State Takeover?

Published 10:27 am Monday, October 2, 2017

PENDLETON – The Innovative School District (ISD) is a program implemented by the NC General Assembly for the goal of improving low performing schools. After the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) released their school performance grades earlier in September, 48 of the lowest performing schools in North Carolina were listed as eligible for the new district.

Now that list has been trimmed down to only six.

From the original 48 schools, four were local: Ahoskie Elementary and Riverview Elementary from Hertford County as well as Gaston Middle and Willis Hare Elementary from Northampton County.

Of the local schools, only Willis Hare Elementary is left in consideration along with five other schools across the state.

“It’s not a list that any of us want to be on,” said Dr. Monica Smith-Woofter, Superintendent of Northampton County Schools. “We are trying to keep the focus on our students, and we may have this cloud over us right now, but we’re not letting that interfere or damper the work we do day in and day out.”

She acknowledged that it usually takes about three to five years to turn a school around, so sometimes it may seem like progress is slow. Teacher turnover has been a struggle the school has had to deal with as well. But Smith-Woofter also explained the focus on maintaining a positive school culture and climate with programs and initiatives they’ve already put into place.

Willis Hare Elementary is actually the first school in North Carolina to implement the Energy Bus program, which kicked off at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

“Our staff is energetic about it, as well as our students and our parents,” Smith-Woofter said of the positive-focused program.

Smith-Woofter said they were already starting to see positive impacts at the school due to additional improvement actions, such as a new schedule that maximizes instructional time, small group sessions to help students master skills they still need help with, and outside help from members of the community.

“I’m glad to have many folks out there who are committed to let’s figure out what we’re going to do and solve the problem,” Smith-Woofter said. “Be a part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

“We’ve got to all engage collaboratively on improvement efforts that we know are proven,” she continued. “We have to have a mindset of growth.”

That mindset, she said, it very present at not only Willis Hare Elementary, but all across the district as well.

“We’re here to support one another and help where help is needed,” she said, also mentioning that the staff at Gaston Middle School—which was removed from ISD consideration—was just as committed to improvement.

“Willis Hare is not in this alone. Northampton County Schools is not in this alone,” Smith-Woofter said in conclusion. “We’re seeing those positive gains and we are proud of the work that we’ve done. We recognize that there’s still more work to do, and we’re committed to doing it.”

According to an article from the Carolina Journal News Service, certain criteria was used to narrow down the potential schools. Those that received federal improvement grants were excluded from the shortlist as well as schools from districts with less than 35 percent of their schools labeled low performing. Additionally, schools which received ‘D’ performance grades were removed from consideration along with ‘F’ schools that showed academic growth from the previous year.

Earlier this month, the NC Department of Public Instruction released its 2016-17 performance grades for all public schools statewide. Willis Hare scored an ‘F’ and did not meet expectations. Gaston Middle, Ahoskie Elementary, and Riverview Elementary each scored a ‘D.’

Superintendent of Hertford County Schools, Dr. William Wright, said he was excited that Ahoskie Elementary and Riverview Elementary had been removed from ISD consideration.

“While neither school is where we want to be or hope to end up, our schools are at the top end of the low performing schools,” Wright said. “That doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels. We’re constantly doing things to improve what we’re doing.”

Removal from consideration, Wright continued, meant they have a chance “to continue to have a laser-like focus on improving those schools without the immediate threat of someone coming in to take over something that does not need to be taken over.”

Wright cited new leadership, re-evaluation of instructional programs, and the use of professional learning communities as just a few of the ways the district will continue to improve its schools. He also explained his goal to have each school improve proficiency by six or more percent during this current school year.

“The minute you have some growth, some momentum, you have to continue to be in school improvement mode,” Wright explained, emphasizing their commitment to raising the quality of education for the district’s students.

Eric Hall, the superintendent of the Innovative School District, will select and recommend two schools from the six left to begin the program at the start of the 2018-19 school year. The State Board of Education will make the final approval by December this year.

Three more schools will be chosen to join the following school year.

The Carolina Journal report explained the primary goal of ISD is to find innovative means to improve student achievement and growth. This will be done by putting the selected schools under a charter or education management organization for a five-year period.

The report continued on to cite Hall as describing the ISD program as “not a takeover but a partnership between local school districts and the ISD.”

For now, he and his team continue work to whittle the six schools left down to only two.

“Our approach to narrowing this list of schools is entirely data-driven, and we’re confident we have the right list of schools for this final phase of evaluation,” Hall said in a press release. “Now is the point where we marry the data with local insights from the people who are with the students day-in and day-out to develop the best possible recommendations for the State Board of Education to consider.”

The five other schools still eligible are Glenn Elementary and Lakewood Elementary (Durham Public Schools), Williford Elementary (Nash-Rocky Mount Schools), and R.B. Dean Elementary and Southside Ashpole Elementary (Robeson County Schools).

Once the two schools are selected by the State Board of Education, it is up to the local board of education to either join the Innovative School District or, by law, shut the school down completely.