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State Board approves ISD selection with caveats

The State Board of Education unanimously approved the selection of Carver Heights Elementary in Wayne County to join the Innovative School District today, but not without major caveats and a lot of reservations about the decision. 

“This timeline is just unfair,” said Board Member Wayne McDevitt of the quick decision Board members are forced to make by the ISD law. “It’s unfair to this Board. It’s unfair to the state. It’s unfair.” 

The selection process for the ISD happens quickly, with deadlines coming fast after school performance grades are released near the beginning of the school year. That’s given the ISD only a few months to evaluate the schools under consideration and make a recommendation. The State Board was required by statute to make a decision this month on a school to add to the ISD. 

The majority of Board members spoke about their respect for the changes taking place in Carver Heights and their wish that they weren’t faced with this decision. Board member Amy White ultimately said, however, that by state statute, the Board was required to make the selection. 

But the actual motion approved by the State Board wasn’t just to select Carver Heights. The Board added language that would direct the ISD to use every legal tool to “respect, uphold, and maintain” the changes already being made in the school. 

Board member Olivia Oxendine was the lone member to express skepticism at her fellow Board members’ reservations. Many Board members had referenced a quote from Board member JB Buxton where he said that the ISD sets up a competition nobody wants to be involved in. Oxendine said the community at Southside Ashpole, the state’s first ISD school, would feel differently if Board members were to ask them.

“I think we would have 100 percent at the beginning of the race line saying I’m going to get in this race,” she said.  

The vote came during the second day of the State Board meeting. Board members discussed the selection extensively on the first day, exploring the possibility of making Wayne County Schools the operator of Carver Heights under the ISD, something that would be possible under a provision in a bill passed in the House today. Eric Hall, deputy superintendent for innovation at the state Department of Public Instruction, asked for that provision which now will be considered in the Senate.

But unless it passes, the school would likely be turned over to an outside operator — perhaps a for-profit charter or education management organization. The Board has until Feb. 15 to decide on an operator though can make a choice as early as January.

White said she hoped these legal changes would be made so that the State Board can allow Wayne County Schools to operate Carver Heights utilizing its current turnaround strategy. 

The language in that House bill would require that the school district agree to put the school into the ISD by Jan. 1 if it wants to be considered to be its operator, meaning the district would likely have to agree without certainty that it would be chosen. 

Though Wayne County Schools officials weren’t allowed to address the State Board, they sent their opinion on the matter via email Wednesday night. 

“It would be wrong to ignore the dramatic changes that have been made at Carver Heights Elementary School in the nearly two intervening months,” the letter states.

Since Carver Heights was targeted by the ISD, the district has taken multiple steps to address the performance at Carver Heights, including bringing in Patrice Faison, a former state principal of the year with a track record of turning around low-performing schools. The efforts were acknowledged by the Board and by Hall during the first day of the State Board meeting. Hall said if those efforts had been in place when the school was being evaluated, things would likely be different. 

Wayne County Schools leaders had multiple points of contention with the selection of Carver Heights, but two of the biggest involve the process by which the school was chosen. 

Wayne County Schools officials argue the ISD didn’t follow State Board policy when it made its selection. According to them, the policy requires the ISD to convene a group of internal and external stakeholders to review the ISD’s analysis of the selection, something Wayne County leaders say didn’t happen. 

Another point brought up in the letter is the data used to analyze Carver Heights. The letter states that ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen made a mistake when presenting the data to the State Board.

“Ms. Allen still has not explained her incorrect statement … that 70 percent of the students tested at Carver Heights Elementary School were the same students tested in the previous year,” the letter states. “The true figure is 30 percent of the students are the same tested in consecutive years, following the reconfiguration of the school.” 

The letter also states that contrary to statements by Allen, there were no extensive discussions with Wayne County Schools leadership, and it also questioned multiple other points brought up by ISD leaders for choosing Carver Heights, including a comprehensive needs assessment that the district says was thrown together in the days after Hurricane Florence and is incomplete. 

In a further effort to turnaround Carver Heights and oppose the ISD selection, Wayne County Schools submitted an application to the State Board to have the school operate as a restart school, which would grant it charter-like flexibility. In the letter, Wayne County Schools leaders asked the Board to at the very least give Carver Heights a one-year delay in joining the ISD and allow it to have restart status. The Board rejected that proposal Thursday. 

Now that the State Board has voted, Wayne County Schools has to decide whether to comply with the selection or close the school, the only two options under the ISD law. 

Wayne County Schools Superintendent Michael Dunsmore said that the district is willing to listen to the ISD’s proposal given the caveats put into the motion which passed today, though he expressed some reservations.

“At this point everything we’ve heard from the ISD hasn’t been totally forthcoming and truthful. So we’re willing to listen,” he said. 

He added that Principal Faison’s contract to work at Carver Heights Elementary includes language that would allow her to leave if the school was taken over by the ISD. 

As for the possibility of Wayne County Schools becoming the operator if the General Assembly changes the law, he said that sounds good but raises other questions.

“I think that’s wonderful, but then why do you have an ISD?” he asked.

The NC Center for Public Policy Research has a contract with James Ford’s consulting company, Filling the Gap Education Consultants, LLC,  to conduct a three-year study of inequity in education across North Carolina. 

JB Buxton is former member of EducationNC’s Board of Directors.

Alex Granados

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