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.

Education

Veteran educator James Ellerbe appointed superintendent of state’s Innovative Schools District

James Ellerbe

Superintendent Mark Johnson didn’t waste much time naming a new superintendent for the state’s Innovative School District (ISD).

On Thursday, Johnson announced that James Ellerbe will replace LaTeesa Allen as superintendent of the school district created to help turnaround low-performing schools.

Allen’s last day on the job was June 28. N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) officials have not shared any details about her departure. She was appointed to the post only nine months ago.

One of Ellerbe’s first task will be to find a principal for the ISD’s only school, Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County.

Bruce Major abruptly resigned July 1 after a year on the job.

Ellerbe comes to NCDPI from the Center for Responsive Schools where he served as director of administration and Strategy.

Ellerbe has been a teacher and a principal in North Carolina public schools. He’s served at NCDPI in numerous roles including interim director of district and regional support and as a district transformation coach.

Johnson also named Robert “Bo” Trumbo director of the Center for Safer Schools.

According to the press release, Trumbo comes to NCDPI after a distinguished career as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service.

His duties included investigative responsibilities as well as protective assignments; a 5-year tour with the Presidential Protective Division and Counter Assault Team.

Trumbo also held numerous supervisory assignments during his stint with the Secret Service.

On Thursday, Trumbo emphasized the importance of working in partnership with local school districts.

“Hopefully, we can become a clearinghouse, a resource to support districts,” Trumbo said.

He replaces Kym Martin, the wife of former North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin.  Judge Martin resigned in February to become dean of Regent University law school in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

“I am pleased that we are able to add both of these individuals to our team here at DPI,” Johnson said in a statement. “They are uniquely qualified and bring valuable experience to these two important positions. I look forward to working with each of them in their new roles.”

Education

Pitt County charter school in danger of being closed due to poor performance

A small Pitt County charter school dogged by declining attendance, academic failure and financial woes is in danger of being closed.

On Monday, the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) recommended that the State Board of Education (SBE) not renew the charter of Ignite Innovation Academy, which opened in 2016 targeting low-income minority students.

The SBE is expected to decide whether the school remains open early next year. Ignite is one of 18 schools with charters up for renewal. It’s the only one not recommended for renewal by state officials.

Board members cited three consecutive years in which Ignite received a state letter grade of “F” and three straight years of not meeting academic growth expectations as primary reasons for not recommending a three-year renewal for Ignite.

“I just don’t see that this school is going to make it,” said Steven Walker, vice chairman of the CSAB.

Walker noted that grade-level-proficiency among Ignite’s economically disadvantaged students trailed Pitt County’s economically disadvantaged students by 31 percentage points on 2018-2019 state exams.

Only 11.7 percent of Ignite’s economically disadvantaged students were grade-level proficient compared to 42.7 percent of the county’s economically disadvantaged students.

“I think it was a decent idea when we approved this application,” Walker said. “The execution hasn’t been great and that’s to put it nicely.”

A staff report shows that school’s enrollment dropped from a high of 251 students in 2018 to 171 this school year.

And the 2019 audited financial records showed three financial weakness, including a low unassigned fun balance of $6,323, liabilities exceeding current assets by $5,107 and expenditures exceeding revenue by $30,319.

Alex Quigley, chairman of the CSAB, said the trouble at Ignite is one reason why new schools are no longer given 10-year charters.

“It allows us to give the school an opportunity to do something innovative and if it doesn’t work, we can close it,” Quigley said.

Charter critics complain that the schools seldom outperform traditional public schools. They also contend charters siphon students and resources from traditional public schools, contribute to re-segregation and are not held accountable when they fail.

Walker pushed back against the argument that charters aren’t held accountable.

“This is ultimate accountability,” Walker said of not renewing a charter. “If you do not perform, you do not continue to [run] a school.”

Walker said charters operate with fewer regulations but are held to higher standards of accountability than traditional public schools.

Quigley said traditional public schools never have to go before the SBE to explain poor test scores and lobby to remain open.

“When there is real accountability and you might lose your schools, it’s quite motivating,” Quigley said, noting major turnarounds at several traditional public schools that had been tagged for the state’s Innovation School District created by state officials to help low-perforing schools improve student outcomes.

