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Wilkes 2020-21 test scores rank high
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The Wilkes County Schools ranked 18th out of 116 districts statewide in percentage of students who scored either grade level proficient or career/college ready on standardized math, reading, science and ACT tests combined in the 2020-21 school year.

According to a report from Jeffrey Johnson, director of testing and accountability for the Wilkes schools, 53.6% of Wilkes students scored grade level proficient or career/college ready on end of grade (EOG) and end of course (EOC) test results combined last year. That compares to 45.4% statewide.

Speaking at the Sept. 23 Wilkes school board meeting, Johnson also said the Wilkes schools ranked 26th in 2020-21 in percentage of students with scores indicating career or college readiness alone. This doesn’t include the lower grade level proficient scores.

Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said results of the 2021-22 tests in the Wilkes schools “reflect the exceptional efforts of our students and staff during an extremely challenging year.”

When the tests were given in 2018-19, 61% of Wilkes students and 59% of students statewide scored grade level proficient or career/college ready. The tests weren’t given in 2019-20 due to the pandemic.

An N.C. Department of Public Instruction news release said lower scores in 2020-21 indicated “the formidable challenges that students and educators across North Carolina faced during one of the most severe disruptions to public education the state and nation have ever confronted,” referencing the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The (Wilkes) results show that we have kept a focus on providing our students with what they need during a very difficult time in history,” said Johnson, adding that the data is intended to be a starting point. “These results are positive and show our school district is committed to providing our students with opportunities to continue to do better than we have before.”

Johnson also reported that the Wilkes high school graduation rate was 88.7% and the statewide rate was 86.9% for the four-year period ending in 2020-21. The Wilkes rate was 88.1% in the four years ending in 2018-19, up from 87.9% in the four years ending in 2017-18.

Students in third through eighth grades take reading and math EOG tests and students in fifth and eighth grades take science EOG tests. High school students take EOC tests in Math 1, Math 3, biology and English 2. High school students also participate in American College Testing (ACT).

Wilkes results exceeded statewide results in all math exams except Math 3 and all reading tests except those for seventh grade. For Math 3 tests, 44.6% of students statewide and 44.4% of Wilkes students scored at or above grade level. In seventh-grade reading tests, 46.7% of students statewide and 41.9% of Wilkes students scored at or above grade level.

The biggest difference in Wilkes and statewide results was for fourth grade math EOCs, with 60.1% of Wilkes students scoring grade level proficient compared to 37.8% statewide. Less than half of students statewide scored at grade level in each math and reading EOC exam.

In ACT composite testing, 55.2% of students statewide and 49.8% of Wilkes students scored at or above grade level. In ACT workplace skills testing, 63.3% of high school students statewide and 59.8% in Wilkes scored at least a level four (silver).

Johnson noted that more than 95% of Wilkes students in third through 12th grades participated in the standardized tests for their grade levels. He said only 67% of eligible students statewide participated in ACT WorkKeys tests and 86% of eligible students statewide took ACT composite tests.

Normally, 95% of a district’s students must participate in year-end testing. This was waived last year, and students took exams over a longer time period than usual.

DPI usually gives each school a letter grade (A-F) based on its EOG and EOC scores, but didn’t do that for the 2020-21 scores as a result of legislation, signed into law earlier this month by Gov. Roy Cooper, temporarily waiving this requirement. Schools also won’t be penalized for low test scores.

Johnson noted that five of the 12 high schools in North Carolina with senior projects in 2020-21 were in Wilkes County.

MerleFest makes grand return
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After cancellation of one MerleFest and a six-month delay of another due to COVID-19, delight over the return of this premier Americana music festival was clear on faces of fans and in comments of artists on stage this weekend.

“We’re so thankful that we can play music here and congregate again,” said MerleFest mainstay Sam Bush during his set on the Watson stage Saturday night.

Bush and other performers throughout the four-day festival indicated a deeper appreciation of playing music for a live audience after enduring the restrictions of a pandemic.

