Dr. Charles Foust: Taking over New Hanover County Schools at a turbulent time (”1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Dr. Charles Foust is just weeks into his new job as Superintendent of New Hanover County Schools, taking over as the leader of the system on September 1st. But, the biggest challenge in the southeastern North Carolina district is the same one he would have faced at his previous position with the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools: dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and providing a quality education while working to keep students and employees safe.
“They’re doing a phenomenal job with having students at a remote distance,” Dr. Foust said after watching teachers and staff in the first few weeks of the new academic year. “I’m thankful for the work they’re doing. The teachers, along with the principals, who are making sure the students are getting the needed education.”
The pandemic is not the only challenge New Hanover County Schools currently faces. In the past three years, three educators were arrested and charged with sex crimes against students. Attorneys have filed civil cases against the school system on behalf of victims of those educators. There is also an ongoing investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation into whether administrators violated any laws in handling allegations that were reportedly brought to their attention. Dr. Foust said he learned about the cases while doing research after being made aware NHCS sought a permanent replacement for interim superintendent Dr. Del Burns.
“It wasn’t the first thing I looked at,” Dr. Foust said about the sex abuse scandal. “I looked at the district at a whole to see ‘What’s the district doing? What are the positive things going on in the district?’. Then, I did want to know ‘How did this happen?’ Everyone has their own saying of what happened. That’s not what we’re literally trying to find out. We want to make sure now that it doesn’t happen again. Yes, I was aware of the things, I read the news articles, all of the op-Eds. I’ve been trained in Title IX and Title VI, and so I know what should happen, and where we can help support our families, our employees, our communities to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. I’m not going to say there are predators out there that will not attempt it, but we need to know what is the process we will use in the event that there is a Title IX issue that takes place.”
Even after learning about the past sex abuse cases, Dr. Foust says he did not have second thoughts about applying for, and later accepting the job of leading the 12th largest public school system in North Carolina.
“What I do know is that there are some great employees here in the district,” he said. “Although there were a couple who were not following the policy and doing what they were supposed to do, there’s so many more that were doing what they were supposed to do. So, I looked at that light and said 'You know, that’s where I want to be. I want to be with the individuals who actually want to learn, who understand that ‘wrong is wrong’. That didn’t bring pause to me at any time.”
Charles Foust grew up in Sedalia, North Carolina, outside of Greensboro, and he says his parents prioritized education in the household. He began to develop an interest in teaching as an inquisitive student in elementary school.
“Sitting at the table with my mom, and she would always instruct me in doing homework,” he remembers with a smile. “I knew there had to be a better way! Oh my gosh, I said ‘this is like trial by fire!’ But I learned. I would get to school and often times I would see things, I would ask questions. It would translate different to me. When a teacher would put a problem up or we would do something, I would have a different approach to it. Things just came easy for me in there. Then, I started tutoring students. I would help students in class or after school doing some tutoring younger cousins. When I was in high school, I was in Future Teachers of America, and we would go to Sedalia Elementary (School) and tutor once a month, and I had a group of third graders there that I would work with for a couple hours. I thought I was going to be an attorney, but education had a stronger pull.”
While attending North Carolina A & T University, Foust drove a school bus to earn extra money. He talks about the experience at 14:00 of the podcast. His first job after college came as a teacher in Guilford County schools, where he rose to principal before leaving for a position with an Independent School System in Houston, Texas. That’s also where he completed his work to become a Doctor of Education in 2017, prodded to finish by a question from his oldest daughter, Kennedi.
“I’ll never forget, she was in the backseat and we were on Highway 288 (in Houston) and she said, ‘Have you ever quit anything?’,” he remembers. “I said, ‘No, I’ve never quit anything. I always finish what I start’. She said, ‘What about your doctoral degree?’ I said, ‘Ohhhh! It’s on hold, I didn’t actually quit!’ She said, ‘Well, when are you going to finish?’ After that conversation, it was probably a couple of months before I enrolled at the University of Houston, had things transferred over (after starting at UNC Chapel Hill years earlier) and was able to finish the degree. Now I ask her, 'Hey, we’re ready for school, and there’s no quitting with school!”
After returning to North Carolina to work as a School Performance Officer, Union County Schools, Dr. Foust got his first opportunity to become a superintendent. He took over the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools in 2018. According to published reports, after a year it was no longer the lowest performing district in the state, with 39 of the 43 schools showing positive gains in English Language Arts. In an effort to increase the graduation rate, the superintendent and other members of the administration went so far as to hit the street, seeking out students that had dropped out and encouraging them to return to complete their degrees.
“We had a picture of the student, and so I was able to talk to the student if they opened the door, I was talking to mom, dad, aunt, uncle, in some cases, it was grandma who would answer that door,” Dr. Foust says. “I’d tell them what they needed. We were breaking down their transcripts for them. That’s what we were able to see. We’d say, ‘Hey, you need 27 credit hours and you have 25. You’re there! Come back, we can do this!’ That was great.”
Dr. Foust took some criticism from the Kansas City, Kansas community when New Hanover County Schools announced his hiring as superintendent on July 31. He addresses those views at the 28:00 mark of the podcast. As the school board made its' decision, leaders were still finalizing how students would resume learning for the new academic year. Plans call for all-remote learning at least until the end of the first grading period. Dr. Foust says the reviews so far from parents are mixed, and he plans to work on improving the experience as staff prepares to welcome students back to classrooms.
“There are those who are not a fan of coming back to school right now, and we have those who are saying ‘Please, we need our kids back in school! We aren’t getting the quality education we are accustomed to by being virtual. We need more time on task, and we can do that face-to-face versus the remote learning’,” he says. “We can’t put a student in front of a computer for six hours non-stop, where in a classroom you’re going to be teaching 90 minutes, 45 minutes, whatsoever, to get the lesson through. We’re going to have to do some re-teaching. But we are wanting to make sure, first and foremost, that students and employees are safe.”
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