Last week, almost 200 parents, educators, community members and supporters, gathered at Carver Heights Elementary school in response to an invitation by leaders from the Innovative School District (ISD). Their representatives came to deliver the news that the school had been included on a short list of schools under consideration for inclusion in the controversial school improvement model, which might shift control from the locally-elected School Board to an outside, for-profit charter school operator.
Despite a stark lack of evidence for this model’s success and its dismal track record for transforming high needs schools in other states, representatives seemed to offer little to no alternatives to what they proposed was needed: an ISD takeover.
Although the meeting’s invitation pledged to allow community members a chance to provide feedback and engage in a “conversation,” it seemed apparent to those who had gathered that the stated intent was misleading. Rather than invite community members to discuss the school’s needs and share what seems to be working well, the ISD representatives started their presentation by presenting test scores that painted a picture of “failing” students, an “under-performing” school and offered inclusion in the ISD as the only possible solution. These labels landed heavily upon the school’s educators, who had joined the event all wearing their yellow Carver Heights shirts, displaying the message: “Talk to Me, I will Listen, Teach Me, I will Learn, Inspire Me, I will Succeed.”
Community members also struggled to process the decision-making timeline presented: one of the schools being considered would be selected within a week’s time.
Why the Rush?
Cultivating good leadership, building trust and school improvement strategies takes time to develop. Trust and time is precisely what the school’s community asked ISD representatives to provide.
The school’s principal, Cortrina Smith, stepped into her role in 2016. Everyone from district leaders down to her faculty and staff within the school building have praised her leadership and echoed the feeling of frustration that countless educators and administrators feel across the state: that they are trying their best with what they have but it is just simply not enough. Every community speaker expressed a similar sentiment last week. They pointed to the school being badly in need of financial resources, that teachers and administration are doing their best but their students and families face tremendous barriers to
success that are going unaddressed. They pointed to the school being deeply segregated and the unavoidable difficulties they face when the overwhelming majority of the students face significant barriers to learning, both inside and outside of school. Another message that resonated was a plea to trust the community to know what is best for its school and to engage them with any school improvement planning.
Led by the Goldsboro Wayne NAACP branch and leaders from WAYne Forward, a community-led organization focusing on poverty elimination, the school’s educators and staff, parents and extended network of support communicated what they see as the main barriers the school community is facing and the types of changes they need from elected officials. With the exception of one speaker, who sat near the ISD delegation and was representing Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC), every single speaker spoke out against a proposed state takeover, voiced strong opposition to what they described as an unaccountable, for-profit, outside organization.
Local NAACP President Sylvia Barnes led a group of community members earlier in the day to voice their concerns to the County Commissioners and at the meeting, addressed the glaring demographic challenges of the school where 90 percent of the children qualify for free and reduced lunch and where more than 95 percent of the students identify as Black or Hispanic. “We are determined that this school won’t be taken over. We have capable people right here who can take care of our children. I don’t trust them [the ISD representatives]. We stand with Wayne County Public Schools to do whatever is necessary to support our children and the school system.”
Another Approach Is Possible
In addition to questioning the rushed decision, multiple community members also questioned why other school improvement models were not being considered: namely the Restart Schools model. Under Restart, continually low-performing schools or an entire district can apply to the State Board of Education for this designation allowing them ‘charter-like flexibility’ which can often mean much needed reprieve from strict guidelines surrounding curriculum and school calendar, while maintaining local authority of the school. Such an approach is underway at nearby Goldsboro High School and supported by the school community.
Keith Copeland, a local NAACP chapter leader, also questioned the timeline and top-down decision making on display.
“Our children in this community, even though they may be struggling, they have connections to their teachers, to their principal, and if you take that away from them, we’re going to have more of a problem. We’re saying that our community needs to be in on the decision-making, not just guys up in the legislature.”
Copeland’s wife Deborah, a veteran teacher and leader at the school, spoke to the demoralizing signal the ISD proposal sent to educators who face potential firing upon takeover by the ISD.
“Last year, I received an award for being in the top 25 percent of teachers for growth in the entire state. You come out one year and shake my hand and congratulate me on that achievement and the next year, you question my ability to teach and tell me I’ll have to re-apply for my job if I’m to remain here. You’re talking about not only our students but also our livelihoods; that’s a problem.”
Despite the overwhelmingly unanimous community response rejecting the proposed takeover, the ISD announced their decision to move forward with their original plan to take the school over on October 16th– just a week after the community meeting was held.
The Struggle Ahead
When asked how they felt upon hearing the news about Carver Heights, (no one from the ISD notified meeting attendees of the decision), community leaders seemed more resolved than the week before and vowed to take their fight all the way to Raleigh for the State Board of Education’s meeting in November. The hope is to appeal to the concerns shared by other public education leaders and direct the time, energy and resources at the state’s disposal toward proven strategies and decision making that sees the community as a partner and valuable resource, not simply another set of voices to disregard.