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.”

COVID-19, Education

State lawmakers receive an earful about what schools need to cope with COVID-19 crisis

COVID-19 (Image:CDC)

Freebird McKinney gave a group of lawmakers a lot to think about Thursday as they considered ways to respond to school closures because of  the COVID-19 crisis.

McKinney, the new director of legislative affairs and community outreach for the State Board of Education, said his bosses are weighing legislative requests for calendar flexibility to allow schools to open in early August for the 2020-21 school year and possibly 2021-2022.

In North Carolina, schools can open no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11.

Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools until May 15 or possibly later to slow the spread of the contagious virus.

School closure has disrupted public education, forcing state lawmakers and educators to develop plans to continue to educate students, feed them and to provide broadband access while they are home waiting for the threat to subside.

McKinney said COVID-19 has presented the state with challenges but also opportunity.

“There is an opportunity to re-envision and re-imagine what our North Carolina public schools have been, what they are, what they are becoming and what they will be in the future,” said McKinney, a former state Teacher of the Year.

The SBE will meet today at 11 a.m., to discuss possible legislative requests related to COVID-19 and other virus-related matters.

McKinney made his remarks to a working group of lawmakers assembled to consider the impact COVID-19 has on the state’s public schools.

The House Select Committee on COVID-19 has additional groups addressing the impact of the virus on health care, school safety, the prison system and other government areas.

McKinney said several requests are possible: for state testing waivers, suspension of K-3 reading diagnostics mandated under the state’s Read to Achieve law and waivers to hold schools and districts harmless from the state’s controversial school report cards.

“One of the issues being discussed is to not issue A-F school performance grades for the 2019-2020 academic school year,” McKinney said. “And what that could possibly mean is holding schools and districts harmless under these accountability requirements and also any designation of low-performing schools that would otherwise subject our schools to being included on the Innovative School District (ISD) list.”

Schools with lowest test scores are at risk of being put on the ISD list for a possible takeover by the state.

McKinney said the SBE has also discussed waivers for the 185-day or 1,025-hour minimum required classroom instruction. Under such a waiver, school employees would be paid as though they worked a full calendar year, he said.

Anticipating legislative pushback on some of the possible SBE requests, State Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the working group on education, said no decisions have been made.

“Don’t take any of these things that we’re looking at as fact, that we’re going to do this or we’re going to do that,” Horn said. “That would be wrong-headed and inappropriate for some people who are going to get worked up over this, that or the other.”

Before the group met, House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, reminded it of its purpose. Read more

Education

Achievement Schools District in Tennessee seeks ‘restart’ after failing to improve schools

The state-run school district in Tennessee, the one on which this state’s Innovative School District (ISD) is modeled, has failed.

According to reports out of Tennessee, the Achievement School District (ASD), is working on a plan to return 30 ASD schools in Memphis and Nashville to their local districts by 2022.

State officials in Tennessee contend the district, which was established in 2012 to improve achievement in low-performing schools, “grew too quickly” and that “demand outpaced supply and capacity.”

Still, Tennessee officials aren’t giving up on the ASD. They’re billing the new proposal as a “reset” of the district, which has fallen short of its goals to move low-performing schools from the bottom 5 percent and into the top 25 percent.

Most ASD schools were handed over to charter school operators after being pulled from local districts.

“The Achievement School District remains a necessary intervention in Tennessee’s school framework when other local interventions have proven to be unsuccessful in improving outcomes for students,” officials said in a presentation obtained by Chalkbeat.

“The Commercial Appeal” in Memphis reports that most of the schools remain the bottom 5 percent and that several have closed due to low enrollment. Teacher retention has also been a major challenge, the paper reports.

Meanwhile, North Carolina’s ISD has struggled to get off the ground.

After only one year, state officials made wholesale leadership changes at ISD. The ISD got a new superintendent, the lone ISD school got a new principal and a new president was hired to lead the private firm that manages the school.

James Ellerbe, the ISD superintendent hired in July, reported this week that there are 69 schools on the state’s 2019 qualifying list, meaning the low-performing schools are at risk of being swept into the ISD.

The ISD will bring only one school into the state-run district next year. The school with the lowest performance score among Title I schools in the bottom 5 percent will be brought into the ISD.

The ISD was approved in 2016 by state lawmakers even though the ASD had showed little signs of success after being in business four years.

The ISD’s chief proponent, then-Rep. Rob Bryan, a Republican from Mecklenburg, argued that the new school district would provide much-needed reforms in chronically low-performing schools even as he acknowledged the results were mixed for Tennessee’s ASD.

Bryan is currently serving out the term of former state senator Dan Bishop. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

Teachers and other opponents vigorously argued against the ISD.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, called it a “new layer of bureaucracy that lacks the accountability to ensure public dollars are being spent effectively.”

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.