Education, News

State official picks nonprofit with ties to school choice leaders, including an ex-lawmaker, to helm Robeson County school takeover

A North Carolina official will recommend a Forest City nonprofit with deep ties to the state’s school choice movement—including the ex-legislator who spearheaded the program’s creation—to helm the controversial school takeover program in Robeson County.

Officials with the Innovative School District (ISD) passed along their recommendation to the State Board of Education Monday, after weeks of back-and-forth over the qualifications of the two organizations vying for the job in 2018-2019.

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall said he is recommending Achievement for All Children (AAC), which formed last year, following a third-party review, background checks, community panel discussions and a “comprehensive” application.

“I am impressed with both AAC and The Romine Group (TRG) for their willingness to engage with the ISD in the challenging work to improve outcomes in low-performing schools and participate in a very rigorous selection process,” Hall said in a statement Monday.

“I also want to extend my gratitude to the community panel members from Rowland and surrounding Robeson County who participated in the selection process; their input was essential in making sure our recommendation was the right fit for the students at Southside Ashpole, their families and the Rowland community.”

The State Board of Education is expected to vote on Hall’s recommendation in April.

Former state legislator Rob Bryan

As Policy Watch has reported, AAC launched under the leadership of several influential school choice boosters in the state, including former state Rep. Rob Bryan, the Charlotte lawmaker who led the push to legalize the takeover program two years ago.

Meanwhile, its CEO, Tony Helton, serves in the same position for TeamCFA, a charter network that runs 13 schools in North Carolina.

TeamCFA is also connected to John Bryan (no relation to Rob Bryan), a wealthy, Oregon-based school choice advocate who helped to lobby for the takeover program.

Supporters of the takeover program say it will bring reforms to long-struggling, public schools. But critics note similar efforts’ poor results in states like Tennessee, Michigan and Louisiana.

In a release, the ISD program lauded Achievement for All Children’s “strong commitment to implementing a comprehensive system of support to serve the needs of all students at Southside Ashpole, improving academic outcomes, and engaging in a partnership with the local community.”

News

State Board of Education members miffed by charter takeover district’s slow roll-out

State Board of Education members on Thursday approved the recommendation to launch a controversial charter takeover district with a struggling Robeson County elementary next year, but multiple members expressed frustration that the program would begin with just one school in 2018-2019.

“It isn’t the reform model I envisioned,” said Olivia Holmes Oxendine, a state board member who also resides in Robeson.

State law calls for the district to eventually choose at least five low-performing schools for the Innovative School District (ISD). And while district Superintendent Eric Hall was initially expected to pick at least two for the program’s first year in 2018-2019, Hall opted last month to tap Robeson’s Southside-Ashpole Elementary out of a list of four remaining schools in the state.

Hall said that’s because a relatively slow roll-out allows for state leaders to learn as they go along. “I want there to be no doubt about the fact that push-back is not my concern,” said Hall. “It’s about going slow to go right.”

But multiple state board members, including Oxendine, seemed miffed by that strategy this week.

“The model was a minimum of five schools and we were going to do something very bold and robust,” said Oxendine. “We were going to do it better than Tennessee or other states, because North Carolina does things better than other states.”

State Board of Education member Olivia Holmes Oxendine

Oxendine questioned why the three struggling schools that made the short-list with Southside-Ashpole—Glenn Elementary in Durham, Willis Hare Elementary in Northampton County Schools and Williford Elementary in Nash-Rocky Mount Schools—were dropped from consideration for next year.

“Each one of those schools needs to be in this model,” she said. “Absolutely needs to be.”

Oxendine demanded that state board members not forget those low-performing schools, which submitted already enacted plans for improvement in the coming years. Oxendine called on leaders to “hold their feet to the fire.”

Board member Amy White agreed, arguing that the board should require “excellence” of all schools. “It is our job to put upon those schools and those students,” said White.

The contentious charter takeover program was approved by North Carolina lawmakers last year. Supporters said the district would bring change to long-struggling traditional public schools.

Eligible schools reported performance scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide and did not meet growth goals in at least one the last three academic years.

Southside-Ashpole earned “F” scores in reading and math and did not meet growth expectations in 2016-2017, according to state data.

But skeptics argued the model, which produced lackluster results in states like Tennessee and Louisiana, would open the door for a particularly aggressive school choice expansion and, perhaps, for-profit takeovers of publicly-funded schools.

