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Innovative School District ready to launch in Robeson County

Update 8:18 p.m., July 12, 2018:

The Innovative School District announced today the selection of Bruce E. Major to be the principal of Southside Ashpole Elementary, the first school in the Innovative School District.

From the press release

“Since 2014, Mr. Major has been working in China. He was the Chief Administrator at Wahaha Schools in Hangzhou and a Principal at Ameson American High School in Shaoxing. Prior to that, Mr. Major spent 12 years at Sugar Creek Charter School in Charlotte, NC. While there, he served in various roles including Chief Operating Officer, School Psychologist and Assistant School Director.”

Scroll down for original article. 

From the upcoming launch of the Innovative School District (ISD) to the granting of charter-like flexibility to the entire Rowan-Salisbury School district, the State Board of Education heard, discussed, and voted on a variety of items during a short meeting last Thursday. 

Innovative School District

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall gave Board members an update on progress with the district, which is slated to open next month. In a follow-up interview this week, Hall elaborated on the start of the school year and his view on how residents in Robeson County feel about the process. 

The Innovative School District, at its most basic level, is a program that will ultimately take five of the lowest-performing schools in the state and put them in a virtual district. The schools will still be located where they are currently, but they will be taken over by outside operators, which could include for-profit charter or education management organizations. The schools will have charter-like flexibility and the district will be overseen by the ISD, with Hall as its superintendent. 

The five schools are being phased in over a period of years. Only one has been chosen so far — Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County — and its first day is August 27. 

While the school was under consideration and when it was finally chosen, Hall faced resistance from the school community. The resistance has started to lessen, Hall said. 

He held a forum last week for residents to hear and talk about the ISD with Hall and the school operator, Charlotte-based Achievement for All Children. He said the meeting was positive, with some parents even approaching him to ask if the school can have uniforms. 

“It’s been really neat to see how the community has come around and kind of taken ownership in the emerging conversation,” he said. 

Hall also said the initial resistance the ISD faced in Robeson was less about the ISD and more about the notion that the school was called low-performing. He said parents whose children were bringing home As and Bs could not understand how high grades in class did not equate to grade-level proficiency. But the more Hall has been able to talk to community members about the ISD, school data, and what he is hoping to achieve, the more productive conversations have become, he said. 

The school is finalizing its hiring process. The school principal should be announced this week, and there are a few other staff positions that need to be nailed down. There will be a total of 24 staff members at Southside Ashpole. Of those, 19 are certified educators — 17 traditional classroom teachers, one art teacher, and an instructional coach. 

Five staff members are returning from last year, but only two of those are teachers. All teachers had to reapply for their jobs as part of the ISD process. Of the regular classroom teachers at the school, six have two years of experience or less. Hall and his team are still interviewing for six positions: four regular classroom positions, the instructional coach and the art teacher. 

Hall pointed out in his conversation that he hoped more teachers would return from last year, but a bureaucratic issue made it difficult. Since the ISD is considered a separate district, if a more-experienced teacher “left” the Robeson County school district to join the ISD, they would lose their tenure. Hall asked the General Assembly to change this rule, but lawmakers did not make the adjustment during this past short session. Hall also said some of the teachers at Southside Ashpole Elementary previously were long-term substitutes rather than regular classroom teachers. 

Going forward, Hall said it is important for his team to make clear that the ISD is not necessarily a charter takeover of traditional schools. Under the ISD law passed by the General Assembly, the definition of who may operate a school is broad. A principal with a strong track record of turning around low-performing schools could even apply to be an operator, as could universities or other entities, Hall said. The General Assembly even tweaked the rules to allow the ISD itself to be the operator of the school if the need arises.

“We have a very unique opportunity that goes beyond any other state’s model that I have seen,” Hall said. 

Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina said things may be different with the next four schools in the ISD, but for now, he does not see how North Carolina’s project is radically different from those in other states that generally rely on charter management organizations.

While the definition of who can be an operator in the ISD may be more expansive, Achievement for All Children is a charter-management organization. So, at the outset the ISD in North Carolina is looking similar to the project it is modeled on in Tennessee, Poston said. Furthermore, Poston points out that Achievement for All Children has never run a school. Achievement for All Children is partnering with TeamCFA, a charter school network with 13 schools in North Carolina. The independent evaluator of the operators applying to run Southside Ashpole said TeamCFA’s track record with improving student achievement was mixed. 

Pointing to research from Gary Henry of Vanderbilt University, Poston said that the Tennessee program on which the ISD is modeled does not have a great track record.

“It hasn’t worked in Tennessee, and I have yet to see how it’s substantially different in North Carolina,” Poston said. 

With Southside Ashpole getting started in a little more than a month, Hall is turning his attention to the Innovation Zone in Robeson County. As part of the ISD legislation, a district that turns a school over to the ISD can form a so-called Innovation Zone. Essentially, they would be able to pick up to three other low-performing schools in the district to receive charter-like flexibility. In addition, if more than 35 percent of a district is low performing, the district could turn all of its low-performing schools into an Innovation Zone. With 26 low-performing schools, Robeson County fits that category and has an opportunity to get charter-like flexibility for many of its students. Hall said he is exploring with the district best options for moving forward, though he said it is unlikely the district would put all 26 schools into the Innovation Zone from the start. 

