State budget phases out controversial Innovative School District

Nancy McCormick is in her first year as a kindergarten teacher at Southside Ashpole and is pictured in her classroom. (Photo by Greg Childress)

The state budget signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday phases out the controversial Innovative School District (ISD) created by Republican lawmakers to turn around some of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

The experimental school district will continue to operate Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Rowland, the lone school in the ISD, until the State Board of Education “adopts and executes” a transition plan to return the school to Robeson County Schools.

“But in no case shall the North Carolina Innovative School District operate Southside-Ashpole Elementary School after the completion of the 2022-2023 school year,” the budget bill states.

Policy Watch reported in July that a provision in the state Senate’s budget proposal called for the state to “Transition from the Innovative School District Model” and end plans to select additional schools for the district.

The state program was created by lawmakers in 2016 to allow outside operators, including for-profits and charter management groups, to take over a traditional public school for five years.

Former state lawmakers Rob Bryan and Chad Barefoot were the primary sponsors of the ISD legislation. It was modeled after the Achievement School District in Tennessee. The program ultimately didn’t work in Tennessee, which announced a major reset in early 2020 due to persistently low test scores and enrollment.

In an interview with Policy Watch in July, Bryan acknowledged that the district hasn’t worked well.

“You have to shake up things to try to get kids into an environment where they can be more successful,” Bryan said. “Just the pressure of it [ISD) makes the public ask; ‘How are we serving these kids’ and can we do a better job to make them not want to do this program and not want to take one of our schools?”

Critics contend such districts lack transparency and that it’s more difficult to monitor them because public money and decision-making authority are transferred to operators that are not directly accountable to taxpayers.

The ISD experiment has been expensive. The state has spent nearly $5 million on district administration since the 2016-17 school year. That includes money for the superintendent’s salary, as well as travel and administrative positions – all to oversee a single school.

Achievement for All Children (AAC), a for-profit charter operator selected to manage Southside Ashpole under a $100,000 a year contract and the NC Department of Public Instruction parted ways in the fall of 2020 because AAC was not able to provide students with the remote learning they needed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ISD’s relationship with AAC had been rocky. A confidential letter obtained by Policy Watch in the summer of 2020 revealed an ongoing feud between the ISD and AAC, which was under the leadership of former State Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Democrat from Charlotte.

The unsigned letter recommended that the state board terminate the contract with AAC three years early and cited numerous instances in which the firm allegedly failed to meet deadlines for reports that were contractually mandated. AAC reportedly failed to submit a proposed budget due May 1, 2019 and an annual financial audit that was due Oct. 15, 2019. Nor, says the letter, did AAC submit a compliance report for the district’s Exceptional Children’s Program or make requested corrections to COVID-19 staff work logs. 

A third superintendent has left the Innovative School District

South Side Ashpole Elementary School (Photo by Greg Childress)

The Innovative School District (ISD) is again without a superintendent.

NC Department of Public Instruction spokeswoman Blair Rhoades has confirmed that James Ellerbe resigned as superintendent of the single-school district created by lawmakers in 2016 to improve academic achievement at low-performing schools.

Rhoades said a search for a new superintendent has begun. In the meantime, she said, Derrick Jordan, NCDPI’s assistant superintendent of Agency Schools, would oversee ISD operations.

Ellerbe was the third superintendent of the controversial school district. He was hired to lead the district in 2019 after former superintendent LaTeesa Allen abruptly resigned without explanation.

Allen had replaced Eric Hall who stepped down to become chancellor for innovation at the Florida Department of Education.

Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County is the district’s lone school. It began the 2021-22 school year Monday with its third principal as an ISD school.

Early plans called for as many as five schools to be swept into the ISD. However, districts in Durham and Wayne County rejected ISD advances and embraced a Restart school improvement model. Under that model, schools can operate free of some of the rules district leaders say prevent them from turning around low-performing schools. Restart schools, for example, are given more calendar, hiring, and spending flexibility.

Ellerbe often clashed with former Southside-Ashpole principal Kenneth Bowen and Achievement for All Children (AAC), a for-profit, charter operator selected to manage the school, over the duties and responsibilities of the principal and management firm, which hired Bowen.

AAC is led by former State Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Democrat from Charlotte, who served in the state legislature from March 2007 to January 2017. NCDPI and the management firm parted ways last year because AAC was unable to provide remote learning opportunities for students after many schools closed for in-person learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A year ago, however, Policy Watch obtained a confidential letter that alleged AAC had failed to meet contractual obligations in running Southside-Ashpole.

