How one Alamance-Burlington school is fighting environmental and educational hardships with positive reinforcement


BURLINGTON, N.C. — There was a not-so-ceremonial police escort through the neighborhoods leading up to Harvey Newlin Elementary. Six squad cars lined up outside the school. Armed officers, some with both hands glued to the right side of their hip, rushed out of their cars towards what looked like an abandoned home. Across the street from this heated scene some 800 elementary school kids were sitting on reading carpets, practicing cursive, or working on fractions in their classrooms just like any other weekday.

“If you came at night, then you’d really see what they deal with,” said Larry Conte, principal at Harvey Newlin Elementary School, “gang issues, parents in prison, economic disadvantages.”

“You have kids come into your room that haven’t eaten, are getting beat up or nobody is doing homework with them or nobody is at the house until nine or 10 at night," Conte said. “We’re trying to have them not let their environment dictate who they are.  And that’s an easy thing to say, but a tough thing to do.”

The staff at Newlin have to level the playing field for these kids. They are working to ensure that their students don’t feel that because of their color, where they’re from, or lack of money that they can’t have the opportunities other kids have.

"We encourage our teachers to make home visits and know where they come from," Conte said. "You have to be able to connect with them in their environment and the things they struggle with."


It takes more than organized lesson plans to teach at Harvey Newlin Elementary School.

“We’re in the business of changing lives,” Conte said. “It’s a little different calling from educating.”

Teachers take on many roles including parent and social worker at Newlin. They go to Little League and Pee Wee Football games, help with homework before and after school, make home visits and drive kids home when there's no ride waiting. They fill the needs that their students have outside the classroom and they are there as a security blanket to help without any judgement or conditions.

"What’s important is that our staff gets that this whole schooling thing is about a relationship between student and teacher," Conte said. "The stronger it is, the more learning you get and they want to be in school."

Impact on Academics
According to the Public School Review by the NC Department of Education and NCES, in 2012 there were 27 public elementary schools in Alamance County, North Carolina, serving 13,955 students. Minority enrollment across the county was 46 percent of the student body, which was less than the North Carolina state average of 48 percent. At Harvey Newlin Elementary minority enrollment was 88 percent of the student body, the majority of which is Hispanic.

“At other schools there’s a smaller percentage of students who are considered to be at risk, because of whatever situation they are in financially or if they are immigrants,” said Angela Funari, a North Carolina native and first grade teacher at Newlin. “This type of demographic is at every school, but a smaller portion struggle with what these kids struggle with.”

According to Principal Conte, 98 percent of students are on free and reduced lunch. That’s almost 800 kids who are served meals in the school cafeteria that are fully or partially paid for by the federal government. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced?price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents.

Holy Comforter Church, a local community church, has stepped in to fight this problem by running a program that sends kids home with a backpack full of healthy food every week.

“We fill 50 book bags a week of food,” Conte said. “We could have 300, it still wouldn’t be enough.”

There is also a large community-supported school supply closet, backed by the Chamber of Commerce, that had over 40,000 items donated this year. According to Danielle Woodall, Lead School Social Worker for Alamance-Burlington School System,  over 2,300 students were directly impacted and benefited from the school supplies closet.

A report released in July by NC Child said nearly over 25 percent of North Carolina's children were living in poverty in 2012. It also ranked the state as 34th overall in child well-being.

According to the NC school report card, in the 2012-2013 school year almost half of the students that took the North Carolina End of Grade Tests at Newlin were “economically disadvantaged” and only 26 students passed both the reading and math tests. Only 20.3 percent of students at Newlin scored at or above grade level in math and just 15.9 percent in reading. Those percentages are less than half of the state averages in each subject, which are over 40 percent. And they fall far below the district averages of 38 percent.

“It’s my job to work with these kids in the best way I can,” Funari said. “You have to be understanding and put yourself in their shoes.”

Some kids may have to gotten themselves up in the morning so they come to school late, others may not have had breakfast in the morning so they’re hungry. Some kids don’t have parents at home at night to do their homework for them because they’re working four jobs.

