutions.

View larger imageParticipating in a panel discussion on challenges facing education are, from left, Appalachian doctoral program alumni Dr. Leslie McKesson ’16 of Western Piedmont Community College, Dr. Wayne Matthews ’12 of Surry Community College’s Yadkin Center, Dr. Melanie Mikusa ’15 of Morganton Day School, Dr. David Stegall ’11 of Newton-Conover City Schools, former program director Dr. Jim Killacky, Dr. Jewell Cherry ’15 of Forsyth Technical Community College, and doctoral student John Robinson of Discovery High School in Newton. Photo by Marie Freeman

Five alumni and a current student of Appalachian State University’s doctoral program in educational leadership participated in a recent panel discussion on campus about their institutions’ challenges and how they are addressing them.

“The transformation of teaching as an art into a technical profession – how do we keep that from happening?” posed John Robinson, principal at Discovery High School in Newton and a current student in the doctoral program. “The issues we engage in at my school are not about the latest questions on the EOG (end-of-grade test) but about students who are struggling and how to help them.”

Robinson said his school regards students as partners and works to engage their passions at an early age. He told of a student fascinated by water quality as a freshman whose teachers encouraged him to explore the topic in assignments throughout high school. For his senior project, he developed a natural water filtration system for parking lot run-off at his school. That project led to an opportunity to attend a national public university.

Dr. David Stegall, superintendent of Newton-Conover City Schools, said students “don’t all fit into one box,” so schools need to be flexible in the education they provide. “We have to be open to what’s right for a particular student,” said Stegall, who completed his doctorate at Appalachian in 2011. He said he engages his teaching staff in “moonshot thinking,” in reference to the 1960s effort to send humans to the moon. “I give my teachers permission to try things out of the box and I’ll give them a grant to do it,” he said.

Dr. Wayne Matthews, director of Surry Community College’s Yadkin Center and director of operational programs for Yadkin County, spoke of his school’s partnership with local and state officials to build the Yadkin Center to handle increased enrollment and programming in that area. “We don’t have enough resources independently to do our own thing. We have to rely on each other,” he said. He completed his doctorate from Appalachian in 2012.

Public and private K-12 schools are often viewed as adversaries, said Dr. Melanie Mikusa, head of Morganton Day School, but she sees the two types as having the ability to work together for what’s best for students.

“We should all see each other as educators and see how we can collaborate. At a small, private school for example, I can test ideas out quickly – and those findings might be able to be applied in a larger system that couldn’t test those ideas out on their own. I think we should be asking, how can we take the best of any type of education and put it in place elsewhere?” said Mikusa, who earned her doctorate in 2015.

Other panel participants spoke of how their institutions are addressing community needs.

Dr. Jewell Cherry, vice president of Forsyth Technical Community College’s Student Services Division, said faculty there have been offering Advanced Placement courses and developmental math courses in Stokes County high schools. “We are committed to helping all students receive a quality education and doing whatever we can to make that happen,” she said. She earned her doctorate in 2015.

Western Piedmont Community College faculty are also teaching in local high schools so students can earn college credit and develop skills for college-level work so less remedial work is needed once they arrive at college, explained Dr. Leslie McKesson, dean of business, public services and academic support at WPCC. This collaboration can help address issues of educational access, as performance-based funding at community colleges often relies on degree completion.

Collaboration, she said, can serve as a form of agency in the face of imposed regulation – “Rather than push back, let’s make it work for students,” said McKesson, who finished her doctorate in 2016.

Having been students in Appalachian’s doctoral program helped the leaders prepare for these and other challenges, they said, by expanding their “lens of understanding.” For example, they are now able to understand educational systems as being more complex than originally thought, or look at specific issues from the perspective of marginalized students, they said.

“Faculty really encouraged dialogue and discourse. The classes helped me realize how close-minded I had been,” Stegall said. The program didn’t prepare him for specific leadership situations so much as to be able to “think from different perspectives so you can act (when situations arise),” Stegall said.

“I came to appreciate the dialogue with the K-12 educators in my cohort and how what they are experiencing impacts what we experience in the community colleges,” Cherry said. “We can get caught in our own bubble, and the program helped us expand our thinking to all levels of education.”

The panel was part of the doctoral program’s annual Spring Symposium. The event also featured paper presentations by faculty and students and remarks by Dr. Fran Oates, the 2016 winner of Appalachian’s Alice Phoebe Naylor Outstanding Dissertation Award. Oates is elementary education program coordinator at Winston-Salem State University. The 2017 Naylor Award was presented to Dr. Leslie McKesson for her dissertation “Determined to Rise: A Conceptual and Counter-narrative Analysis of the Higher Education Attainment Experiences of Three African American Men.”

About the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership

The Reich College of Education is home to Appalachian’s only doctoral program. Graduates hold leadership roles in K-12 public education, community colleges and educational agencies across North Carolina and beyond. Through core leadership and research courses, students learn to apply theory to practice to make educational systems more effective, more equitable and more sustainable. Through professionally oriented concentrations, students gain advanced knowledge in their disciplinary specialization and prepare themselves to assume higher levels of organizational leadership. Learn more at https://edl.appstate.edu

About Appalachian State University

Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina system, Appalachian enrolls about 18,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.