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Mount Airy Schools grow market share, add students

When presenting an overview of the Mount Airy City Schools to the county commissioners, Superintendent Dr. Kim Morrison recently used a comparison she likes and presented the health of the school system as though it were a business.

She said they have grown from a $17 million company to a $31 million company and brought in $4 million in outside resources, an impressive result for any mid-size business. When she started as superintendent the system had a market share of 88% and is, “Now at 93% of market share, so basically most students who live in Mount Airy district choose to come to our system.”

Her system is seeing rising numbers of students as opposed to the slight decline in headcount of Surry County Schools and said they are drawing students back which means more resources for them to utilize.

Innovative programs a draw

“You know we are not gaining families in this county, what we are doing is gaining kids back from homeschool, private, and charter primarily,” she said adding she is an advocate for school choice. “We would like to be able to go out of county to attract kids to our schools. We believe they would choose us over some of the charter schools.”

“If they start with us, they usually don’t leave and if they start with a charter, they usually come to us probably about sixth grade, sometimes earlier,” she said.

Commissioner Van Tucker asked if kids transfer back to city schools for sports. Morrison said, “A lot of them start coming in third to fifth grade, it’s the first time they are tested and are realizing they are not doing very well in achievement at their charter.”

For students in middle grades, “When we survey them half are coming for athletics and half are coming for innovative programs.”

There are 900 homeschooled students in the county and Morrison said they are trying to get those roughly 400 students who would have been in Mount Airy City Schools back into their system.

However, “We do not target Surry County schools, we don’t think public schools should be targeting one another – we target home, private, charter.”

She said there are many reasons people find the system attractive including a graduation rate higher than 90% and more than 500 certificates in workforce development given, which Morrison said is “about what they have in the entire county.”

“We do believe we are leading the states with our arts programs, our robotics being the grand champion in this area, and 65% of students are in either art or athletics, some kind of extracurricular.”

“Our dual language immersion program has doubled in capacity, and we are trying to move to half of every class graduating knowing two languages fluently, Spanish and English. In ninth grade they are taking college credit for Spanish… and can take classes at SCC to be translators and go straight into the workforce,” she said and informed there is a wait list for the dual language program.

Exciting developments are afoot, Morrison said programs are evolving constantly, like the drone program. “That is now aviation science and those kids getting their pilot’s license. Entrepreneurship is really big for us so that kids, no matter what their field, can understand business. Health science is huge for us, and we enter international competitions for health science, and we always place in that.”

“Esports is new and is basically computer science learned through esports and is a UNC-Greensboro partnership, very similar to robotics.” A colleague told her, “If other superintendents aren’t doing it, they will be soon because esports is the new robotics, and it teaches kids comp science in fun and innovative ways.”

Innovation is part of the system’s mission, and they also want to help the next generation learn about sustainable agriculture and have opened a living farm. “It’s going to be a new program and it’s all about sustainability with being able to go from farm to feed and how to sustain your own family and your own community.”

Challenges and retention

Finance Director Andy Mehaffey told the board that the city schools are expecting similar increases in costs to health care and retirement benefits as other school systems reported. For next year he projected a 2.9% increase for hospitalization and 0.48% for retirement contributions for school system employees. There is also a projected 5% increase in salary for both certified and non-certified staff.

He reminded the board that they go to great lengths to track down funding before coming to the county. “It’s kind of the attitude that you are not our first stop. You are our last ask, not our first ask.”

Morrison said, “One of the things I challenge my staff to do is we need to be over 65% of our entire budget needs to go to classrooms and support students, you see we are hovering around 70%.”

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Phillip Brown said the system is working to retain talent by improving its salary competitiveness in the region and looking at supplements. Also, “We try to invest in our folks by helping in their state boards and tuition reimbursement, as you know getting national boards that is a 12% increase.”

They got a grant to help pay 16 teachers to get their board certification which means, “They will get a great increase financially at no cost to them. Its things like that that we do to invest in our folks and keep them there because we know the cost of turning over an employee far outweighs the cost of investing in them and keeping them and honing their skills.”

Special appropriations

Some of the anticipated requests outside the normal operating budget, which was $12.196 million for this fiscal year, include additional funds to expand vape detection, most notably at the middle schools. “We have an all-out war on vaping, and we are trying to keep them off vapes in middle school.”

At the high school there are still HVAC needs and the public address speakers need updating because when Morrison participated in an intruder drill, she said she couldn’t hear the lockdown alert from the hallway meaning it would be useless to a student in the hall or bathroom should an emergency develop.

Almost $300,000 has been spent on cameras, and Morrison needs funding to fill in blind spots and adding cameras to Central Office to ensure the safety of staff there. Safety issues such as extending a fence near the gym at Jones Intermediate, ADA compliance signage at the high school, and additional keyless entry are also items she wants to address.

Long term projects include renovations to Mount Airy Middle, geothermal conversion of campuses, and an early education center at Tharrington Elementary to expand Pre-K in the county.

The county commissioners have the full proposed request now and hold a public hearing for input on all budgetary matters at their meeting June 20 before voting on the budget to take effect on July 1.



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