Before launching a mind-spinning jam, Bush also payed homage to the festival’s namesake and his father: “Don’t forget that Doc and Merle Watson are the reasons we are here.”

This May, it will be nine years since MerleFest co-founder Doc Watson died. His son and musical partner, Merle Watson, died in October 1985.

Doc Watson’s influence is recognized for making MerleFest an event where the music is paramount, unlike many festivals where it has to compete with partying.

Although best known to many as a traditional Southern Appalachian picker and singer, Watson had diverse musical tastes and this is reflected in artists at MerleFest each year.

This latest edition began Thursday with the raucous Po’ Ramblin’ Boys set on the Doc & Merle Watson Stage.

Next were MerleFest favorites Peter Rowan and Scythian. Rowan came with the latest version of his Free Mexican Airforce, the Los Texmaniacs.

Closing out the night on the Watson Stage were arguably the reigning queen and king of outlaw country, Margo Price and eastern Kentucky native Sturgill Simpson. With Simpson was his new band, consisting of Miles Miller, Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Mike Bub, Mark Howard and Elmer Burchett.

Music on the Watson Stage turned more eclectic Friday with sets by indie-folk band Oliver Hazard, husband and wife duos Johnnyswim and Tedeschi Trucks and the powerful voices of LeAnn Rimes and John Cowan.

Other Friday highlights on the Watson Stage included Joe Troop and Che Apalache and Sierra Ferrell’s much talked about Watson Stage debut.

Of course, MerleFest always features a diverse selection of Americana music on several additional stages scattered across the Wilkes Community College campus. Scythian fueled a late Friday night party at the Dance Stage.

MerleFest’s annual “Album Hour” Saturday on the Hillside Stage featured music of the late John Prine, performed by the Waybacks, Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, Jens Kruger, Cordova and others.

Prine died April 6, 2020, less than a month after MerleFest 2020 was canceled due to the large number of COVID cases locally and elsewhere. He was scheduled to perform at that year’s festival.

Afterward, Shinyribs hosted the annual Late Night Jam. Themed “Gulf Breeze: Songs of the Third Coast,” the after-hours concert featured a rotating cast of all-star artists, entertaining music fans into the wee hours of Sunday morning.

Sunday morning kicked off with a special performance from the MerleFest band contest winner, Into the Fog.

Tupelo, Miss.-based Paul Thorn took music fans to church with MerleFest’s annual Gospel Hour at the Creekside Stage. Midday, Kelsey Waldon sang her truth on the Cabin Stage and Mavis Staples rocked the Watson Stage with her classic mix of gospel and rock ‘n roll.

Women Who Play and Sing and Play Traditional” music on the Traditional Stage was also featured Sunday afternoon.

Rock royalty Melissa Etheridge closed the festival and brought music fans to their feet for the final set of the weekend.

Instead of being held in late April as usual, MerleFest 2021 was delayed to September because of COVID. MerleFest 2022 is April 28 to May 1.

Organizers implemented numerous precautions, including requiring a COVID vaccination card or documentation of testing negative for the virus within the prior 72 hours to enter the festival grounds for MerleFest 2021.

Testing was available on campus, but organizers urged having this done in advance if needed to help avoid delays. Volunteers working the gates said the majority of attendees came vaccinated.

MerleFest Director Ted Hagaman said this year’s MerleFest benefitted from attendees arriving well-prepared and embracing the COVID-19 safety protocols. He said many people thanked him for these extra steps to keep everyone safe.

“We’ve had a very good festival. Fans are very happy to be here and very kind and respectful of each other. We deeply appreciate all who worked to make this happen.”

MerleFest vendors and spokesmen for temporary campgrounds providing lodging for festival attendees reported having a good weekend. Motels locally and in nearby towns were booked solid due to MerleFest as usual.

Wilkesboro Utilities Director Sam Call said the campground operated by the town on the Wilkesboro wastewater treatment plant property drew about 80% of its largest turnouts.

“Once again I want to thank all of our MerleFest family—artists, volunteers, staff, and fans—for their patience and support as we worked together to put on a safe and enjoyable festival that spotlighted the very best in roots-plus music,” said Hagaman.