The proposal spurred heated opposition from locals in those schools being considered for the ISD’s launch year, particularly in Durham and in Robeson County, a rural, high-poverty county in eastern North Carolina.

Oxendine noted Thursday that local leaders in Robeson are already “engaged” in talks to close their selected school, the only option left to district leaders opposing the takeover model under state law. Local board members will have until February to choose whether they accept the takeover or close.

Hall said he hopes the district will not close Southside-Ashpole Elementary because its students would only be redistributed across the district.

If, however, Robeson leaders choose to close the elementary, state leaders would be left with no schools to choose from in the ISD’s first year. In that scenario, the state might have to select more schools for inclusion next year, Hall said.

Hall added that his office will receive new accountability data to review next September before he makes additional recommendations for the district. “We’ll be right back in this same spot,” he said.

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News

N.C. charter school leader hosts Dan Forest fundraiser attended by controversial evangelical minister

TeamCFA CEO Tony Helton (LinkedIn)

Tony Helton, one of North Carolina’s most influential charter school leaders, hosted a July fundraiser at his home for Lt. Gov. Dan Forest that was reportedly attended by an evangelical minister whose Rutherford County church has been accused of covering up sexual molestation and violent attempts to “purify” members of its congregation.

Policy Watch confirmed the reception was hosted at Helton’s Forest City home. The event, according to a News & Observer report Thursday, drew Robin Webster, a leader in Word of Faith Fellowship in Rutherford County and daughter of church founder Jane Whaley.

A February report from the Associated Press included detailed accounts from former church members who alleged Word of Faith sought to drive demons from them by beating and choking them.

According to that report, 43 former members detailed shocking violence at the evangelical church, as well as violence within the church’s K-12 private school, Word of Faith Christian School.

The report included allegations that they slapped, choked, punch, shook or threw congregants through walls in order to “purify” them, a tactic they called “blasting” prayer. Reported victims included children, toddlers and infants.

The Associated Press also detailed accusations of sexual molestation covered up by church leadership. Additionally, church leaders are being sued by a former member who said Word of Faith ministers attempted to beat the “homosexual demons” out of him.

It’s unclear what, if any, connection Helton has to the church. A Forest spokesman told the N&O Thursday that attendees were notified by the host, and by Forest’s campaign email list and Facebook page.

The reception for Forest, who is widely expected to be a Republican front-runner for governor in 2020, asked attendees to contribute between $50 and $2,500. Forest is a social conservative, a Christian and an outspoken supporter of school choice expansion in North Carolina.

Helton, as CEO of the growing TeamCFA charter network, is one of the most powerful charter school leaders in North Carolina. The Charlotte-based network runs 13 schools in the state, as well as charters in Arizona and Indiana.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, the state’s largest advocacy organization for public school teachers, called the connection to Forest “very, very concerning” Friday.

“It’s always very concerning when someone who wants to run the state is colluding with someone with such extreme values,” said Jewell.

NCAE President Mark Jewell

Jewell also said Helton’s involvement in the reception should be alarming considering his tangled influence in the state’s growing school choice movement.

A former leader at TeamCFA schools Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Rutherford County and Brevard Academy in Transylvania County, Helton rose to a top position in 2014 at the network, which was founded by wealthy Oregon school choice booster John Bryan.

Bryan pushed lawmakers last year to adopt a controversial charter takeover of low-performing schools dubbed the Innovative School District. Helton is now among a group of influential school choice backers hoping to win a state contract for the takeover district. Helton’s group, calling itself Achievement for All Children, signaled their intent to apply last month.

“It’s very troubling and dangerous that the same kind of discriminatory and dangerous actions and rhetoric alleged against this church and its leaders could be forced upon a public school setting through a charter takeover scheme if this company is chosen,” Jewell said. “Public schools should be welcoming and inclusive so that all students can learn in a safe environment.”

Until recently, Helton was also a member of the state’s Charter Schools Advisory Board, a panel that recommends policies and fields charter openings and closings for the State Board of Education.

Helton stepped down from the charter board this month, reportedly to focus on his TeamCFA duties. His involvement on the charter board and a group assuming management in one troubled Charlotte charter spurred questions about a potential conflict of interest this year.

Policy Watch has reported before on questions about TeamCFA’s Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, including complaints about the publicly-funded school’s annual diaper drive for a local anti-abortion group and lunchtime prayers.

Officials with TeamCFA did not respond Friday morning to multiple Policy Watch inquiries about the Forest City fundraiser for Forest. Meanwhile, Heather Whillier, the Forest campaign worker named on the invitation for the lieutenant governor’s reception, declined comment.

