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Durham, Johnston Schools Ask State To Remove Them From Takeover List

A pencil and a form on a table inside a public school in Durham.
Brian Batista
Durham and Johnston County school officials say they want time to implement local interventions for their low-performing schools.

School officials in Johnston and Durham counties say they want to retain local control over their underperforming schools. That’s after four elementary schools in Durham and a middle school in Johnston were named to a list of schools being considered for the Innovative School District.

The program, originally known as the Achievement School District, was established by state legislators in 2016 and will turn over control of five of the state’s lowest-performing schools to charter school operators. Forty-one schools across the state are currently eligible for inclusion, all of which have had consistently low student test scores.

Last week school officials from both Johnston and Durham counties sent letters to the state Department of Instruction asking that their schools be excluded from consideration, because of local improvement efforts already underway.

Eddie Price, a deputy superintendent for Johnston County Public Schools, said his district has spent the past year getting input from stakeholders on how to improve Selma Middle School, which made the state’s list. He said that if improvement has not been made in the next three years, he would welcome state intervention -- but not in the form of a charter takeover.

“Coaching, or consultation is simply a better way,” he said. “Bringing people in to work alongside [local officials] - so not taking local control away.”

In Durham, four elementary schools that made the list were recently granted charter-like flexibility by the state. The status allows local administrators to make changes like extending the school calendar and day.

Mike Lee, chairman of the district’s school board, said these changes have a better chance of success than state-imposed charter management.

“Local schools, local communities, local resources and administration have a better understanding of what's needed for their communities,” he said.

The responses from Johnston and Durham County school leaders are a good sign, according to the superintendent of the Innovative School District, Eric Hall. He sees the program is a state partnership with local school districts, not a takeover.

“Districts are looking at the data, they're expressing their concerns,” he said. “And I think for us it's an opportunity to engage deeper in dialogue to see what it is that they're currently doing, as it relates to their plans for those schools.”

Hall said he is looking more closely at the list of eligible schools and will present a shorter list to the State Board of Education in October. The board will then select the first two schools for the Innovative School District by November or December.

Lisa Philip is an occasional contributor to WUNC. Previously, she covered education for the station and covered schools in Howard County, Maryland for the Baltimore Sun newspapers.
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