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.”
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.
With the ISD school officially chosen by the state board, North Carolina leaders will now be tasked with selecting a private operator to run operations and staffing within the Robeson school.
Eight groups, including for-profit companies, notified the state that they intended to apply for the takeover, including an organization led by a former state charter advisor and the state lawmaker who led the push for the ISD’s creation last year .
However, as Policy Watch reported this week , one group is backing out and another may soon follow after a stiff backlash in Robeson.
Despite that local opposition, Oxendine said Thursday that she believes Hall is “winning the hearts and souls of the people.”
“Folks in Robeson like him, believe it or not,” she said. “He’s had a tough challenge, but they’re beginning to like him.”