A talk with Hoke High School’s new principal

A talk with Hoke High School’s new principal

Catharin Shepard • News-Journal Editor • Colleen Pegram-Wike is the new principal of Hoke County High School. After years of serving as principal of SandHoke Early College High School, she’s bringing her leadership and educational philosophy to the much larger campus of Hoke High.

What are her thoughts on education? What can students expect to see? What are her goals for continuing the improvement at Hoke High – which, last year, earned its first-ever “B” letter grade on the state report card?

Pegram-Wike sat down to talk about all that, and more, as she takes the lead in Bucks country.

Q: What is your philosophy about education?

A: My primary premise on this is that we serve kids. We are in the service business, and our job is to make sure that every student can come to a place that is safe and orderly, and excellence is the mindset. With that philosophy, it really drives what you see as important.

What I see as important is quality teachers in every classroom, whether it’s CTE, EC, AP, regular, whatever. Quality teachers. Every student deserves equitable access to an excellent education. Now, students will drive a lot of that by what they are choosing. I believe if you take away every excuse, then if they don’t do it, it’s on them.

That’s what has driven us at SandHoke: if you take away every excuse. If you need school supplies, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have it. If you need clothes for college classes, you should have them. You need a pencil, you need a calculator, no matter what I think about that $1,000 phone you’ve got, if you need a calculator, we’re going to give it to you, because you need it for the math. Your computer broke? We’ll get you a loaner.

You have to be thinking ahead of them, because if you don’t anticipate the excuses, then it’s always going to be our fault. That’s how we have to move people into being responsible for their own decisions. I also believe we’re role models, so we have to show kids that the product we’re selling, education, is a good product and it can be a lifeline to where they want to go in life.

It is not the end-all, everybody does not have to go to a four-year university, some people are just gifted entrepreneurs, but everyone needs a basic, sound education of how to think, how to read, how to write, how to respond. Everybody needs that. I don’t care what ethnic group you come from, I don’t care what gender you are, everybody needs that, because the children are our future. We have to give them that. So, that’s the philosophy I come into here with, that has worked for me in all my educational years.

Q: SandHoke has a high graduation rate and strong scores, and Hoke High has made strides in making improvement in those areas. What are some things that you’re looking to do to keep that growth going?

A: First of all, sustainability becomes everything through systemic practices. You get systemic practices by everybody buying into the vision. Again, the vision is, every student having access to equitable and excellent opportunity education, don’t change that. In other words, I want to unlock everybody’s potential, the teachers and the students.

So if everybody’s functioning at their potential, to their fullest, and we get there – your fullest might look different from the ninth grade, to the tenth grade, to the eleventh, to the twelfth. But if you’re only half doing it in the ninth, that means you come into the tenth grade only half ready. Now we’ve got to catch up. Then you come in a little bit behind in the eleventh, now we’re constantly catching up. So, we’ve got to start from ground zero.

Same thing with teachers. Whether they’re new teachers or senior teachers, they have to believe that they can still grow and learn. When we get to the point that we can’t anymore, we’re done. Right now, for me, I’ve been processing since we talked about me coming over here (to Hoke High) – what can I bring to the table? Do I have any new ingenuities? What do I have that’s going to be different, and how do I integrate that into an already functioning place? Because you’ve got people that might see things totally different from me.

How do I make that mesh so we can, again, make the mission of serving every student? I think that’s how I feel like I’m going to bring this to the table for them, this is how I’m going to move us forward.

We’re looking at what classes we’re giving students, what are we offering? We can’t just offer a bunch of classes so there’s a smorgasbord with no purpose. We need to be intentional in everything that we do, so that we can continue to grow. And if we are intentional in scheduling students, we can get more students to Sandhills Community College through the CCP (College and Career Promise), we can raise that number, and outdo SandHoke with all due respect. We can get more kids through CTE and certifications, we can get more kids into scholarships, academic, athletic. We can get kids more ready for the military and excel and go in as E-3s and E-4s, and get bonuses. It’s wide open for them, if we put the systemic practices in and figure out how to grow as an individual and as a team.

Q: Every school has challenges, what are some of the challenges at Hoke High, and what are some of the things you’re working on to address those challenges?

A: We are trying to make sure we have qualified teachers in every classroom. We had a big gap last year that Dr. Benson had to deal with, it is what it is. Even at SandHoke, we were missing social studies (teachers) and we had to fill in gaps, but it’s different to fill in for 400 students and 20 staff members than it is with almost 2,000 students and almost 100 staff members. I think that’s what we have to look at, to make sure we are filling in those gaps appropriately.

The number one challenge is making sure kids come to school. We need to make a safe environment, we need to reduce the potential violence on campus, make sure it doesn’t interfere with learning. We need to shift the culture a little bit. Not saying it was all bad, I’m not judging anything, but we need to shift it, that this is not your playground, this is your educational facility. It’s a large school. The challenge comes in with the numbers, to the ratio of adults on campus to students, and how do we make it work without making it look like an institution? (We don’t want to) lock everybody down, make kids feel like, “I don’t want to come here.”

