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State Board debates Innovative School District selection

The Innovative School District’s selection of Wayne County’s Carver Heights as the District’s second school was the focus of extensive discussion during the first day of the State Board of Education’s two-day meeting. The Board will have its actual vote tomorrow. 

In an e-mail prior to the meeting, Wayne County Superintendent Michael Dunsmore urged the State Board to reject the selection. 

“Your decision this week is NOT a choice. You have been given only ONE option,” he wrote. “If you vote to approve the forced takeover of Carver Heights Elementary, a final resolution to either close the school or transfer the school may not occur until February 1, 2019. The information presented by the ISD staff is one-sided and at best a complete and total misrepresentation of Carver Heights Elementary and Wayne County Public Schools.”

ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen presented to the State Board, explaining the selection of Carver Heights. She pointed out not only the school’s low scores but also a number of other areas in which the school was lacking. 

Of the four schools shortlisted to join the ISD, Carver Heights had the lowest performance scores and grade-level proficiency. 

Chart courtesy of DPI

The school also fared badly in four out of five areas in its Comprehensive Needs Assessment, which examines other measures of school success.

Chart courtesy of DPI

The State Board was slated to vote on the ISD selection last month but delayed the vote to investigate further. Board members also directed ISD leaders to do more outreach in the community served by Carver Heights. Allen presented what engagement efforts have taken place since last month. 

Chart courtesy of DPI

While Wayne County Schools leaders did not have an opportunity to talk at today’s meeting, Superintendent Dunsmore pointed out in his email that Wayne County has taken a number of steps to address Carver Heights’s performance, including applying to have Carver Heights operate as a restart school, which would grant it charter-like flexibility. That application is also before the State Board this week. He also laid out the other steps the district is taking to turn around the school:

  • Replaced the principal with Dr. Patrice Faison (with a proven track record turning around elementary schools)
  • Replaced the SIG Grant Coordinator with Dr. Teri Cobb (with a proven school turnaround track record)
  • Replaced the Assistant Principal
  • Added an additional Assistant Principal
  • Partnered with the Goldsboro Development Authority (After-school programming and community outreach programs)
  • Recruited and allowed “master teachers” to transfer to Carver Heights Elementary

This email comes on top of numerous communications between Wayne County Schools, the school system’s attorney, and the State Board. 

Numerous letters went out this week between Wayne County Schools leaders, including, most recently, one between the district and the State Board that laid out why the ISD’s selection of Carver Heights is based on faulty analysis. 

The letter emphasizes two salient points also noted by the school system’s attorney, Rich Schwartz, of the law firm Schwartz & Shaw P.L.L.C. In an e-mail, he said the test data analyzed by the ISD was misinterpreted and that the ISD did not follow State Board policy during the selection process. 

“Ms. Allen’s statements to the State Board of Education were dead wrong.  She stated that 70% in the school had test marks that could be utilized to make their analysis. The actual figure is 30%. That is, because of regrouping and redistricting, the grade levels at the school changed and only 30% of the students at the school in the two years of test data they utilized (and they are required to use 3 years) were the same students tested the prior year,” he wrote. 

He went on to say that contrary to State Board policy, there is no evidence the ISD convened a group of inside and outside experts to help them analyze the data. 

In Wayne County Schools’ letter, the district listed other reasons why the district has the situation under control and Carver Heights should not join the ISD: 

  • Wayne County Public Schools’ past turnaround success; 
  • The pending Restart application for CHES; 
  • New successful turnaround leadership at Carver Heights Elementary School; 
  • The impact of takeover on the overall governance of the school system as a whole; 
  • The total lack of community and parental support for the ISD takeover; 
  • The time lapse from the SBE vote this week to actual takeover by ISD in fall 2019 and the impact of that time lapse on student achievement as well as community morale; 
  • The failure of the ISD to show any track record or plan for turning around Carver Heights Elementary; 
  • The impact of this takeover on current efforts to redistrict the school system; and 
  • The inability under the ISD model for parents at CHES to have any input in decision-making for their school. 

