UNION COUNTY, N.C. — More than 41,000 Union County Public Schools students are set to head back to class on Monday, August 29.
What You Need To Know
Five new school resource officers to add to security at district's elementary schools
UCPS is expanding an agriculture and STEM-based career readiness program
Over 95% of classrooms are currently staffed by a teacher, 118 vacancies remain
This year’s school year is hopefully the first since 2019 to not face serious interruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Superintendent Andrew Houlihan.
"I think the No. 1 is going to be continuous improvement academically, we’ll have our accountability results that we’ll drop here in a week or so,” Houlihan said. “We’re looking forward to seeing how we stack up compared to other districts. But, we know that we’re not where we need to be when you look at where we were in the '18, '19 school year. So, we have a lot of urgency this year, I’ve talked to our principals and team about ... this is the time to pick up the pace. We’re back in a formal face-to-face environment, like we were last year, past COVID we hope.”
The district will see a number of other changes for students, parents and staff this year.
“The sheriff’s office has received additional funding to provide more SROs that are going to be focusing in our elementary schools. So, this year we’ll have one SRO for every two elementary schools. In years past that was a 1-to-3 initiative. We really want to get to a 1-to-1 environment, where there’s one SRO for every elementary school,” Houlihan said.
The five new school resource officers were part of a $1 million county budget item approved this summer.
Houlihan said they have also put renewed focus on teachers’ ability to recognize threats, active shooter trainings and the mental and emotional health of students. Also, Houlihan said the district has put an increased focus the last few years on school buildings’ physical security.
Once students are in the classroom it is very likely they will have a full-time teacher. The district’s classrooms are 95% staffed with 118 teacher vacancies remaining, according to Houlihan.
“The [hiring] pool has become a puddle. We’ve got to do something different in education to recruit and provide interest — high schoolers who are interested in this pathway of teaching. Compensation has a lot to do with that, here in UCPS we do as much as we can using whatever funds are available to provide stipends, incentives and bonuses,” Houlihan said outside Sun Valley Middle School on Tuesday.
A hiring and retaining initiative the UCPS Board of Education approved earlier this summer appears to be working, according to Houlihan.
In early August, the school board approved a $4,000 bonus for desperately needed teachers at four specific schools. New teachers in the subjects English language arts, math, science, and exceptional children will receive the payment spread out over the 2022-23 school year.
Current teachers at the same schools will receive a similar $4,000 retention bonus spread out over 10 months during the school year.
The eligible schools are Monroe Middle and High School, Forest Hills High School and East Union Middle School.
“What we have found in those schools is that our vacancies have gone down a bit, but more importantly our teachers have decided to stay with us. So, from a retention and a recruitment standpoint, that initiative seems to be paying off,” Houlihan said.
School board members were upset earlier this summer, when the county's commissioners approved a budget with lower than expected funds set aside for UCPS, putting future staff raises and bonuses at risk. Decisions on how to rearrange the planned budget within the county's approved allocation are still pending.
In the meantime, Houlihan assured parents each school has a staffing plan and backup staffing plan, if vacancies linger into the school year.
When it comes to getting students to school, the district’s transportation department is just a few drivers short. Despite the lack of shortages compared to last year, Houlihan asked parents and guardians to be patient with bus routes and school car lines next week.
The district is currently short more than a dozen bus drivers, a significant reduction in vacancies compared to last year, Houlihan added Tuesday. This time last year, the district needed 40, according to Spectrum News 1’s previous reporting.
“If your child rides a school bus that is what you can use to track their route, it has GPS, to know when the bus is approaching your stop, that’s going to be a change,” Houlihan said, referencing the district’s new Edulog Parent Portal app. For details on how to download, click here.
There will also be a change to nutrition services this school year after the United States Federal Government stopped a voucher program for school lunches.
“Please complete a free, reduced lunch application. The federal government ended the waiver this year for free lunch for all. So, it’s really important we get as many folks to complete that paperwork if they qualify,” Houlihan urged parents and families.
For details on how to apply, click here.
Lastly, Union County Public Schools are set to expand career-readiness programs this school year. UCPS expanded its Ag Tech program to the Forest Hills school cluster this school year, providing students a college career readiness pathway focused on science and agriculture. The STEM and agriculture-based program will prepare students for college or career opportunities in related job fields.
It is UCPS’ latest attempt to prepare students for in-demand careers. Earlier this summer, the district launched several career camps, which aimed to give students a free opportunity to experience job-specific education over the summer. The camps are already expected to return and expand next summer.