Education

State’s Innovative School District is operating without a superintendent, and its one school doesn’t have a principal

Former ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen

The state’s Innovative School District (ISD) is without a superintendent.

LaTeesa Allen, who was appointed to the post by Superintendent Mark Johnson in September 2018, is no longer employed by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Policy Watch has learned.

The details surrounding Allen’s departure were not immediately available Monday. Policy Watch will update this story as more information becomes available.

Graham Wilson, a spokesman for Johnson, said Allen’s last day was June 28. He provided no further details.

The ISD was created in 2016 through legislation enacted to improve student outcomes in low-performing schools across North Carolina.

As superintendent of the ISD, Allen oversaw the state’s only ISD school, Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County.

The school also lost its principal Bruce Major on July 1.

Tony Helton, CEO of Achievement for All Children, which operates the school, told The Robesonian that Major has done an “exceptional job” but didn’t provide any details about why he left after only one year on the job.

“He gave his heart and soul into moving the needle at Southside-Ashpole and building strong relationships in the community,” Helton said. “We appreciate all that he has done and wish him well in his future endeavors.”

Major was hired in July 2018.

Meanwhile, Allen’s departure could further delay efforts to bring four more low-performing schools into the ISD by 2021 as required by state law.

Allen had acknowledge that adding four more schools by 2021 would be a “bit of a challenge.”

Schools tapped for ISD have vigorously pushed back against being taken over by the state.

“We know it’s going to big task, but we know the greater task is going to be to move students forward, and that’s what we’re going to stay focused on,” Allen told Policy Watch in January.

Carver Heights Elementary School in Wayne County most recently fought off efforts to be forced into the ISD. The school successfully submitted a “restart  application” to the State Board of Education to avoid a state takeover.

Under the “restart” school reform model, the school was given “charter-like” flexibility to operate, meaning it’s allowed to operate free of some of the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools.

Allen replaced Eric Hall who left in March to become chancellor for innovation at the Florida Department of Education.

When Johnson hired Allen, he touted her experience working with “education systems and partners in other states.”  He said Allen would provide “valuable perspectives in how we approach accelerating student growth and achievement in low-performing schools.”

Before coming to N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Allen worked as the chief program officer at Communities In Schools of North Carolina (CISNC), a statewide nonprofit organization that supports students at-risk of dropping out of school.

As a member of the senior leadership team, Allen oversaw the development, strategic planning, service delivery and management of a portfolio of statewide programs focused on student achievement, college and career readiness, and juvenile justice.

Education, News

Wayne County school leaders cite “great dismay” about Innovative School District takeover

In a recent letter to North Carolina officials, school system leaders in Wayne County expressed “serious concerns and great dismay” about the potential takeover of a struggling elementary school by the state’s controversial Innovative School District.

“The ISD is without a proven school turnaround record, without a strategic plan to assist our children, and without any accountability to the taxpayers, parents, or children of Wayne County,” Superintendent Michael Dunsmore and Board of Education Chair Patricia Burden wrote in the letter.

Policy Watch received a copy of the letter Tuesday, although the message was e-mailed and hand delivered to the State Board of Education and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a member of the state board, last week.

It was sent a day before members of the State Board of Education punted a decision on the takeover to next month. The program would allow state leaders to turn over control of the troubled public school to a private school management group, including charter organizations and for-profit companies.

Wayne County leaders said state officials “witnessed our community’s outrage” at a town hall meeting last month, adding that they’d also received a petition with almost 2,000 signatures opposing the takeover from the community and the local NAACP.

Dunsmore and Burden blasted state leaders’ “inconsistent” process for choosing Carver Heights, noting that last year, the ISD excluded schools like Carver Heights which had received Federal School Improvement Grants (SIGs) to boost performance.

Wayne County Public Schools “assumed this same exemption would apply this year,” they wrote. “Inconsistent criteria make it impossible for school systems to effectively plan or make meaningful decisions about low-performing schools, as the criteria are not articulated and ever-changing.”

Leaders in the ISD recommended Carver Heights for the program last month after narrowing a field of the lowest-performing schools in North Carolina down to six.

The Goldsboro school, which serves grades 3-5, had the lowest academic scores among the final six. On its 2016-2017 state report card, Carver Heights earned an “F” grade and did not meet expected growth.

ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen

ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen said the school was chosen after officials spoke with administrators in all of the remaining schools.

“We are confident in our process and the accountability data used in selecting Carver Heights Elementary for recommendation to the State Board,” Allen said in a statement Tuesday.

“The passion in this community is real,” state Superintendent of Innovation Eric Hall said last week. “But we also have to come to a point where we say only 18.4 percent of our students are proficient in reading and math, where do we go from here?”

Yet school leaders wrote that they’re working on a redistricting process to break up the “heavily segregated nature” of the elementary. According to the state, 90 percent of the school’s students were considered economically disadvantaged, a population that tends to lag behind their more affluent peers.

“The taking of this school, and the restrictions on school assignment in the ISD statutes would prevent and interfere with these efforts for possibly the next five years, to the detriment of our overall student population, the students at Carver Heights Elementary School, and our community as a whole,” Wayne leaders wrote.

Among their other criticisms, Wayne County leaders blasted an Oct. 15 letter from Allen notifying them of her recommendation to take over Carver Heights, accusing Allen of writing “inaccurate or false information and conclusory allegations, unsupported by any evidence or exhibits.”

State lawmakers approved the program two years ago because they said long-beleaguered schools needed a change. But opponents, including the state’s largest teacher advocacy organization, the N.C. Association of Educators, have been bitingly critical, calling the initiative a private “takeover scheme.”

If the takeover is approved by the State Board of Education, Carver Heights would be the second school to join the ISD in as many years. The district began work this year in a Robeson County elementary, handing over operations to a newly-formed group, Achievement for All Children, that has deep ties to the legislature and the state’s school choice movement.

Read the entire letter below.

10-31-18 Forest_NCBOE Letter Exhbits – Redacted Resumes by Billy Ball on Scribd

Education, News

Despite concerns, divided State Board of Education approves controversial operator for Innovative School District

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey

A divided State Board of Education approved a controversial operator in the Innovative School District Thursday, despite concerns about the contractor’s limited experience and perceived conflicts of interest.

The vote clears the way for a contract with the Forest City-based nonprofit, Achievement for All Children (AAC), which formed last year under the leadership of influential school choice advocates in North Carolina.

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall recommended the group over one other applicant, Michigan-headquartered The Romine Group, following a third-party evaluation and meetings with locals in the Robeson County community where the school—Southside-Ashpole Elementary—is located.

AAC’s leadership includes CEO Tony Helton, a former state board adviser and leader in the TeamCFA charter network. And its board of directors includes ex-state Rep. Rob Bryan, a former Charlotte lawmaker who co-sponsored the legislation two years ago to create the program.

The district will allow private organizations like AAC to take over management in up to five public schools, chosen because of poor academic marks. [Update: The Innovative School District will hire and manage teachers and support staff, while AAC would select the school’s leader or principal].

“I am encouraged to see the ISD get to this important next stage where what was only an idea just a short while ago is now developing into a genuinely innovative approach to improving conditions in low-performing schools,” state board Chair Bill Cobey said in a statement, issued shortly after Thursday’s contentious vote.

State Board of Education member Tricia Willoughby

The panel voted 7-4 to approve, with members Tricia Willoughby, Eric Davis, Becky Taylor and Wayne McDevitt in opposition.

Multiple board members challenged the recommended operator this week, pointing to a critical review of AAC by a state-named consultant. That review called into question whether the new nonprofit had the experience or the plan to turn around Southside-Ashpole, although the nonprofit still beat out a similarly tepid review of The Romine Group.

State officials say they hope to attract more interested operators when they choose two to three new schools later this year for the takeover program, which was a favorite of mostly conservative school choice boosters in the N.C. General Assembly.

“I still have a lot of concerns about assuring that we do the right thing here,” McDevitt said during Wednesday’s lengthy debate. “I’m not there.”

Davis, who was voted in as the board’s new vice chair Thursday, offered his own biting criticism this week.

“I think (students) deserve better,” said Davis. “They deserve an operator with a demonstrated track record.”

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall

Critics of the Innovative School District also questioned the deep ties between AAC and the school choice movement in the state. In addition to contracting with the state legislator, Rob Bryan, who helped to legalize the takeover model, some also noted the connection between AAC and John Bryan (no relation to Rob Bryan), an Oregon, school choice advocate who lobbied for the program in recent years.

