Education

House and Senate approve bill to change Innovative School District selection process

A Republican-sponsored bill to reform the way low-performing schools are selected for the state’s controversial Innovation School District (ISD) received favorable hearings in the House and Senate on Tuesday.

A conference report on Senate Bill 522 was approved over the objections of House and Senate Democrats who argued the ISD hasn’t worked at Southside-Ashpole Elementary School, the state’s lone ISD school in Robeson County.

“After the first year, that school [Southside] ended up with an “F” grade, it didn’t meet the academic growth standards, the percentage of students passing state exams dropped, and in fact in the 2018-2019 school year, both the head of that school and the superintendent were fired,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat.

Chaudhuri is referring to the sudden departures of former ISD superintendent LaTeesa Allen’s whose last day on the job was June 28 and Bruce Major, the Southside principle who resigned July 1.

N.C. Department Department of Public Instruction officials have not shared any details about the departures.

Policy Watch reported on Southside’s rocky schoolyear and sudden leadership departures earlier this month.

Chaudhuri also argued that similar school-takeover experiments in other states have failed, noting that officials in Tennessee have begun to rethink that state’s Achievement School district after six years of little academic progress.

“According to a study that came out earlier this year, these districts have not resulted in any improvement in student achievement for the first six years,” Chaudhuri said.

He compared the approval of SB 522 to the GOP decision to lift the enrollment cap on the state’s two virtual schools despite little evidence of academic success since the pilot program began in 2015. GOP took matters a step further by extending the program until 2023.

Chaudhuri said the decisions to lift the enrollment cap on virtual charters and approve the growth of the ISD are tantamount to awarding failure.

“Now, we are here with the sequel to that bill [that lifted the cap on enrollment at virtual schools] that should be called the reward failure act 2,” Chaudhuri said.

Sen. Rick Horner, a Johnston County Republican, acknowledged that Southside and ISD struggled during their first year of operation.

But he said approval of SB 522 is a better course than the alternative, which is to allow the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to automatically select four new schools into the ISD, which the current law mandates.

“If we fail to pass this bill, four schools automatically go into a system Sen. [Jay] Chaudhuri has said doesn’t work very well,” Horner said. “That’s current law.”

SB 522 is intended to help state officials avoid a messy selection process that has led to boisterous protests in communities when schools are selected for ISD. 

Under SB 522, low-performing schools would be placed on a qualifying list. Schools that remain on the qualifying list the next year would be moved to the ISD watch list, then to a warning list before becoming eligible for takeover by the ISD.

To be eligible for ISD, a must have been on the ISD warning list the previous year, remain a qualifying school in the current year based on data from the previous school year and be one of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

The bill also provides from voluntary entry into the ISD if fewer than five schools are selected. With the approval of the ISD superintendent, local school boards may request that a low-performing school be taken over by the ISD.

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.”