“We had a wonderful weekend and we look forward to seeing everyone’s smiling faces again in seven short months when MerleFest returns to its usual April weekend in 2022.”

MerleFest is the largest fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, which supports scholarships, educational programs and capital projects at the community college.

North Wilkesboro-based Window World is the event’s presenting sponsor.

Monoclonal antibody clinic is open
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A FEMA-funded monoclonal antibody clinic opened in North Wilkesboro early last week and is treating people with COVID-19, as well as people at high risk due to pre-existing health conditions.

The location is 1901 West Park Drive in the West Park medical complex. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week for the clinic, which is expected to remain open at least six to eight weeks.

It opened through a joint effort of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, the Health Foundation and the Wilkes County Health Department. The treatments are free.

“FEMA designated us (Wilkes County) a monoclonal desert” due to the lack of this treatment option within the county, said Chad Brown, president of Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Wilkes Medical Center. It also was tied to the high number of COVID-19 cases and low vaccination rate in Wilkes, he added.

A DHHS spokesman said FEMA opened a monoclonal antibody site Wednesday in Johnston County and plans to open more by Friday in Cherokee, Harnett and Robeson counties for the same reasons, as well as free up hospital beds in all five counties by helping fewer COVID-19 patients need hospitalization. Hospitals statewide have been at or near capacity due to a surge of people with the delta variant of COVID-19.

The spokesman said there already were more than 186 sites in the state offering monoclonal antibodies.

People in early stages of COVID-19 and those who haven’t tested positive but are at high risk due to the virus are eligible for treatment at the West Park clinic, said Brown. He said “early stages” means having COVID-19 symptoms for 10 days or less, while “high risk” refers to a broad range of medical conditions. “People who are hospitalized with COVID aren’t eligible,” Brown said.

The Food and Drug Administration issued emergency use authorization allowing treatment of COVID-19 with monoclonal antibodies, which are produced in laboratories and provided by the federal government.

Monoclonal antibodies are administered to reduce the amount of a virus that causes illness, in this case COVID-19 viral load. This helps reduce severity of symptoms and therefore likelihood of hospitalization.

Dr. Christopher A. Ohl, an infectious disease expert at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, said during his Sept. 9 COVID-19 update on Facebook, “If you treat 13-15 people with monoclonal antibodies, you’ll save one hospitalization. That’s not insignificant, but it’s not a magic bullet. It’s something for people to think about.”

Ohl said an immunocompromised (vaccinated or unvaccinated) person who has COVID-19 would benefit the most from monoclonal antibodies. People with COVID-19 who are unvaccinated and have underlying medical conditions and elderly people are also good candidates for the treatment, he said.

Ohl said people with COVID-19 who have been vaccinated and otherwise are healthy likely don’t stand to gain anything from monoclonal antibody treatment. It isn’t authorized for people requiring oxygen therapy due to COVID-19, people ages of 12-17 who weigh less than 88 pounds and those under age 12.

Appointments are required at the clinic at West Park. The last appointments are scheduled at 3:30 p.m. each day. The treatment is given at the clinic with four injections of antibodies in the abdomen, followed by monitoring. Brown said this takes about an hour per patient.

He said self-referrals to the clinic are allowed but it’s best to first consult with a physician or other health care provider to determine the appropriateness of monoclonal antibodies for each person. People are screened at the clinic before being treated.

A form for self-referral is at https://covidantibody.wakehealth.edu/preregistrationmabx.cfm. The clinic phone number is 336-528-1637.

He emphasized that monoclonal antibodies shouldn’t be seen as any sort of replacement for COVID-19 vaccination. “The most important thing still is that people get vaccinated.”

The building with the new treatment clinic here is owned by the Health Foundation. It normally is available to non-profits as a meeting space. FEMA provided the medical staff and equipment for the clinic.