Poston is more optimistic about the Innovation Zone. Pointing again at Henry’s research on Tennessee’s version of the Innovative School District, Poston says the Innovation Zone strategy seems to have more positive results. However, he does not see why charter-like flexibility should be limited. 

“Form our perspective, we’d like to see every traditional public school be given charter-like flexibility,” he said. 

Everyone will be watching as Southside Ashpole gets started this year, including Poston. He says that turning around a low-achieving school takes time and is hard work, regardless of who is running it. And despite his misgivings, he wants the program to succeed. 

“For the children’s sake, I hope it goes well,” he said. 

Renewal School District

During the short session, the General Assembly passed legislation that would allow the school district in the state with the highest percentage of restart schools to become a “renewal school district,” essentially granting charter-like flexibility to all the schools in its district. 

Restart schools are continually low-performing schools that apply for restart status with the state. The status allows them to operate their school exempt from some of the rules most traditional schools follow, much like charter schools. It allows them to do things like change their school calendars and use money in ways not designated by the state. 

The State Board heard about the application of Rowan-Salisbury School District to become a renewal school district last week. With 16 restart schools approved, the district has the largest proportion of its schools in the program. The State Board will vote on the district’s application next month, but the bill requires the Board to approve the request so long as the district’s plan meets the requirements laid out in the legislation.

Lynn Moody, superintendent of Rowan-Salisbury Schools, said the renewal school district legislation came out of discussions with Sen. Mike Lee, R-New Hanover, and Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union. 

She spoke about the value of restart schools and the possibilities charter-like flexibility could have for all schools. 

“If it really has some value to school improvement, wouldn’t that be true across the board?” she asked them. 

Out of that discussion, she said Lee started thinking about what could be done for Rowan-Salisbury. From there, the legislation was born. 

Lee could not be reached for comment, but Horn said in an interview this week that the renewal school district in Rowan-Salisbury could be part of something larger. 

“Our hopes are to create a test tube if you will…to address something we hear from school systems all the time: we need more flexibility,” he said. 

He explained that lawmakers are often leery of giving flexibility to school districts or schools.

“Part of it is because I think there is a low level of confidence that either a public school or particularly a public school system can responsibility use the flexibility,” he said. 

But he said some districts, like Rowan-Salisbury, have proven themselves to be more cooperative. 

“Let’s give it a try. Let’s find someone in whom we have faith and trust. Someone who is facing challenges,” he said. 

The district was the choice. The decision was compounded by the fact that, with so many restart schools, Moody is worried about managing what she calls two separate school systems. An example she gave was calendar flexibility. One high and one elementary restart school are part of the same feeder pattern, and she wanted to change the calendars of both of them to align with the community college calendar. But because the middle school in that feeder pattern was not eligible for restart, its calendar could not change. The difference would have caused complicated transportation issues. As a result, only the high school calendar changed. Unifying the district under the renewal school district would alleviate challenges such as these, she said. 

Horn said if the experiment in Rowan-Salisbury is successful, there is a strong possibility this program could be replicated in other districts. 

As for how the renewal school district will function, Moody does not have a lot of answers yet. The legislation passed this summer, and school is starting up in August. A lot of planning and consideration is going to go into doing this the best way possible, she said. 

“When people ask me what is that going to look like, my answer is that’s premature,” she said. 

Teachers of Tomorrow

The State Board of Education gave initial approval for Texas-based Teachers of Tomorrow to operate an educator preparation program in North Carolina. This was made possible by legislation passed during last year’s long session that opened up the educator preparation process to entities other than colleges and universities. 

 Teachers of Tomorrow is an alternative, online teacher preparation organization that gave a $5,000 donation to the bill’s only sponsor, Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, in the month prior to the start of the 2017 long session of the General Assembly. Barefoot said he did not solicit the contribution and has never heard of the person who gave it to him on behalf of the organization. In addition, Barefoot actively fought attempts to put concessions in the legislation that would allow Teachers of Tomorrow to enter the state sooner than allowed under the legislation. 

Board appointments

Finally, in an interview this week a State Board attorney offered analysis on legislation passed during the short session that could potentially move appointment powers from Democratic Governor Roy Cooper to the General Assembly. The legislation proposes a constitutional amendment for voters to decide in November. Some read the language to mean that, if passed by voters, Cooper’s power to appoint members to the State Board of Education, among other boards and commissions, would be eliminated.

However, Eric Snider, an attorney for the State Board of Education, says that is not how he reads the language of the legislation. 

“We don’t see that operating to change the way the Board members are appointed,” he said. 

State Board members are appointed by the Governor and then confirmed by the legislature. During the recent short session, the General Assembly rejected two of three of the Governor’s appointments to the State Board. 

Correction: This article originally stated that recently passed legislation will allow the State Board of Education to approve more than 5 schools for the Innovative School District. That legislation did not pass. 

Alex Granados

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