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North Carolina’s School Take-Over Model Could Become Friendlier

Eric Hall is the Deputy Superintendent of Innovation at the Department of Public Instruction.
Liz Schlemmer
Eric Hall is the Deputy Superintendent of Innovation at the Department of Public Instruction. Hall recently requested legislators to amend the Innovative School District law to allow a local school board to operate an ISD school.

The State Board of Education has voted to add Carver Heights Elementary in Goldsboro to the Innovative School District, but the state's school turn-around model could be changing.

The Innovative School District (ISD) was conceived by the General Assembly as a plan to turn some of the state's lowest performing schools over to charter school operators, in the hope of improving them. The ISD has long been cast as a school take-over model, because it requires local school boards to either give up control of the school or close it.  But a provision in a bill under debate at the General Assembly this week could change so that a local school board might continue to run its own school while it is in the ISD.

As the State Board of Education considered its vote for the next school to go to the ISD, ahead of a mandatory deadline to select at least one school, Board member J.B. Buxton described it as a tough position.

“What troubles me about this process is that we set up a contest that no one wants to win,” said Buxton. “Rather than creating a scenario where districts are receiving supports that help them.”

Buxton is a new member of the Board, recently appointed by Governor Roy Cooper. He joins a cohort of board members appointed by Democratic governors that, as of November, now make up a majority of the State Board of Education. The Board’s shift in viewpoints may have an effect on the state’s turn-around plan crafted by Republican legislators.

Innovative School District officials recommended Carver Heights Elementary for the ISD last month, but State Board of Education members delayed the vote on it because of a lack of community support for the proposal. The Wayne County School Board has approved a resolution detailing why it believes it is in a better position to improve the school than the ISD.

At the State Board of Education’s December meeting, ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen redoubled her efforts, providing more data on the four schools shortlisted for the ISD and reviewing the school’s recent student achievement scores.

“You will notice that Carver Heights Elementary is the lowest performing,” Allen said, pointing to the school’s overall percentage of students who are grade level proficient and recent school grades.

A comparison of the final 6 schools considered for the Innovative School District in 2018, as presented by ISD officials to the State Board of Education.
Credit Department of Public Instruction
Department of Public Instruction
A comparison of the final 6 schools considered for the Innovative School District in 2018, as presented by ISD officials to the State Board of Education.

Allen also described her efforts to reach out to community members in Wayne County, and emphasized the success the ISD has had at changing community opinions toward the ISD in Robeson County, where it is operating its first school run by a charter school manager.

State Board of Education Vice Chair Alan Duncan said he is still concerned about taking control of Carver Heights Elementary away from Wayne County Schools, especially since the local school board has made major improvements to the school in the past month.

“The context then is not the context now,” Duncan said.

Wayne County Schools has hired a new principal and assistant principal for Carver Heights Elementary, moved more senior teachers in to classrooms and extended the school day by 45 minutes. Its superintendent says it has a longterm plan in place to help the school. The new principal Patrice Faison is a former regional principal of the year who has experience improving other low performing schools in the state.  

“I can’t envision any operator coming in and doing anything better than having a North Carolina principal of the year, who’s a specialist in turning around schools, running the school,” Duncan said.

Only Board member Olivia Oxendine expressed full support for the ISD without reservations, citing a change of community opinion at Southside-Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County, the first ISD school, which is now run by a charter school operator.

“I think if we were able to go to Southside-Ashpole today and talk to the teachers, the director and students, and ask, ‘Would you like to be in this game?’ … I think you’d have 100 percent at the beginning of the line,” Oxendine said, referencing Buxton’s comment about ISD selection being an unappealing contest.

However, that school’s director and a majority of its teachers were newly hired to the school by the ISD and not part of the school last year. Students, and the lone teacher who kept her position at the school, have also spoken positively about the changes.

Changing the Model

“If there's anything we can do to turn this from a take-over to a full throttle support for the board, and the superintendent and the principal of that school, that's what would be, in my opinion, in the best interest of our students,” State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis said shortly before he and other board members voted to include Carver Heights in the ISD.

The Department of Public Instruction’s Deputy Superintendent of Innovation Eric Hall has already made a request to the legislature to amend the law governing the ISD to allow a local school board to operate a school chosen for the district. That opens the door to a new possibility for Wayne County Schools.

A provision in a technical corrections bill in consideration at the General Assembly would make it possible for the Innovative School District to choose Wayne County Schools to lead the turn-around of its own elementary. The provision says that the ISD operator could be a college or university, a non-profit or for-profit corporation, a partnership, or a local board of education.

The bill goes on to say that a local school board may submit a "well-defined, credible, and specific five-year plan to dramatically improve student achievement" for the ISD to consider naming the board as the school's operator, if the school board consents to transfer the school to the ISD by January 1. Under existing law, if a school board does not consent to transfer a school to the ISD, it must close the school.

Wayne County Superintendent Michael Dunsmore knew of Hall’s legislative request to allow a local school board to apply to be an ISD operator.

“I think it’s a great idea, but I wouldn’t be in favor of them forcibly taking my school away, and, ‘Well, if this legislation goes through, maybe we’ll let you be the operator,’” Dunsmore said.  

The State Board of Education's vote to place Carver Heights Elementary in the ISD was unanimous, but it included stipulations that the board take every legal measure to uphold the changes Wayne County Schools has made.

It's possible that if the pending bill becomes law, then instead of a charter operator coming in, Wayne County Schools could still be running Carver Heights next year with the support and supervision of the Innovative School District.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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