Commentary, Education

Teacher identifies 10 “reforms” that have damaged NC’s public schools

In case you missed it, veteran Forsyth County schoolteacher and regular Policy Watch contributor Stuart Egan has a fine new post on his blog Caffeinated Rage entitled “These Ten Educational ‘Reforms’ In North Carolina Have Intentionally Hurt Our Public Schools.” Here are his first five:

1. Opportunity Grants (Vouchers) –

There has never been any empirical evidence that the vouchers actually work. Maybe voucher proponents would like to point to NC State’s study last year, but that study ultimately did not make conclusions on the veracity of the vouchers. In fact, it said that the Opportunity Grants need much more research as it is hard to assess the program.

Or they might point to “satisfaction surveys” like Joel Ford of PEFNC did in an op-ed on EdNC.org. If that is the only variable by which they can measure the effectiveness of the grants, then that is absolutely weak.

And it has been shown that Opportunity Grants have heavily been used in nontransparent religious private schools. Furthermore, not even half of the funds for the vouchers have been awarded, yet the NCGA keeps putting more money into this reform.

From Public School First NC.org:

In the 2017-18 school year, 7001 students attended 405 private schools at a cost of $20.3 million. The largest cohort of Opportunity Scholarship recipients attended a single religious school in Fayetteville, with those 201 students making up more than half of its student population. The largest dollar amount, $451,442, went to Liberty Christian Academy in Richlands, NC where 122 of the 145 students are voucher recipients. The 2018-2019 Budget Adjustments bill increased funding for the Opportunity Scholarship program from $45 to $55 million.

voucheroverfunded2

2. Innovative School District –

North Carolina’s ISD is run by an out-of-state for-profit charter chain. To date it has only  school and it just got its third superintendent and its second principal – after only one full year in operation.

It is not a success by any stretch of the imagination.

Here is the most recent growth rates and grades for subsets for that ISD school.

reforms4

Southside Ashpole Elementary:

  • 4 – F’s
  • Everything else is an “I” which stands for “Insufficient Data.”
  • 1 – Not Met’s
  • 2 – Met

The current ISD here in NC has been in existence for over three years. It has not worked.

At all.

3. Charter School Cap Removed –

This past January, Kris Nordstrom published an article that openly showed this data.

The cap was removed beginning in 2012-2013.

And there is substantial evidence that charter schools are more segregated than traditional public schools.

The Excel spreadsheet in the previous post lined to above is a list of every charter school that exists now in this state that had a school performance grade attached to it for the 2018-2019 school year. It is cross-referenced to the last full school report card it has on record from the 2017-2018 school year.

According to that data table in that post which includes 173 charter schools,

  • 81 of them had a student population that was at least 65% white.
  • 40 of them had a student population that was at least 80%  white.
  • 100 of them had at least 50% of the students classified as white.
  • 31 of them had a student population that was at least 65%  black.
  • 17 of them had a student population that was at least 80% black.
  • 43 of them had at least 50% of the students classified as black.

To put in perspective, that means:

  • Over 110 of the 173 charter schools had a student population that was at least 65% one race/ethnic group.
  • 150 of the 173 charter schools had a student population that was at least 50% one race/ethnic group.
  • Over 50 of the 173 charter schools had a student population that was at least 80% one race/ethnic group.
  • 132 of the 173 schools listed had a 2017-2018 student population that was lower than  40% Economically Disadvantaged.

4. School Performance Grades –

16 states

NC is the only state that puts more emphasis on proficiency than growth and counts proficiency for 80% for a school performance grade. NC weighs proficiency at least 30% more than the next ranking state.

And North Carolina’s school performance grades are a confirmation that student poverty levels have so much to do with how schools perform.

graph

5. Virtual Charter Schools –

There are two virtual charter schools that have not very well in the past, but were renewed by the state for another four years and championed by Mark Johnson.

Here are their grades and growth by subset groups.

reforms3reforms2

reforms1

NC Virtual Academy:

1 – F
6 – D’s
2- C’s
5 – Not Met’s
1- Met

NC Cyber Academy:

4 – F’s
4 – D’s
1- B
6 – Not Met’s
0- Met

Click here to see the other five.

Education, News

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. Read more