“I see it as more challenging and it’s fulfilling,” Funari said. "What’s going on at home, their backgrounds, they come from rougher home lives or it’s more challenging when it comes to academics to be successful, and I really like that aspect of it.”

Social Work at Newlin.
The Alamance-Burlington School System (ABSS) has 36 schools and 28 full-time employed school social workers. There are a couple that are shared who deliver services on a part-time bases and the majority of them are on an elementary level.

The national average for a school social worker to student ratio is 1 social worker per 250 students. The ABSS ratio is 1:834 for this current school year.

Newlin Elementary school is the largest school in the district. Evette Bethea, the Child & Family Support Team Leader and social worker at Newlin, serves 791 students herself.

Bethea meets with families on a daily basis. The reasons for the meetings vary, but this school year Bethea has already dealt with cases from homelessness to domestic violence.

“A family has just moved in with another family because of hardship,” Bethea said. “I give them school supplies and access to any resources they need and explore with the family how is this child dealing with the living situation and the instability of it all.”

Bethea believes she can relate to everyone if they disclose enough about their life. So she tries to connect with parents in order to gain their trust and form a positive relationship.

“Once they realize ‘okay, she doesn’t look at me differently than she looks at anyone else' then they’re able to say ‘this is what I really need, this is what’s going on,’” Bethea said. “Then I have the opportunity to see what resources are out there for them.”

According to ABSS lead social worker Danielle Woodall, research shows that when you look at educational outcomes kids that have a strong connection with an adult in the building, whether it’s a school social worker, a teacher, a bus driver or an administrator, are more successful.

The goal of Child and Family Support Team, a joint project of North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, is to prevent out of home placement and academic failure. Having the program in tact since 2006 allows them to look at data and assess the effectiveness of their services

“We were seeing a positive change in those kids academically, their test scores were going up,” Woodall said. “We were able to make a correlation with those who were involved with department of juvenile justice, department of social services and how those services were all melding together to work collaboratively for children to stay in their home and have academic success, which is a huge feat.”

Unfortunately when it comes to budget cuts, these educational and social work services are oftentimes the first to go.

“If we don’t bring awareness to it then we run the risk of that funding being gone if people don’t understand why it’s there," Woodall said. “It truly does impact our students and our families when those services aren’t there in a full-time capacity.”

Beyond just teaching.
From running after-school soccer programs to coming early to school to tutor struggling readers teachers at Newlin put in extra hours outside of the job in different ways to ensure they are a consistent positive outlet for students.

“Of course Conte hires smart, good teachers, but more than anything he looks at the person that you are,” said first grade teacher Angela Funari. “If you’re not a person who is suitable or good enough to work with these types of kids he won’t hire you because they deserve the best kind of people to be surrounding them.”

“It’s not about teaching, I know she can’t teach because she hasn’t learned her craft yet,” Conte said. “The piece she’s got is that she is a great human being and that is going to make her an unforgettable teacher.”

The most important thing for Funari to make an impact and create a safe learning environment for her students is love.

“I want my classroom to feel like a home to them and that we are a big family,” Funari said. “In this job of course you focus on instruction and what you deliver content-wise, but more than anything I want to mend hearts and help them get passed and work through the struggles they face at home.”

Funari tells each of her kids she loves them every single day. She ties in life lessons to everything she teaches and reinforces what it means to be a leader and a hero. Her classroom is focused on being a good person.

“I try to teach what a parent would want to teach a kid at home outside of academics,” Funari said. “Our rules aren’t ‘don’t do this,’ it’s 'be kind to others and be respectful.'”

For Funari the most rewarding thing about being a teacher at her school is that she’s lucky enough to have kids inspire her in some way every day.

“I see a first grader who struggled with something at home and they come in ready to learn and work hard,” Funari said. “It makes me thankful for what I have and it makes me not take anything for granted.

“I want to be their hero, but a lot of days I leave this school and I think that their my little heroes.”