News

Durham school to rally on charter takeover proposal tonight

Protesters gathered in Durham last week to combat N.C.’s charter takeover proposal.

Durham community leaders will once again meet to discuss—and, likely, to protest—North Carolina’s contentious proposal to potentially allow for-profit charter companies to assume control of a struggling local elementary school.

The “Defend Durham Schools” group organized last week’s fiery meeting at Lakewood Elementary, which was removed from the list of eligible schools a day later. Now, they’re scheduled to gather tonight at 6 p.m. at Durham’s Glenn Elementary, one of four remaining schools statewide being mulled for the Innovative School District (ISD).

The Durham elementary received an overall performance score of “F” in 2016-2017 and did not meet growth expectations, according to state records. Yet Glenn Elementary serves predominantly low-income families—approximately 99 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch last year—a population that tends to lag their more affluent peers academically.

Critics have been quick to pounce on the charter takeover reform model in recent years, noting lackluster results in states such as Tennessee, Michigan and Louisiana, as well as reports of financial problems.

The other North Carolina schools still in consideration are: Willis Hare Elementary in Northampton County Schools, Williford Elementary in Nash-Rocky Mount Schools and Southside Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County Schools.

Durham leaders have been vocally angry about the takeover proposal in recent weeks, promising to fight state officials if their school is chosen.

“We will not allow this to define what our public schools are about,” Mike Lee, chairman of the Durham Board of Education, said last week. “Get ready, because Durham is ready to fight.”

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall is expected to make formal recommendations for the first two schools tapped for the district next month. Members of the State Board of Education are slated to vote on those proposals in December.

Look for Policy Watch coverage of tonight’s meet and the continuing selection process Wednesday.

News

Report: Johnston County school pushed back against charter takeover

In case you missed it, North Carolina’s list of schools eligible for a controversial charter takeover program has been whittled down to six schools.

That list now includes two schools in Durham, two schools in Robeson County, and one school apiece in the Northampton and Nash-Rocky Mount school districts.

But The News & Observer offered up a report Tuesday on one Johnson County school’s pushback against their initial inclusion on the state’s list. That school, Selma Middle, did not make the shortlist released late last week.

Members of the State Board of Education are expected to select two schools for the program in December.

From The N&O:

“We are owning our issues. We are working on it,” said Eddie Price, deputy superintendent of Johnston County Public Schools. “It doesn’t make sense for somebody from the outside to come in and get to know what we already know. It would delay the work a year and there’s no need for that.”

Next year, five N.C. schools that rank in the lowest 5 percent will be taken away from their districts and handed over to a charter school operator as part of the state’s new and controversial Innovative School District. Supporters of the new program say the change will breathe new life into struggling schools, but critics argue traditional public schools should remain under local control.

All schools included as candidates for the program consistently test poorly and include all or part of grades K-5. Selma Middle meets the requirements because it enrolls fifth-graders.

“We need to let them handle this on the local level and see what they can do,” said Bridgette Dawes, a mother of two fifth-grade students at Selma Middle. “If they fail, come step in. But we are not at the point.”

Last year, Johnston Superintendent David Renfrow tasked district officials with assessing student achievement, growth and the public perception of each school. They collected numerical data, interviewed staff, held meetings with community leaders and hosted “kitchen table” talks with parents in school cafeterias.

The study revealed that students at Selma Middle face significant challenges, including issues outside of school like poverty and difficult home environments. While student proficiency levels remain low, growth rates for students are steadily rising, which Price believes is a more accurate measure of a school’s effectiveness.

Administrators began tackling the problems of Selma Middle before the school year began last month. Price said he doubts a charter organization could do better than his local team.

“We’ve spent a year to try to unite the stakeholders,” Price said. “It doesn’t make sense to start that process over again.”

The plan to bring Selma Middle up to scratch includes a new principal, better communication between the school and families, meaningful community involvement and applying for the state’s Restart school improvement model.

Had Selma Middle applied for Restart last year, it would have automatically been excluded from consideration for the Innovative School District, but local leaders wanted to wait to apply until their assessment was complete.

Principal Chris Germanoski said his main goal is to increase community involvement, which he and Price agree is crucial in implementing any reform model.

“If we are going to restart this school, we don’t need somebody else who doesn’t know anything about the community,” Germanoski said. “If they can’t prove that they’ve got a better way to do it, then why can’t we do it the way that makes sense to us? Who knows what’s better for the community than the community?”