The letter cited numerous instances in which AAC allegedly failed to meet deadlines for contractually mandated reports. The firm reportedly failed to submit a proposed budget due May 1, 2020 and an annual financial audit that was due Oct. 15, 2019. Nor, says the letter, did AAC submit a compliance report for the district’s Exceptional Children’s Program or make requested corrections to COVID-19 staff work logs.

Dated May 5, 2020, the unsigned letter was “Prepared at the Direction of Counsel for the Provision of Legal Advice.” It was addressed to State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis and the state board and recommended that state education officials terminate the five-year contract with AAC three years early.

The hiring of a new superintendent might become a moot point.

The Republican-backed school reform model has failed to produce promised results and could be phased out in two years.

A provision in the state Senate’s proposed 2021-2023 budget calls for North Carolina to “Transition from the Innovative School District Model” and end plans to select additional schools for the district.

State Board of Education cut ties with Innovative School District operator

South Side Ashpole Elementary School (Photo by Greg Childress)

The rocky relationship between the firm that manages the lone school in the state’s Innovative School District and the State Board of Education (SBE) has apparently ended.

SBE Chairman Eric Davis on Thursday announced a legal settlement in a contract dissolution between the board and Achievement for All Children (AAC). The board hired AAC to manage low-performing Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Rowland in 2018.

Davis’ announcement came during a state board meeting.

Eric Davis

“As required, I’m announcing a negotiated settlement in the legal dispute over the termination of the Achievement for All Children’s management of Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in the amount of $3,761.24,” Davis said.

Davis provided no explanation for the settlement, and board members didn’t ask questions. The agenda item did not include supporting documents.

Policy Watch has requested a copy of the settlement.

A year ago, Policy Watch obtained a confidential letter that alleged AAC had failed to meet its contractual obligations in running Southside-Ashpole.

The letter cited numerous instances in which AAC allegedly failed to meet deadlines for contractually-mandated reports. The firm reportedly failed to submit a proposed budget due May 1 and an annual financial audit that was due Oct. 15, 2019. Nor, says the letter, did AAC submit a compliance report for the district’s Exceptional Children’s Program or make requested corrections to COVID-19 staff work logs.

Dated May 5, 2020, the unsigned letter was “Prepared at the Direction of Counsel for the Provision of Legal Advice.” It was addressed to Davis and the board and recommended that state education officials terminate the contract with AAC  three years early.

Former State Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Democrat from Charlotte, who served in the state legislature from March 2007 to January 2017, is president of AAC, a nonprofit corporation.

Cotham has not returned calls from Policy Watch, despite receiving tens of thousands of dollars in public money though the now-terminated state contract.

The state legislature created the ISD in 2016 to allow private operators to take control of consistently low-performing public schools. The education model has been controversial — both in North Carolina and in other states.

Critics contend such districts lack transparency and that it’s more difficult to monitor them because public money and decision-making authority are transferred to operators that are not directly accountable to taxpayers.

Davis raised questions about whether AAC was equipped to meet its obligations three years ago when he was the board’s vice chairman. He and several other board members were concerned that AAC did not have enough experience turning around low-performing schools and working with at-risk children.

“I think (students) deserve better,” Davis was reported saying at the time. “They deserve an operator with a demonstrated track record.”

House and Senate approve bill to change Innovative School District selection process

A Republican-sponsored bill to reform the way low-performing schools are selected for the state’s controversial Innovation School District (ISD) received favorable hearings in the House and Senate on Tuesday.

A conference report on Senate Bill 522 was approved over the objections of House and Senate Democrats who argued the ISD hasn’t worked at Southside-Ashpole Elementary School, the state’s lone ISD school in Robeson County.

“After the first year, that school [Southside] ended up with an “F” grade, it didn’t meet the academic growth standards, the percentage of students passing state exams dropped, and in fact in the 2018-2019 school year, both the head of that school and the superintendent were fired,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat.

Chaudhuri is referring to the sudden departures of former ISD superintendent LaTeesa Allen’s whose last day on the job was June 28 and Bruce Major, the Southside principle who resigned July 1.

N.C. Department Department of Public Instruction officials have not shared any details about the departures.