We’re not the entertainment business, that’s what the mall and the movies and the miniature golf is for, we’re in the business of educating. But we can make education pleasurable, enjoyable and engaging.

The challenge is getting everybody in place…looking at, what does Hoke High need? Social studies, science, math, how do we fill those in? And looking at the master schedule, how do we move all of this to make sure every student is in the core classes – the core’s got to be important – and still make sure teachers are enjoying what they’re doing? That’s going to be the struggle. The state says these are our core classes, and we’ve got to make sure the core is taken care of, because without the core, the apple is rotten.

The second thing is, we want to make sure we’re increasing our advising to students. We want to make sure that we’re talking to students, that they know they have a voice and we’re hearing them. We want to make sure there’s not a student that comes on campus every day without an adult telling them, “Hello, how are you doing, are you okay.” We want to encourage them.

The third piece is the stakeholders, the parents. We want them to hear us that while we’re not perfect – we’re human, we might not do everything the way you want us to do it – we need you to trust that we have our students’ best interests (at heart). We need that reputation.

Q: It’s been about four years since the pandemic shutdown, so freshmen coming in this fall would have been in elementary/going into middle school when that happened. What sorts of impacts are you seeing on kids from that experience?

A: I’m not going to let that be our excuse. We’ll pick up where they’re at, we’ll train them and teach them where they’re at. Differentiated instruction. We’ve got to meet them where they’re at. We cannot keep going back to COVID. We have the flu every year, kids are out, we have death in the family, kids are out. We have all kinds of stuff, surgeries, people are out. I know COVID was more of an impact because it was a year and a half we were out and then we came back A-B, but we’ve got to move beyond that, and we’ve got to hope that we can fill in the gaps the best way we know.

If we go back to good teaching, which includes differentiating instruction, integration of blended learning, literacy, reading and writing and talking every day in the classroom, activities that engage students, and tactile learning, touching and feeling so that kids can get it? I think we’ll close the gap.

Q: Absenteeism has become a big issue for a lot of school districts, is that an issue for Hoke High?

A: That’s why we have dropout prevention, get on top of it right now. Don’t wait until somebody’s 10 days absent. When they start missing two days, go see them. When it starts becoming a habit of once a week, if every week they’re out once a week, we need to have a conversation with them. Find out what’s going on.

Sometimes, in certain populations, it could be they’re going to a doctor’s appointment with their parent to interpret. It might be, the parent could have cancer. We need to find out so we can help them with that. Maybe we could go and help them with that, so you can come to school. They might be migrants and have to fill in a job space for their parents. Maybe we can help you. They might have to watch younger siblings. How do we help you?

That’s what dropout prevention is for, that’s what social workers are for, finding out what is hindering our students and putting in strategies that will help them overcome. Now if they choose not to, we did what we were supposed to do.

Now, I’m not saying be the replacement of parents. I’m saying that as educators, making sure that this facility is inviting enough and is warm and safe enough, that they can come in. And when they come in, whatever’s going on out there, they forget about it because right here is where they’re at – that mindfulness. Now, when they go back home, they have to deal with a lot of stuff. But when they come back here, this is where they run to for their safe haven, and that’s what we want.

Pegram-Wike went on to talk about helping with student behavior issues by understanding trauma, and how to best handle those issues.

A: We have to understand trauma. And so, we need to make sure we get trained and understand, and see the indicators kids are showing, instead of us backbiting kids. We have to reduce our sending them to Turlington, we have to reduce that. We have to find better ways to deal with their behaviors and their trauma.

…I know kids fight. I grew up in the projects in Brooklyn, if you’re putting enough people on top of each other, they’re going to want to fight. What we have to do is teach them to make better choices. It might take one or two years, but we’ve got to get there.

It’s not about punishment, that’s not our job, we’re not in the business of punishment. We’re in the business of education, and education means love, to me. That’s a parent’s job, to punish. Now, we can give consequences, positive as well as negative, but that’s the parent’s job to discipline. And so when kids act up, we don’t have to fight with them. Call the parent, tell them to come get them, your child’s having a bad day. It’s okay, we all have bad days. Take them home, let them relax, talk to them, figure out what’s going on, tell me what I can do to help for the next time. How can I make sure they’re okay. And we move on. I’m not mad at your kid because they had a bad day.

Q: Are there any changes families need to be aware of for the fall? Especially considering the ongoing construction on the new building at Hoke High.

A: I don’t think it’s going to change much…one of the things I’m going to do is put parking numbers in the faculty parking lot, so they’ll have their assigned spots. I think the only thing I really want to work on, and I made it a priority with the chain of command – I use a lot of military terms – is, those buses have got to get our kids to school on time. In order to divert and shift this culture, I need kids in class. I need them in class at 8:30. Are we going to have stragglers? That’s life. You have stragglers in the real world. But I need to buckle my kids, and realign the bus transportation here, so that’s what I’m pushing for.

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