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With Robeson elementary mulling closure, N.C.’s Innovative School District left with no schools to take over?

The Robeson County elementary school tapped for North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District (ISD) is likely to close, the county’s school board chair tells Policy Watch, potentially leaving the state’s new charter takeover program without a school to take over in its first year.

“The state has failed us,” said Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, chairwoman of the Robeson County Board of Education.

If so, it would be a stunning setback for a school choice expansion program that so rankled public school advocates when it was approved by state lawmakers last year.

Pitched as a boon to long-lagging schools, the program would allow private charter operators, including for-profit groups, to seize control of operations and staffing at a traditional public school, with the goal of turning around dismal test scores.

But critics savaged the reform as little more than the privatization of public schools, also noting middling results from similar takeover efforts in states such as Tennessee, Louisiana and Michigan.

“It’s unfortunate that big out of state money led the General Assembly to pass a charter takeover law that is ripping communities apart,” said N.C. Association of Educators President Mark Jewell Friday. “Instead of starving our schools of resources the General Assembly should make the necessary investments to help our students be successful.”

Wilkins-Chavis spoke to Policy Watch Thursday, shortly after members of the State Board of Education officially selected Robeson’s Southside-Ashpole Elementary for the takeover district.

State law allows for district leaders to accept the takeover or move to close the school by February, a prospect that Wilkins-Chavis described as increasingly likely. District officials would redistribute students and staff at the Rowland elementary throughout the school system.

Robeson officials aren’t the first to threaten closure over membership in the ISD. Durham and Rocky Mount chiefs did the same when their local schools made the shortlist last month.

Meanwhile, the Robeson school board chair—who initially indicated support for the program before a late surge of public opposition in the southeastern North Carolina district—said she’s glad the Innovative School District may sputter in its first year.

“They have no one to blame but themselves,” Wilkins-Chavis said. “They did it the wrong way.”

Without a school to take over, ISD Superintendent Eric Hall says the district may have to pick up additional schools when they take up the matter next year. Leaders were expected to choose two schools this year and another two next fall, but this month’s developments are likely to shift that timetable.

State law clears the district to absorb at least five schools statewide in the coming years.

Southside-Ashpole was the final school remaining last month after Hall whittled down a list of 48 eligible schools, selected because they reported performance scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide and did not meet growth goals in at least one of the prior three academic years.

The K-5 school, which enrolls more than 200 students, finished with “F” scores in reading and math in 2016, according to state records.

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall

Hall has said the initiative would spur fresh ideas in the chronically low-performing school, but county commissioners and school board members bristled at the prospect of a private takeover in recent weeks.

Wilkins-Chavis also slammed state leaders Thursday because she says they did not consider recent storm damage when they tapped the Robeson County school for the ISD.

School officials are expected to spend millions in the coming years to replace school facilities, including the district’s central office, after Hurricane Matthew flooded the rural county with heavy rains in 2016.

“We’re already down,” Wilkins-Chavis said. “Why throw us down farther?”

But Hall has countered that the district’s struggles preceded the storm. He also pointed out that the three school districts that landed on the ISD’s final list with Robeson County presented plans to his office for improvements at their respective schools, but Robeson did not until after he recommended Southside-Ashpole to the State Board of Education in mid-October.

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Following angry backlash in Robeson County, potential applicants for Innovative School District have second thoughts

With local opposition in Robeson County mounting to North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District, one potential applicant for a state contract in the charter takeover program is backing out and another may soon follow.

According to records obtained by Policy Watch, Communities in Schools (CIS) of Robeson County—a local affiliate of a state and national dropout prevention program—notified state leaders Oct. 13 that they would not be applying for a contract in the charter takeover program after all.

Meanwhile, the leader of a second organization that signaled its intent to apply for the ISD is also having second thoughts. In an Oct. 25 email to ISD Superintendent Eric Hall, Alexis Franco, director of Raleigh-based Achieve Educational Partners LLC, questioned why the state was seeking an outside party to assume control at Southside-Ashpole Elementary in Robeson.

CIS of Robeson’s notice arrived the same day that ISD Superintendent Eric Hall tapped a Robeson elementary school for the district, which would allow a private charter management organization—including, possibly, a for-profit company—to wrest control of the struggling school from local school board members.

The organization, which provides programming in 17 Robeson schools and operates a local charter, notified state officials of its decision one day after a Policy Watch report detailed professional ties between Hall and at least two ISD applicants, including CIS of Robeson.

That report prompted questions about whether Hall, who will make a recommendation on the ISD contract to the State Board of Education, could be objective in the matter, although Hall said he does not believe his work experience with the organizations should be deemed a conflict.

But CIS of Robeson County Executive Director Dencie Lambdin said Monday that the organization’s decision to withdraw was prompted by the scathing reaction to a prospective charter takeover in the eastern North Carolina school district, which has been battered by storm damage in recent years.

