Test scores, staff turnover show rocky start for controversial school takeover program

Shortly after the school year ended at Southside-Ashpole Elementary School, Bruce Major, principal of the only school in the state’s Innovative School District (ISD) resigned abruptly after one year.

Major wouldn’t be the only ISD departure over the summer. He was followed by ISD superintendent LaTeesa Allen and Tony Helton, who directed Achievement for All Students (AAC), the firm selected by the state to manage Southside-Ashpole.

ISD leaders have revealed little about the departures. It’s not clear whether Major and Allen left on their own or were forced to leave.

And the only thing we know about the Helton situation is that he resigned as southeastern regional director of Team CFA, the firm that created AAC to manage Southside-Ashpole, on Aug. 12 and was replaced by Tricia Cotham, a former Democratic lawmaker from Charlotte.

Still, the picture of the first year at Southside-Ashpole is slowly coming into focus as a result of the release of state test scores and a report evaluating the school’s first year.

State test reports show the Robeson County school made little academic progress, ending its first year under ISD with a state letter grade of “F” and not meeting growth expectations. The percentage of students passing state exams also dipped, although there was some improvement in third-grade math scores.

“We wish it were a glowing report,” said state School Board (SBE) member Amy White. “You can see the glass half full or you can see it half empty. We can see it as an opportunity for improvement, advancement for the betterment of students at that school.”

Lawmakers created the ISD (under which management of struggling schools is turned over to private, charter school operators) in 2016 with the stated objective of helping to improve academic achievement in the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools, but the plan has sparked great controversy and met significant opposition from parents, teachers and school district leaders.

So, critics of the ISD are watching closely to see if the experiment will work as promised, particularly after several schools initially considered for the district along with Southside-Ashpole, but not selected, performed better.

Trip Stallings, director of policy research at the Friday Institute at N.C. State University, who conducted the evaluation of Southside-Ashpole

Dr. Trip Stallings – Image: NC State

for the SBE, said it’s not a referendum on ISD.

“When we have one school for one year, it’s really hard to say that this is an evaluation of ISD,” Stallings said. “That’s going to be hard to say when there are five schools, frankly, but it’s going to be a little more legitimate at that point.”

Stallings said the report shows the “things we learned on the ground at one school” that can help to improve that school and others that might be brought into the ISD later.

Specifically, Stallings was asked to look at academic growth and achievement, learning conditions and student behavior, school-community engagement and school culture.

Stallings found little improvement in school culture. And a “significant division” between staff and leadership had emerged by the end of the school year.

“This is where the real challenge was this year,” Stallings said. “The teachers acknowledged in separate conversations that they were encouraged to take leadership roles, but even administration acknowledged that by the end of the year, the school became a top down place, largely because of the number of fires that were being put out.”

Here is what Stallings wrote in the report about the riff between teachers and school leaders. Much of the division appears to stem from changes to the schools discipline policy.

The operator and administration at Southside-Ashpole introduced new student behavior policies and procedures as part of the operational changes at the school. Focus group participants indicated, however, that some older students—as well as some teachers—struggled to adjust to the changes, primarily because the new policies were different from those to which they were accustomed.

In addition, some teachers indicated that, because their philosophy of discipline did not align with the principal’s, they sometimes chose to handle discipline independently. This discrepancy is significant and contributed to some of the tensions between staff and administration.

Stallings said teachers requested more support, staff and professional development.

Meanwhile, a student survey revealed that two-thirds or less of students reported feeling safe or supported by adults.

“The significant division between staff and leadership…was pretty significant and grew rapidly by the end of the year,” Stallings said. “That showed in the school culture in a number of the visits we made and the feel for the school, every time we went was quite different.”

James Ellerbe

James Ellerbe, the new ISD superintendent, said the issues cited by Stallings are being addressed.

“One of the professional developments that has already occurred is the social and emotional learning piece,” Ellerbe said. “Kids not feeling safe there was a concern for us. I think we’ve started off very well in support of the students and making sure the feel like they’re in a safe environment.”

Moving forward, Stallings said he would encourage ISD school operators to propose bolder academic changes than the ones he found at Southside-Ashpole.

“The changes that were put in place at Southside were positive but also somewhat conservative,” Stallings said. “When we’re talking about working in the schools that struggle the most, we’re going to need to see more dynamic change from day one.”

Stalling also cautioned that successful school turnaround takes time. He recommended increasing pre-opening planning time for operators and setting realistic expectations for success.

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