The letter also accuses ISD leaders of not communicating effectively with Wayne County Schools or considering the impact that including the school in the ISD would have on “school system operations.” 

“We respectfully ask you to vote against this flawed recommendation and watch us prove to you our commitment and ability to turn around Carver Heights Elementary School,” the letter stated. 

Faison, Carver Heights principal, also wrote a letter to the State Board this week. In it, she discusses some of the changes that are being made to improve the school and asks the State Board to reject its inclusion in the ISD. 

“We can and will turn this school around,” Faison wrote. “The children of Carver Heights, the parents of Carver Heights, and the community of Carver Heights — all join me in importing you to vote against this drastic takeover and allow us … to do what this school needs…”

Eric Hall, deputy superintendent of innovation with the Department of Public Instruction, said he acknowledges the changes that Carver Heights has made since it was targeted by the ISD, but that those changes came after the ISD had to make a decision and the other schools on the shortlist had turnaround efforts underway well in advance. He said the situation would be different if Carver Heights’s turnaround efforts had started earlier. 

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 is required by statute to make a decision this month on a school to add to the ISD. 

State Board Vice Chair Alan Duncan said that’s a problem. 

“I believe we need to have meaningful discussion with our legislators about whether or not the timeline is right,” he said. 

Duncan said he cannot imagine the ISD doing better than bringing in a former state Principal of the Year with a proven turnaround record to oversee Carver Heights, which is exactly what Carver Heights has done. He also said he could not imagine a better operator than Wayne County Schools. 

Duncan suggested that perhaps the State Board could request a waiver from the General Assembly on selecting a school to allow more time. 

Board Member Olivia Oxendine said she thought that was a bad idea. 

“A waiver is to me would be acquiescing to the political whims or acquiescing to the best interests … of adults, not that of students,” she said.  

An added wrinkle in this saga occurred yesterday in the General Assembly. A technical corrections bill passed a House committee on a voice vote and goes to the full House today. Included in that was a provision that would allow a district board of education to operate a school chosen for the ISD. 

The subject of whether a district could operate an ISD school came up during the State Board meeting.

Board member JB Buxton asked Hall to narrow in on who could serve as an operator. 

“Our legislation gives us a pretty broad range by referring to it as an entity,” Hall said, adding that he is working on the General Assembly on “other innovative options.” 

Buxton said the ISD puts districts in an unenviable position. 

“We have set up a contest that nobody wants to win,” he said. 

Board member Wayne McDevitt referenced the provision in the technical corrections bill directly.

“We have pending legislation that is going to move sometime in the next few days that impacts this greatly,” he said. 

He asked if it would be possible to choose both the school and the operator at the same time, which Hall — perhaps anticipating that McDevitt wanted Wayne County Schools to be the operator — said would be impossible unless the General Assembly passed the technical corrections bill before the December 15th deadline for the State Board to choose an ISD school. The Board has a drop-dead date to pick an operator of the ISD school of February 15th. So, if the State Board chose to approve Carver Heights for the ISD this month, there would be time for the General Assembly to possibly pass the technical corrections provision, setting up the possibility that Wayne County Schools could ultimately be chosen as Carver Heights’ ISD operator.

The Achievement School District (ASD) bill was passed during the 2016 General Assembly short session. At the heart of the legislation is the creation of a district which will eventually include five low-performing schools from around the state. The schools could be turned over to for-profit charter management organizations. 

The legislation establishing the ASD also gave districts that participate the opportunity to pick up to three other low-performing schools in their districts to join an innovation zone. Schools in this zone would have charter-like flexibility but would continue to be managed by the school district. Further tweaks to the program by the General Assembly changed its name to the North Carolina Innovative School District and added a provision that if a district participating in the ISD has more than 35 percent of its schools identified as low-performing, then all of those schools could become part of an innovation zone should the district elect that option. 

Last year, Robeson County’s Southside/Ashpole Elementary was picked to be the first school in the ISD. It started in the new district this fall under the operation of a non-profit charter management organization, Charlotte-based Achievement for All Children

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.