“I think the fact that there was such strong feeling in opposition to the Innovative School District coming from our county leadership, we felt it was in the best interest of the relationship that we had to step away from that,” said Lambdin. “My board didn’t want to jeopardize the relationship that we’ve worked so long and hard to build.”

CIS of Robeson initially wrote in its August notice of intent to apply for the ISD that it hoped to win a state contract if Hall chose a school in Robeson County. It was one of eight organizations, including Achieve Educational Partners, to file a notice before the state’s Aug. 11 deadline.

Groups have until Nov. 17 to file a formal application for the district. The State Board of Education is expected to award the contract in early 2018 at Hall’s recommendation, following a third-party review of applicants.

The pool is also expected to include a group of influential charter advocates—as well as a former state lawmaker who spearheaded the ISD’s creation last year—calling themselves Achievement for All Children.

Other applicants include AMIKids Inc., The Romine Group, Phalen Leadership Academies, Learning Sciences International LLC, Global Education Resources, OmniVest LLC, and PlusUltre LLC.

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State official recommends Robeson County elementary—excludes Durham, Rocky Mount, Northampton schools—for Innovative School District

(Note: This is a developing story; check back for updates.) The leader of North Carolina’s Innovative School District (ISD) will recommend a Robeson County elementary for the first year of the state’s Innovative School District, Policy Watch has learned.

The selection excludes schools on the short-list from Durham, Nash and Northampton counties.

Robeson Board of Education Chair Peggy Wilkins-Chavis confirmed the selection Friday afternoon for Policy Watch.

It comes one day after the contentious state program received a “rude” welcome from locals in a community forum Thursday, according to The Robesonian.

“The ISD is moving forward with a recommendation to start with one school in the initial 2018-2019 academic school year in order to help create the right conditions to support accelerated achievement for students at Southside Ashpole Elementary,” ISD Superintendent Eric Hall said in a statement.

“Our goal is to work collaboratively with the Public Schools of Robeson County, parents, teachers and community leaders to develop innovative strategies in schools that promote improved student outcomes. For those schools under consideration for the ISD yet not recommended for selection at this time, this is an opportunity for them to focus attention and energy at the local level on improving student outcomes based on district plans. The ISD looks forward to continued engagement with local communities on these strategies moving forward. I believe that working together we can establish a national model for how state and local partnerships are created with a single goal for promoting equity and excellence in supporting students and communities.”

State law limits the district to five schools. However, Hall was initially expected to pick two schools for the program’s first year in 2018-2019 before he suggested this week that he might pick just one school.

The controversial school reform program could allow charter management organizations, including for-profit companies, to assume control of operations and staffing in struggling schools.

Hall’s selection comes after several weeks of whittling down an initial list of 48 schools, chosen because they reported school performance scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide and did not meet growth goals in at least one of the last three years.

The proposal’s earned stinging rebuke from some local leaders, communities and advocates, even as supporters like Hall argued the program would spur fresh ideas in schools with chronic academic problems.

Similar efforts in Tennessee, Michigan and Louisiana have delivered mixed results thus far.

The N.C. Association of Educators, the state’s top advocacy organization for teachers, blasted the ISD after the news Friday.

“Communities, parents, and educators have been standing up for weeks to this state-led charter takeover of  public schools approved by the General Assembly,” said NCAE President Mark Jewell.  “The big out-of-state money that led to this unproven and unaccountable school takeover scheme was exposed by the media this week. Instead of handing over our students to those who want to dismantle public schools and make big profits, our elected leaders should be investing in the resources it takes to help our students be successful.”

Members of the State Board of Education are expected to formally receive Hall’s recommendations next month, with a vote scheduled for December.

Under state law, schools chosen for the ISD will have to accept the takeover or close.

Schools left out of Hall’s recommendations include Rocky Mount’s Williford Elementary, Northampton County’s Willis Hare Elementary and Durham’s Glenn Elementary, which has been a rallying point for Triangle-area critics of the takeover proposal in recent weeks.

“Now the real hard work begins of making sure we’re never on that list again,” said Durham Board of Education Chairman Mike Lee, who’s been bitingly critical of the ISD.

In a statement, Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools (NRMPS) Superintendent Shelton Jefferies indicated he was “pleased” with the decision.

“NRMPS will remain focused and committed to quality instruction for our students at Williford Elementary School.”

Last month, some Rocky Mount officials indicated they might have closed their school if state officials chose Williford Elementary for the takeover district.

The selection process for the program’s operators is still underway, with members of the State Board expected to vote on Hall’s recommendation in early 2018. As Policy Watch reported Thursday, it’s a process that’s also come under criticism.

News

Innovative School District head defends background with groups seeking state contracts

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall

The head of North Carolina’s Innovative School District (ISD) says his professional ties to two groups seeking state contracts to manage struggling schools should not be a conflict.

Some public school advocates have suggested ISD Superintendent Eric Hall’s relationship with those organizations—AMIKids Inc. and Communities in Schools (CIS) of Robeson County—may hinder his objectivity in assessing applicants for the district.

