North Carolina has a new, experimental school district opening up this year, and classes started last week at its first and only school.
The Innovative School District, or ISD, isn't geographic - it's more conceptual. The concept is that the state identifies the lowest-performing schools in North Carolina and then makes a five-year intervention. That starts with new leadership, headed by a charter school operator and a new superintendent, who report to the State Board of Education instead of a local school board.
“During that five years, our task is to create the right conditions in a school through multiple partnerships, through instruction, through curriculum, and be able to deliver an improved set of outcomes for kids,” said the ISD’s Superintendent Eric Hall.
This year, the district has just one school: Southside-Ashpole Elementary in Rowland, a small town near the South Carolina border. The Innovative School District’s leaders selected the school for a variety of criteria, but the main reason is that the school’s test scores on the state's required end-of-grade exams have consistently been among the lowest in the state.
The plan is to turn that around, and they’re just getting started.
Riley Barfield, a fifth grader at Southside-Ashpole, said she’s noticed a few changes.
“We have to wear uniforms, and we have to stay till 4 o'clock," Barfield said. "We don't have any homework, we have more resource classes … like art and music and library."
The school’s new operator, a charter school affiliate organization called Achievement for All Children, is also putting in place a new curriculum and the school is getting more support, like a full-time instructional coach and a full-time nurse.
But perhaps the biggest change is the school’s staff. Of the 17 teachers at the school, only two were there last year. Fifth grade teacher Joanne McGirt was one of those who applied to keep her job and got to stay.
“One of the reasons that I wanted to come back was because I knew that there is so much potential here and I wanted to be a part of it,” McGirt said.
McGirt’s advice to teachers and parents at schools under consideration for inclusion in the district is that “it’s not as scary as you think.”
“Nothing that they have done can I look at and say, ‘Oh, that was a terrible thing to do.’ Everything has been a great thing,” McGirt said.
Many of the new staff say they applied because they wanted the challenge of helping improve the school for its students. Several even came out of retirement, and two moved from hours away to work at the school.
This Wednesday, Superintendent Hall will announce which schools may be included in the district next year. Hall will present two lists of schools: those that are eligible under state statute, and a shorter list of schools under consideration based on further criteria.
Last year, the communities of schools under consideration for the district pushed back with local demonstrations calling the Innovative School District a charter school takeover. Once the State Board of Education selects a school for inclusion, that school’s local board of education by law must either turn control of the school over to the district or close the school.
Hall expects to recommend two to four schools for inclusion in the district to the State Board of Education in November.