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What things look like on the ground at NC’s first school in the ISD

This isn’t Rosa Thompson’s first year teaching at Southside-Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County. But it’s her first time teaching there since she retired in 2006. 

She taught at the school for 22 years and was only lured back into the classroom after the Innovative School District (ISD) began to take an interest in the school. That’s when she realized just how much the school was struggling. 

“I had to come back. When we ran into a problem with children failing, I had to be a part of making a difference,” she said. 

She first began attending community meetings with ISD staff and said she wanted to help in any way she could. 

“I was willing to volunteer. We knew we needed some good people. Some dedicated people. Some committed people,” she said. 

Dave Prickett, head of communications and external affairs for the ISD, remembers that meeting well. 

“She was at the first one and we started talking about stuff. And (she) stood up and said: ‘I know we need to do something at that school, and I’m retired, but I’ll do whatever I can,'” he said.

After the school began this past fall under the ISD, one of the new teachers who was supposed to join backed out, and the school found itself short an instructor. Thompson was approached about coming back on full-time, and she jumped at the opportunity. 

“I wanted to be among the group that was going to turn this school around,” she said. 

Southside-Ashpole teacher Rosa Thompson helps a student during class

How we got here

Thompson is one of many new teachers at the school. Almost the entire staff turned over after the ISD took over, but all the teachers from the prior year were given the opportunity to interview for their positions. The program has been hugely controversial, with detractors pointing out meager results from Tennessee, which has tried a similar approach. 

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, 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. 

Last year, Southside-Ashpole was the first school chosen. It is being operated by a non-profit charter management organization, Charlotte-based Achievement for All Children (AAC), with help from TeamCFA, a network of charter schools in North Carolina and around the country.

The inclusion of the school in the ISD didn’t go smoothly. The Robeson County School Board and county commissioners voted to issue a joint resolution opposing the inclusion of the Robeson County school in the ISD. The district had two options: join the ISD or close the school. Ultimately, the district came around.

This year, the Innovative School District recommended selecting Carver Heights Elementary in Wayne County as the next ISD school. The county resisted being included, citing extensive attempts to improve the school themselves, and ultimately the General Assembly passed legislation that allowed the school to continue to be operated by the district. 

So, for this year and next, Southside-Ashpole remains the only school in the ISD. While there has been a lot of discussion about whether the Innovative School District should even exist, there has been less talk about what is actually happening at Southside-Ashpole. 

Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County

On the ground

According to Thompson, the school culture is really turning around.

“I think the children are more on task, they’re doing better. The progress that a lot of them are making, you can see that from the beginning up to this point,” she said. “If they had been doing what was expected with their growth, we wouldn’t be here.”

Tokitha Ferguson is an instructional coach at Southside-Ashpole. This is the first year the school has had such a position. Her job is to help implement the new curricula at the schools — Core Knowledge for English Language Arts and Eureka for math — help with lesson planning, observe classrooms, look at data and assessments, and help teachers improve their instruction. 

She has experience with school turnaround, having worked for six years in the State Department of Public Instruction (DPI) in the District and School Transformation Division. In that role, she worked primarily with Robeson County, so she was excited to come in and help. 

“Theses kids are just like every other set of kids across the state,” she said. “Given the right set of elements … every student in this building can perform just like a student in Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, Orange County … they have to have the right teacher,” she said. “That’s the big thing, staffing, because you can put a computer program in front of them, you can throw all the money you want into technology in the schools, but the teacher is the one I would say that makes the biggest impact in how these students will perform at the end of the day.”

The school has only been operating under the ISD for a short time, and she said that people can’t expect immediate results. 

“As a society, we want things instantaneous … but I know, and I’ve been doing this for long enough to know, that any kind of sustainable change doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “But I feel like we are well on our way to getting there.”

Overseeing the entire Innovative School District program is LaTeesa Allen. She took over for Eric Hall, who moved onto the position of deputy state superintendent of innovation at DPI before leaving to take a job in Florida as chancellor for innovation at the Florida Department of Education.

She said she wasn’t focused on the negative attention surrounding the ISD when she applied for her job. Her interest was in the students.