The controversial model would clear charter management organizations and education management organizations, including for-profit groups, to sign five-year contracts for control of some of North Carolina’s lowest-performing schools. State officials are down to four schools—located in Robeson, Durham, Nash and Northampton counties—to choose from for the 2018-2019 school year

AMIKids Inc. and CIS of Robeson are two of eight entities so far that have signaled their intent to apply for those contracts, which would likely be awarded by the State Board of Education in early 2018. Hall, who worked for state and national affiliates of both organizations over the last 11 years, is expected to make recommendations to the state board in the coming months.

But Hall—who was chosen by state leaders this year to run the controversial reform model—says he accepted the job as a practitioner with experience in working with at-risk youth.

That’s why Hall says he expected to encounter organizations that he’d worked with in the past when accepting applicants.

From Hall’s statement Friday morning:

“The Innovative School District will select and match school operators for schools included in the new district through an extensive external evaluation process, which will include the professional recommendation of an independent third-party evaluation firm, their review of the operator’s application, review of the operator’s past performance, and community input.

Operators who have submitted a notice of intent to apply must participate in a mandatory training before formally submitting an accepted application for consideration. As part of the evaluation process, operators will be required to consider the opinions, values and concerns of community members for schools selected for inclusion in the ISD.

Applications from operators are due in November and the selection of a new operator is expected to be made by January or February. Throughout this process, our focus is on finding the best fit between the operator and the community. Our goal is for this to be a community effort to develop innovative partnerships to change the conditions in selected schools in order to improve outcomes for children in some of our most underperforming schools.”

Hall was the president and CEO of dropout prevention nonprofit Communities in Schools of N.C., the state affiliate for CIS of Robeson, for four years before he was named ISD superintendent this year. Before that, Hall spent more than seven years as a national director for AMIKids, a national nonprofit that specializes in interventions with troubled youth.

According to state documents, CIS of Robeson, which currently runs a Robeson charter that primarily serves youth from low-income families, would only seek to manage an ISD school if leaders choose to take over a school in Robeson County.

Although school board leadership in Robeson has signaled some support for the takeover district, the proposal received an icy reception from locals during a presentation Thursday, according to The Robesonian.  

News

Groups with ties to Innovative School District head seeking state contracts for charter takeovers

Innovative School District Superintendent Eric Hall

Two groups seeking state contracts to run struggling North Carolina schools have professional ties to the man who may ultimately steer the decision to hire them, N.C. Policy Watch has learned.

According to documents obtained by Policy Watch, AMIKids Inc. and Communities in Schools (CIS) of Robeson County are two of eight organizations that have filed notices of intent to apply for contracts in the Innovative School District (ISD), a controversial reform program that could allow for-profit school operators to assume control of operations and staffing in lagging public schools for at least five years.

Until he accepted the role of ISD superintendent this year, Hall was the president and CEO of Communities in Schools of N.C., the state affiliate for CIS of Robeson County, an organization that specializes in dropout prevention with struggling kids. Before that, Hall also worked for more than seven years as national director for AMIKids, a Florida-based nonprofit that works with at-risk youth and non-traditional schools in a number of southern states.

Hall, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, is expected to make recommendations to the State Board of Education in the coming months on which organizations should receive contracts for the takeover district.

Yevonne Brannon, board chair for Public Schools First N.C., a public school advocacy group that’s been critical of the proposal, said she believes members of the public may question Hall’s ability to provide a fair evaluation of the two organizations. Credible assessment will be needed of any group that takes the reins in an ISD school, she added, given the controversy surrounding the proposal and the middling results of a similar charter takeover program in Tennessee.

“When there’s an appearance of a conflict of interest, it might jeopardize the integrity of the program,” said Brannon.

Representatives for AMIKids Inc. and CIS of Robeson County did not immediately return phone calls Thursday.

Bill Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education, said he did not know organizations with prior ties to Hall were in the running for the contracts, but he expressed confidence in Hall’s ability to be objective.

“He’s very careful,” said Cobey. “I couldn’t imagine him doing anything that wouldn’t be right or straight.”

Cobey added that he has “great trust” in Hall. “He’s done a great job of implementing a piece of legislation that’s difficult to implement.”

Hall is expected to recommend one or two schools to join the ISD as soon as Friday, with the State Board of Education slated to hold a vote in December.

Meanwhile, Hall’s office will accept groups’ applications for state contracts until Nov. 15. He’s expected to make a recommendation to the state board weeks later, with the board likely to award the contract or contracts in early 2018.

Interest from at least one organization with connections to the state legislature and an influential school choice booster from Oregon has already spurred some scrutiny this week.

Prospective ISD schools have performance scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide, and did not meet growth goals in at least one of the prior three years.

As of Thursday, Hall was down to a shortlist of four that included schools in Robeson, Durham, Nash and Northampton counties. In Durham and Nash, local leaders have been vocal opponents, although the reception has been somewhat warmer in Robeson.