Policy Watch reported on Southside’s rocky schoolyear and sudden leadership departures earlier this month.

Chaudhuri also argued that similar school-takeover experiments in other states have failed, noting that officials in Tennessee have begun to rethink that state’s Achievement School district after six years of little academic progress.

“According to a study that came out earlier this year, these districts have not resulted in any improvement in student achievement for the first six years,” Chaudhuri said.

He compared the approval of SB 522 to the GOP decision to lift the enrollment cap on the state’s two virtual schools despite little evidence of academic success since the pilot program began in 2015. GOP took matters a step further by extending the program until 2023.

Chaudhuri said the decisions to lift the enrollment cap on virtual charters and approve the growth of the ISD are tantamount to awarding failure.

“Now, we are here with the sequel to that bill [that lifted the cap on enrollment at virtual schools] that should be called the reward failure act 2,” Chaudhuri said.

Sen. Rick Horner, a Johnston County Republican, acknowledged that Southside and ISD struggled during their first year of operation.

But he said approval of SB 522 is a better course than the alternative, which is to allow the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to automatically select four new schools into the ISD, which the current law mandates.

“If we fail to pass this bill, four schools automatically go into a system Sen. [Jay] Chaudhuri has said doesn’t work very well,” Horner said. “That’s current law.”

SB 522 is intended to help state officials avoid a messy selection process that has led to boisterous protests in communities when schools are selected for ISD. 

Under SB 522, low-performing schools would be placed on a qualifying list. Schools that remain on the qualifying list the next year would be moved to the ISD watch list, then to a warning list before becoming eligible for takeover by the ISD.

To be eligible for ISD, a must have been on the ISD warning list the previous year, remain a qualifying school in the current year based on data from the previous school year and be one of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

The bill also provides from voluntary entry into the ISD if fewer than five schools are selected. With the approval of the ISD superintendent, local school boards may request that a low-performing school be taken over by the ISD.

State’s Innovative School District is operating without a superintendent, and its one school doesn’t have a principal

Former ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen

The state’s Innovative School District (ISD) is without a superintendent.

LaTeesa Allen, who was appointed to the post by Superintendent Mark Johnson in September 2018, is no longer employed by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Policy Watch has learned.

The details surrounding Allen’s departure were not immediately available Monday. Policy Watch will update this story as more information becomes available.

Graham Wilson, a spokesman for Johnson, said Allen’s last day was June 28. He provided no further details.

The ISD was created in 2016 through legislation enacted to improve student outcomes in low-performing schools across North Carolina.

As superintendent of the ISD, Allen oversaw the state’s only ISD school, Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County.

The school also lost its principal Bruce Major on July 1.

Tony Helton, CEO of Achievement for All Children, which operates the school, told The Robesonian that Major has done an “exceptional job” but didn’t provide any details about why he left after only one year on the job.

“He gave his heart and soul into moving the needle at Southside-Ashpole and building strong relationships in the community,” Helton said. “We appreciate all that he has done and wish him well in his future endeavors.”

Major was hired in July 2018.

Meanwhile, Allen’s departure could further delay efforts to bring four more low-performing schools into the ISD by 2021 as required by state law.

Allen had acknowledge that adding four more schools by 2021 would be a “bit of a challenge.”

Schools tapped for ISD have vigorously pushed back against being taken over by the state.

“We know it’s going to big task, but we know the greater task is going to be to move students forward, and that’s what we’re going to stay focused on,” Allen told Policy Watch in January.

Carver Heights Elementary School in Wayne County most recently fought off efforts to be forced into the ISD. The school successfully submitted a “restart  application” to the State Board of Education to avoid a state takeover.

Under the “restart” school reform model, the school was given “charter-like” flexibility to operate, meaning it’s allowed to operate free of some of the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools.

Allen replaced Eric Hall who left in March to become chancellor for innovation at the Florida Department of Education.

When Johnson hired Allen, he touted her experience working with “education systems and partners in other states.”  He said Allen would provide “valuable perspectives in how we approach accelerating student growth and achievement in low-performing schools.”

Before coming to N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Allen worked as the chief program officer at Communities In Schools of North Carolina (CISNC), a statewide nonprofit organization that supports students at-risk of dropping out of school.

As a member of the senior leadership team, Allen oversaw the development, strategic planning, service delivery and management of a portfolio of statewide programs focused on student achievement, college and career readiness, and juvenile justice.