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North Carolina’s experimental school takeover program is officially ending this summer

Southside-Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County is the first school in the state's Innovative School District.
Liz Schlemmer

The State Board of Education has voted to transfer a public school taken over by the state back to its local school district a year earlier than required by state law.

This marks the end of the Innovate School District - the state's experimental school takeover program.

Last week, the State Board of Education approved Southside-Ashpole Elementary’s return to the Public Schools of Robeson County.

"Some of us were here when the school was transferred, and here we are seeing it being transferred back,” said Board member Olivia Oxendine. “I do hope that — and I feel sure this will happen — we’ll be reflective on what has happened.”

Oxendine is an education professor at UNC-Pembroke and as a State Board of Education member has voted in support of the Innovative School District in past years. She said she hoped the board would take away “some lessons learned” if the state embarks on a similar school turnaround model in the future.

The North Carolina General Assembly created the Innovative School District in a 2016 law. The plan was to let charter school companies compete to take over some of the lowest-performing public schools in the state to try to improve them.

Southside-Ashpole Elementary was supposed to be the first of five schools in the Innovative School District. Instead, it became the only one.

The school takeover model stirred opposition from local school leaders in Durham, Johnston and Wayne Counties when schools in their districts were short-listed for inclusion in the Innovative School District.

Faced with an ultimatum to either turn over Southside-Ashpole Elementary or close it permanently, in 2018 the Robeson County school board approved the school’s transfer to the Innovative School District.

Since opening, the Innovative School District has experienced difficulties, including leadership turnover. In five years, the Innovative School District had four superintendents and three principals at Southside-Ashpole.

The school’s state performance grade improved only one point under the first year of inclusion in the ISD, earning an F letter grade. More recent school performance grades have been waived statewide due to the pandemic.

After the charter company failed to improve student test scores at the school, the General Assembly first voted not to expand the program to more schools, then ended the Innovative School District in the most recent state budget.

In June 2021, the State Board of Education announced it had reached a legal settlement with the school’s charter school operator Achievement for All Children to end its management contract.

The 2021 state budget law requires the State Board of Education to transfer Southside-Ashpole Elementary back to the Public Schools of Robeson County by the end of the 2022-23 school year. Last week, the State Board of Education approved a plan to complete the transition ahead of schedule.

Southside-Ashpole Elementary will return to the Public Schools of Robeson County in July.

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