According to a DHHS website, monoclonal antibody treatments are also available at Alleghany Memorial Hospital in Sparta, Ashe Memorial Hospital in Jefferson, Caldwell Memorial Hospital in Lenoir, Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital in Elkin, Watauga Medical Center in Boone and Iredell Health System and Davis Regional Medical System, both in Statesville.

Wilkes moonshine 'legend' among 5 charged
  • Updated

Roger 'Buck' Nance

A Wilkesboro man who has been publicized for his moonshine expertise is charged in a federal indictment with being part of a conspiracy that produced and sold over 9,000 gallons of untaxed liquor within about 2 ½ years.

Roger “Buck” Nance, 75, and four other men are charged in connection with multiple loads of moonshine transported from a still in Roaring River to near Richmond, Va., and sold between April 19, 2018, and Sept. 23, 2020.

Nance was “master distiller of legally produced and taxed liquor for a licensed distiller in North Wilkesboro” during this period, according to the federal indictment. He has been described in online profiles as a moonshine “folk hero,” “legend” and “true artisan.”

The indictment said over $100,000 in federal, North Carolina and Virginia excise taxes should have but wasn’t paid on the 9,000-plus gallons of liquor.

Clifton Ray Anderson Jr., 47, of Boomer and Huie Kenneth Nicholson, 74, of Hamptonville are charged in the same indictment, filed Aug. 17 in the Charlotte office of the Western District of U.S. District Court.

Gary Matthew Ray, 53, of Roaring River and James Patterson, 71, of Dinwiddie, Va., are also charged with being part of the conspiracy in separate bills of information filed Sept. 10 in the Statesville office of the Western District.

The indictment said Anderson established and he and Nance operated an illegal still in a barn on a Roaring River farm. It said the still produced hundreds of gallons of moonshine per week and had capacity for 18,000 gallons a year.

According to the bill of information in Ray’s case, Ray owned the barn and leased it to Anderson for $500 per month. The document said Ray lived on the farm, saw the still operating and sometimes fed mash from it to his cattle.

The indictment said Nance bought moonshine produced by this still from Anderson. It said he paid $10 per gallon, less the cost of bulk sugar, yeast, grain and plastic one-gallon jugs Nance provided.

The indictment said Nicholson picked up one-gallon plastic jugs of moonshine at the barn and delivered them to a “moonshine distributor” (identified as Patterson) at a “stash house” (shed) in or near Stony Creek, Va., about 45 miles south of Richmond, Va.

It said Nicholson did this in white vans provided by Nance. Ray is accused of letting Nance park the white vans on his property while seeing them come and go.

The bill of information charging Patterson said he paid or caused Nance and Nichols to be paid about $20 in cash per gallon of moonshine delivered to Virginia. It said Nance replaced Patterson’s previous source of untaxed liquor.

The indictment said the moonshine was then sold to customers in Virginia for $30 to $50 per gallon without the addition of excise taxes.

Court papers listed 32 deliveries of moonshine distilled by Anderson to Patterson between May 15, 2019, and Sept. 19, 2020. Papers said the moonshine was taken to the stash house in Virginia.

This included 17 deliveries by Nance, 12 by Nicholson and three by a Wilkes resident who wasn’t identified.

The papers said Patterson bought at least 20 cases of moonshine per delivery. Each case had six gallons, so it was a total of at least 120 gallons per delivery.

Nance, Anderson and Nicholson were indicted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. by tax evasion and to travel and cause others to travel in interstate commerce to facilitate an unlawful business enterprise involving untaxed liquor. They also are charged with producing and receiving untaxed liquor. They face other related charges in the indictment. The three were arrested Aug. 19 and released on bond.

Ray and Patterson are both charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and cause others to travel in interstate commerce and to use a telephone in interstate commerce to facilitate an unlawful business enterprise involving untaxed liquor. Patterson was charged with knowingly receiving untaxed liquor.

A U.S. District Court spokesman said Friday that a signed plea agreement with Ray has been filed for his charges, but a formal plea hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet.

The spokesman said Patterson pleaded guilty to his charges on Sept. 14 and was released on a $25,000 unsecured bond. A sentencing date hasn’t been set.