Director of Student Services Joining North Carolina School Division as Chief Academic Officer, Reflects on Strategies That Reached Students Often at Risk of Dropping Out

“No students are born to fail,” says Dr. Nicholas King, the school division’s Director of Student Services, who is leaving the school division this month to relocate to his native North Carolina. King will become the Chief Academic Officer for Johnston County Schools in Smithfield, NC, a school division of 37,000 students.

Dr. King, who has led the division’s support services for students since 2015, and who previously was an elementary school principal in the county for five years, said it will be very difficult to leave a position that closely aligned with his strongest interest in education.

“I did my doctoral dissertation on alternative education, reaching students who often were at high risk of simply giving up on education, dropping out,” he says. “For all of my professional life, I have worked to change those approaches that forced students to fit programs rather than the other way around. I’m grateful that Albemarle County Public Schools gave me the opportunity to shape square pegs without putting them in round holes.”

Among King’s earliest responsibilities was overseeing the division’s Center for Learning & Growth, which supported up to a dozen middle and high school students at a time who were struggling to succeed in conventional classrooms. Students attend the center on a temporary basis and eventually return to their base schools. “Those early and mid-teen years can present difficult emotional issues for students, and if the system in place is not meeting individual needs by addressing those issues, the disconnect can show up in inappropriate behavior,” King said.

His solution? Making sure to hear all students out with a healthy dose of patience while not insisting on total agreement in order to build trust. “The best way to figure out what is causing difficulties in a student’s life and to provide the space they need to resolve a problem begins with listening and with a willingness to be flexible. I’m still waiting to meet that first child who prefers to be in trouble all the time,” he said.

Education can offer a powerful tool for building self-esteem when it provides students with more control over how they learn. “It empowers them in constructive ways,” King points out. “At the Center for Learning & Growth, the emphasis was on the creativity component of learning. Students improved and were best engaged not through textbooks, but through using their own passions to design and complete projects they chose that produced a great sense of pride. It worked so well that it was not unusual for students who left the alternative education program to continue to stay in touch with me to ask for advice and support,” King said.

King also is a strong supporter of the division’s alternative to out-of-school suspensions, known as STEP for short-term education program. Instead of being suspended out of school for days or weeks for behavioral violations, students are assigned to a classroom during that time where they complete their academic assignments under the supervision of an educator.

“It’s a perfect example of fitting structure to needs,” King pointed out. “Students often leave STEP in better shape academically than they were before, preventing them from falling further behind. At the same time, they have the opportunity to work with counselors instead of being at home, where they often are alone and apart from support services,” he added.

School safety was another high-profile part of King’s responsibilities. Among his accomplishments was the division-wide introduction of Anonymous Alerts, an online reporting system that allows students, parents and employees to confidentially report safety concerns to school administrators. “The most effective safety tool is access to information,” King noted. “We were interrupted a bit by the pandemic and we’ll need some time, but this system has tremendous potential. It can and has provided actionable information to prevent unhealthy situations in a school,” he said.

“Research shows that schools in our country remain extremely safe despite some of the understandable concern that headlines can generate about a threat to school safety. Several of the programs in our division that promote candid conversations with students, that emphasize inclusiveness and sharing, that promote collaboration in the classroom, all bode well. It is always effective when we can sit down with students and learn what is going on in their lives,” he said.

His biggest problem now, King says, is saying goodbye to the Albemarle County Public Schools community. “For me and my family, this has been a terrific place to live and raise our children. Education clearly is a community value. I have had the privilege of benefitting and growing from so many outstanding personal and professional relationships. It will be difficult to leave.”

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