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While the release of the annual school performance grades could be seen as good news for the state generally, it was decidedly bad for the Innovative School District (ISD).

Southside-Ashpole Elementary School, the district’s sole charge at this point, showed little change from last year when it was part of the Public Schools of Robeson County.

“I know these are not the results we want to see for our first year, and we’ve made changes and we’re responding to that,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said in an interview.

The Innovative School District, at its most basic level, is a program that was supposed to ultimately take five of the lowest-performing schools in the state and put them in a virtual district, which can be operated by outside operators, including for-profit charter or education management organizations. Its origin is legislation that was passed during the 2016 General Assembly short session. It was an attempt by lawmakers to find an innovative way to turn around low-performing schools.

Under the ISD, Southside-Ashpole had a school performance grade score of 30, an F, and did not meet growth for the 2018-19 school year. In 2017-18, when the school was part of the Robeson County school district, it had a 29, an F, and also did not meet growth.

Meanwhile, the percent of students at the school passing state tests dropped from 20.2% to 19.8%. One bright spot: The percent of students passing the state’s math exams went up from 12.3% to 21.6%. There were drops in the other subjects, including a dramatic fall in science from 26.3% to 13.9%. In reading, the percentage dropped from 26.2% to 19.8%.

This comes after a significant amount of turnover in the school, the organization running it, and the ISD itself. 

In the span of a few days over the summer, Principal Bruce Major as well as ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen left the district with little explanation.

Allen was replaced by James Ellerbe, who came from his previous role as director of administration and strategy at the Center for Responsive Schools (CRS). Ellerbe also worked for years with the Department of Public Instruction. Major was replaced by educator Kenneth Bowen. And, more recently, Achievement for All Children, the school’s non-profit charter management organization, switched CEOs. Tony Helton is out and Tricia Cotham, a Democrat who previously served in the state House of Representatives, took his place. 

No explanation has been given for Allen’s departure. The only explanation given for Major’s departure was that he had “decided to return his focus to international education and has accepted a position abroad.”

Johnson said that the performance of Southside-Ashpole in its first year under the ISD had nothing to do with them leaving. 

“That was something that actually started before we got the results,” Johnson said. “But clearly some of what we’ve seen in the results indicated that we made some right decisions to make some leadership changes.”

Another Robeson County school, R.B. Dean Elementary, was at one point on the same list as Southside-Ashpole to be considered for the Innovative School District. It was ultimately taken off when the list was winnowed down to four schools. In 2017-18, Dean had a school performance score of 40, a D. If it had been chosen, it would have been in the ISD for 2018-19. Instead, it stayed with the Robeson County school district. It still had a D for that year, but went up to a 43 school performance score. It met growth both years.

And Carver Heights Elementary, the Wayne County school that was almost picked for the ISD last year, went from an F — 27 — and not meeting growth, to a D — 41 — and exceeding growth.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, who chairs the House education and education appropriations committees, said improvements like these illustrate that the ISD is having an impact.

“The fact that ISD is out there is actually having the impact we want it to have, which is to move the needle for schools that have not improved,” he said. “Unfortunately, we humans are so busy doing what we do every day, we only respond to immediate threats. The immediate threat is ‘Oh my goodness, my school is going to be taken over. I need to do something.'”

Regardless, Horn said he is very disappointed in the results for Southside-Ashpole.  

“So now the question is: Why? What did we not do we should have done? As well as what did we do we should not have done?” he said.

Overall, the school performance grades for 2018-19 were an improvement over last year. Almost 75% of schools met or exceeded growth and more schools received As and Bs than last year and fewer received Ds and Fs.

Find the school performance grades here

Courtesy of DPI

The number of low performing schools and districts, however, went up. 

Courtesy of DPI

Those low-performing districts now include the Innovative School District. 

Under state law, the Innovative School District has to pick four more schools to join its ranks this year. But legislation that is currently in conference (meaning lawmakers are working on a compromise) in the General Assembly could give the state more flexibility in the selection process. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.