The nonprofit plans to partner with TeamCFA, a charter network John Bryan founded, in managing the school, which serves primarily students of color in a rural, poverty-stricken county.

TeamCFA runs 13 schools in North Carolina. And some state board members pointed to their “mixed” academic results as more reason for concern.

State officials said that Hall will now look to work with AAC in choosing a leader or principal for the school, as well as a “proven curriculum.”

“It’s been an arduous process to get to this point; that was intentional,” Hall said in a statement. “We had to make very sure that we had the right fit for the school, students and community. That is critical to our success.”

Education, News

Robeson County to transfer school to state’s controversial Innovative School District

Robeson school board Chair Peggy Wilkins-Chavis

In the end, the decision came down, at least partly, to pragmatism, says Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, chair of the Robeson County Board of Education.

Wilkins-Chavis’ board voted unanimously Tuesday to transfer control of a struggling elementary to North Carolina’s Innovative School District (ISD). It’s a hotly-contested new state initiative expected to cede operation of Southside-Ashpole Elementary in Rowland to a private charter or education management organization, including, potentially, a for-profit company.

The only option remaining to Robeson leaders under state law was closure, a route that nonetheless earned close scrutiny in late 2017.  But Wilkins-Chavis said the district would have been forced to displace more than 250 students, teachers, counselors and administrators across the district, potentially burdening other local schools that were lagging academically too.

“There were so many negative things,” she said. “And we don’t need to hurt schools that are struggling anyway.”

Southside-Ashpole Elementary will be the first North Carolina school to join the new program. The Rowland school was the final school standing after state officials last year narrowed down a list of 48 possible schools, eligible because of dismal test scores. Most, like Robeson County, served a low-income population, a group that tends to trail their peers in the classroom.

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall is expected to recommend several more schools after a new round of testing data later this year.

Wilkins-Chavis expressed deep skepticism for the takeover program last year, although she said this week that she’s viewing the reform as a “new beginning” for Southside-Ashpole.

“If we can’t do it and Robeson County has failed and this company can come in and bring those test scores up, I’m 100 percent for it,” she said. “Because that’s our children of tomorrow. We need to have them on grade level.”

Hall is working with a consultant, Massachusetts-based School Works, to make a recommendation on the school’s new operator in February. Just two organizations—one a new Charlotte nonprofit and the other a Michigan for-profit, charter operator—submitted completed applications for the program, much to the chagrin of some members on the State Board of Education. More to come on that tomorrow from Policy Watch.

On Wednesday, Hall applauded Robeson school board members for their decision this week.

“Together we’re learning this new body of work,” he said. “It’s definitely been a journey and I’m very grateful to the board for taking that step.”

News

State Board of Education questions small pool of applicants for Innovative School District

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall

State Board of Education members say they’re concerned just two applicants are in the running for a contract in North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District (ISD).

“In my experience in the contract world, I’m just concerned that we only have two players wanting to participate with us,” said board member Eric Davis Wednesday, just weeks before a state administrator is expected to recommend one of two private groups for the charter takeover program.

State board members will have the final say on whether to award the contract this year to Michigan-based, for-profit The Romine Group or Achievement for All Children, a new North Carolina nonprofit formed by a group of influential school choice backers in the state.

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall attributed the limited pool to the new program’s first year, suggesting more groups will look to get involved once word gets out.

The multiyear program is likely to  move to take on several more schools in late 2018, but will launch with just one school in the 2018-2019 academic year.

State lawmakers approved the charter takeover initiative in 2016, pointing to a need for reforms in chronically struggling schools. However, opponents sharply criticized lackluster results from similar efforts in other states such as Tennessee and Louisiana, also arguing that lawmakers were seeking to further private privatize K-12 schooling.

State leaders are expected to sign a contract this spring with the prospective school operator, which would control operations and hiring in a designated school.

State board members tapped Southside-Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County for the program last year. Leaders in the southeastern North Carolina county threatened to close the school initially, but have since backed off on that tentative plan. Robeson school board members are expected to vote on whether to accept the program next week.

Hall told state board members Wednesday that, following a December public hearing in Robeson County, he believes the district has a “good, strong coalition of support” in the school district.