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Can the Innovative School District stand the resistance?

The Innovative School District (ISD) has been controversial since it was first passed by the General Assembly in 2016. 

The core feature that has bothered critics is the plan to have the District take over five of the state’s lowest performing schools and turn them over, potentially, to for-profit charter or education management organizations. In essence, people are concerned that the state is privatizing turnaround efforts for low performing schools. 

Add to that the meager performance of such Districts in states such as Tennessee, and resistance to the project has continued to be vocal. 

Last year, when the ISD was choosing the first school to join its ranks, the opposition became more visceral. When a Durham school made the shortlist, the district and community resisted fiercely, and ultimately, the ISD went with a school in Robeson County instead. It should be noted, however, that the organization chosen to manage the school is a non-profit rather than a for-profit. 

Now, with the ISD recommending a second school — this time in Wayne County — the resistance is growing hot once again. 

The ISD has recommended Carver Heights Elementary School in Goldsboro based on a number of criteria, including the schools low proficiency and achievement scores.

Chart showing differences between schools targeted for ISD selection courtesy of DPI

But when the State Board was slated to approve the school selection in November, members chose instead to punt the decision down the road a month to investigate further. 

Around the time of the selection and continuing until now, Wayne County Schools has been launching a campaign to combat the selection. At the November meeting, members from the Goldsboro Community and school district audibly disagreed from their seats in the audience during a presentation on the Carver Heights selection. 

The district and local school board have also sent a letter expressing their concerns with the selection and with the process the ISD went through in choosing Carver Heights. They’ve brought in a new principal, Patrice Faison, who is a former North Carolina principal of the year and described by the district as “an experienced school turnaround leader.”

And last week, Carver Heights held a gathering in Wayne County where members of the community could come out and hear about the district’s plans to turn around Carver Heights independent of the ISD. 

Faison listed the plan’s components for parents, including meeting with community members, focusing on mastery of instructional concepts, creating a committee to work on improving attendance, creating after school clubs and enrichment opportunities, improving the school’s climate, and creating a PTA for the school. 

Faison admitted the school hasn’t had a stellar track record. 

“I think it’s important for people to know their past,” she said. “Our past is painful. I’m going to go ahead and say it.” 

She said that the school and the surrounding community must come to grips with the situation at the school in order to move past it. She asked for parents’ help in improving the school. And she made very little mention of the ISD selection of Carver Heights except to say: 

“Guys I can’t tell you what the state is going to do next week,” she said. “But it’s not going to change what I’m going to do.” 

Sylvia Barnes came to the gathering last week. She is the secretary of the North Carolina NAACP and branch president of the group in Wayne County. She said she rejects the selection of Carver Heights. Rather than coming in and taking over a school, she said the state needs to do more to support it. 

“I think what the state could do is put more money back in the schools,” she said.

She said the school needs more assistants to help free up the teachers to give more one-on-one instruction, among other things, and she is hoping that Wayne County can be successful in pushing off the ISD the same way Durham was. 

As the crowd funneled into the auditorium, students from the school jumped out of their seats to hug their teachers. Parents and educators greeted each other like friends. Everybody got a chance to see singing and dancing routines performed by their students. And not everybody there even had an opinion on the ISD. One parent I spoke with came out to the gathering last week just to find out what this whole thing was all about. 

The State Board of Education meets this week and will make its decision on the ISD selection. The question is, what role will district pushback play? Can the outcry against the proposal influence the State Board’s vote? And even if the Board votes to choose Carver Heights, how will district and perhaps community pushback affect the ISD’s strategy as it actually brings Carver Heights into the fold at the start of next year. 

While Robeson County didn’t embrace the ISD without reservations, the school district did ultimately accept the inclusion of Southside/Ashpole Elementary School into the ISD. Now we find out what happens when the ISD comes up against stronger opposition. 

In other news, the General Assembly passed a nearly $300 million Florence Recovery Bill that includes $25 million to help schools recover from the effects of the Hurricane. Other than that, the session — the Republican’s last while still retaining a supermajority in the legislature — has been relatively quiet on the education front. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.