“Being at Southside-Ashpole is what drives me. Seeing the students, that they’re learning, that they’re happy. Seeing teachers that want to teach. And seeing just the difference that our work is doing, it energizes me,” she said. 

In addition to all the other changes at the school — new staff, new curriculum, and additional resources — she said leadership is also putting an emphasis on professional development (PD). Teachers received an additional two weeks of PD before their regular training. 

And, the school even looks different. That’s because one of the first things the school did was implement a uniform policy. For this first year, the rules around uniforms are loosely implemented, but they will become stricter as time goes on.

“It’s a year-long communication process,” said school director Bruce Major. 

He has never worked in a school without a uniform, so bringing in that change was a natural fit for him. 

A new principal

Major’s road to Southside-Ashpole was different than some of the other new staff, especially because he had no idea anything controversial was going on. 

He worked for 13 years in Charlotte at a high-needs school before working in school leadership in China for the past four and a half years. 

“After I got that out of my system, I wanted to return to working with school turnaround,” he said. 

He began looking around for jobs and heard about the opening at Southside-Ashpole, but to him, it was just a school that needed help. He didn’t know much about the politics surrounding the takeover.

“I was 7,500 miles away, so I wasn’t privy to much of that controversy,” he said. 

With the school only in its first year, it’s hard to point to data when evaluating how things are going. The school’s goal is to double proficiency by the end of year one. It was at 18.9 percent going into this year, so staff is hoping to get to 38. Until those scores are in, staffers are looking at more intangible qualities to judge how things are going thus far. 

“We’ve made tremendous strides in improving climate and culture here at the school,” Major said. “And that’s just simply having an environment that’s conducive to learning.”

Operating the first ISD school

Major and the rest of the school’s staff are working closely with Tony Helton, CEO of Achievement for All Children (AAC) and TeamCFA. Helton said getting involved with Southside-Ashpole naturally fit in with the mission of TeamCFA and the school choice movement.

“We really think that [charters] are making a difference in the lives of not only the students in those schools, but also other students in that area and across our state because competition is a good thing, not a bad thing, and so it makes everybody raise their game,” he said. 

He started AAC because TeamCFA only works with charter schools and thus didn’t make sense as an operator for Southside-Ashpole. He is quick to say that he doesn’t see the ISD as an indictment of public schools or even as a criticism of Southside-Ashpole under the leadership of the Public Schools of Robeson County.

“If you’re not achieving at the same level, you have to do something different,” he said. 

In fact, Southside-Ashpole is still working closely with the district for things such as transportation and school lunches. 

And Helton has realistic expectations about what it’s going to take to turn the school around. 

“Any time more than eight of 10 students aren’t passing the test as administered by the state of North Carolina, you’re not in a successful academic atmosphere,” he said. “So is there a big academic hill to climb. Yes sir, there is.”

Rosa Thompson’s class at Southside-Ashpole

Unexpected weather

When asked about the unexpected challenges that cropped up this year, multiple people pointed to Hurricane Florence. Helton said the school missed 23 days because of the hurricane, and in a school that is already underachieving, every day counts. 

Fortunately, the school is able to pick up 12 days, but that still leaves a little more than two school weeks unaccounted for. 

“Those 11 days that we missed are painful,” Helton said. “If I was in total control, we would make every one of those days up day for day.” 

Major echoed Helton’s sentiments. 

“Time in seats is important when you’re talking about school turnaround,” he said. “We have to readjust and refocus our pacing and our sequence.” 

But he said he was heartened that things were back to relative normality pretty soon after the storm. He thought there would have to be extra time taken to help everybody readjust, but they slipped back into the ordinary pattern of school life quickly. 

Another issue, he said, is just the nature of where the school is located.

“This is a rural area, and that presents some challenges for us as far as students having access to outside resources and that sort of thing,” he said. 

But the school is working to form outside partnerships with community organizations in order to get students the resources they need. 

Whatever the controversies surrounding the ISD, the new staff at Southside-Ashpole say they are focused on students and doing their best to turnaround the school. It will have five years to prove itself before being turned back over to Robeson County. 

In the second half of year one, there are still a lot of unknowns, but Allen is focused on optimism and hard work. 

“We’re putting everything that we have into these students, so I’m excited about where we’re going.”

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.