Education

NCCAT, NC’s premier professional development center for teachers, faces the chopping block

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The North Carolina Center for Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT), lauded by teachers and education advocates for its work in supporting teachers’ professional development, is yet again finding itself on the verge of elimination, as Governor Pat McCrory’s 2015 budget proposes defunding the Center by June 30 of this year.

“The budget had a couple of very difficult choices in it, and NCCAT was one of those,” said McCrory’s education advisor, Eric Guckian. “It [NCCAT] has had an impact throughout the years, and we recognize that. But we made a decision to fund the classroom first.”

Critics have had NCCAT in their sights for years, contending that the center is a plush mountain resort that provides the kind of professional development training that taxpayers have no business funding. In 2011, lawmakers cut NCCAT’s $6.1 million state appropriation in half, and last year Gov. McCrory proposed eliminating the program, too—but the General Assembly ultimately saved it.

In response to critics’ demands that NCCAT reorient itself toward more critical areas of need, such as early grade literacy and digital learning, administrators say they’ve worked hard to revamp the Center’s programs and bring them in line with the priorities of the General Assembly.

But will their actions be enough to save NCCAT?

The shift toward today’s classroom needs

The state legislature established The North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT) back in 1985 to support the state’s teachers through experiential learning opportunities. According to its website, each year more than a thousand teachers take part in NCCAT’s professional development programs and residential seminars. About 70,000 teachers have trained at NCCAT since its inception.

NCCAT’s main campus is in Cullowhee, with another location on Ocracoke Island in eastern North Carolina. Situated on thirty-six acres, the western NC campus has a conference building and two residence halls.

In the past, NCCAT has provided seminars that range from those that have a direct effect on classroom teaching to those that focus more on the health and wellness of the teacher.

“Everyday Healthful Living: A Whole New You,” and “The Healing Power of the Arts,” are the kind of seminars that came under fire by lawmakers who wanted to eliminate NCCAT completely.

“Before we talk about…going to the taxpayer for more money, we should look for significant reductions in other areas,” Senate leader Phil Berger told the Carolina Journal back in 2009 in response to questions about NCCAT.

Even though supporters of NCCAT have said those kinds of health and wellness-oriented seminars are critical to rejuvenating teachers and strengthening their skill sets, the Center has heeded the demands of lawmakers in the General Assembly and has made significant changes to its programmatic offerings.

Last year, when the biennial budget dealings took place, the legislature renewed funding for NCCAT on the condition that they submit a report to the General Assembly that provides details on the Center’s governance structure, structural efficiencies, and how it is working to complement the General Assembly’s priorities with regard to digital learning and early grades literacy.

“We’ve done a great job increasing our digital learning programs and upping our early grades literacy programming—we’ve more than tripled our literacy offerings for grades K-3,” said Jonathan Wade, Director of Programming for NCCAT, who explained that the Center has turned somersaults to meet the criticism that folks have leveled toward them.

Governor McCrory proposed a substantial education budget for 2015 that contains raises for teachers who have gone without for several years. In addition, McCrory’s budget contains a multi-year proposal that creates “Career Pathways” for teachers who teach in hard-to-staff schools, who teach subject areas that are highly valued by the marketplace and who serve as leaders and mentors in their schools.

The end goal of McCrory’s Career Pathways plan is to keep good teachers in the classroom with rewards and incentives.

Wade emphasized that the Center is uniquely positioned to fulfill some of the goals of the Governor’s Career Pathways proposal.

“How to retain teachers and how to motivate teachers to discover themselves as leaders and mentors, instead of going into administration in order to progress in their careers, is a big part of what we do,” said Wade.

The importance of professional development outside of the classroom walls

Karyn Dickerson, a North Carolina Teacher of the Year from Guilford County, told N.C. Policy Watch about her own experience at NCCAT.

Dickerson participated in a seminar titled “Daring to Lead,” which prepares teachers to become leaders not only in their classrooms and schools, but also in their communities.

“The seminar gave me the chance to have a true professional development opportunity outside the confines of my school by being able to talk with others in other districts and communities. So we were able to learn best practices and learn not only from those teaching the seminar but also learn from each other,” said Dickerson.

Today, Dickerson still maintains those connections she made at NCCAT, communicating periodically with teachers all over the state via email and Facebook to chat about innovative classroom teaching methodologies and other areas of interest to teachers.

In contrast, McCrory’s senior education advisor, Eric Guckian, said that when determining whether or not to continue the state’s support of NCCAT, the professional development model they wanted to rely on was to take place within the walls of the classroom.

“In terms of the professional development model we are in favor of, it’s more of a classroom-based model…which isn’t to detract from the contributions that NCCAT has made,” said Guckian.

Dickerson says confining teachers to their own schools’ walls would mean missing a valuable opportunity.

“I think we have to develop ourselves as educators within our schools, but we also need to look at the larger context. Collaboration cannot be limited – we need to have fresh ideas and meet with others in different situations in order to grow,” said Dickerson.

And NCCAT is a different beast now, too, Dickerson contends.

“NCCAT has really reinvented itself, focusing on teacher leadership, third grade reading, and how to integrate technology into the classroom–so they are really working on elements we’re seeing in legislation. They’ve been forward thinking in that respect,” she added.

Decision rests with lawmakers

Bill Cobey, the chairman of the State Board of Education, is forceful in his support of NCCAT.

“Yes I do believe NCCAT is worth saving,” said Cobey. “I think that NCCAT has addressed the concerns that the General Assembly had last year…they have addressed early literacy and digital learning and they are a vital piece of the professional development piece of the equation for the future.”

Cobey believes they can also support McCrory’s Career Pathways plan.

“[NCCAT] is in a great position to support the Governor’s proposal of career pathways. We need to keep NCCAT for the sake of the future,” added Cobey, who also said he’d like to see the legislature make NCCAT’s funding levels recurring so they don’t have to go through the process of asking for money each year.

Charlotte teacher and NCCAT alum Donald Nagel has created a petition on Change.org, which asks state lawmakers to save NCCAT and continue its funding stream. The petition has nearly 1,000 signatures.

House and Senate lawmakers will release their proposed budgets in the coming weeks, taking into consideration the NCCAT report that chronicles how the Center has made strides in reorienting tis programming toward the priorities of the General Assembly.

Will lawmakers save NCCAT? Stay tuned to N.C. Policy Watch for further updates.

Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com

(Photo: NCCAT)

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