Education

Superintendent Mark Johnson’s letter explaining iPad decision draws a predictable response

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

Is was predictable.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson’s decision to pushback against criticism that he awarded hundreds of iPads to educators without having them apply for the electronic devices through a formal, competitive process produced — well, more criticism.

Justin Parmenter, a Charlotte teacher who blogs at “Notes from the Chalkboard,” took a swing at Johnson after posting a letter Johnson wrote to editors at the Charlotte Observer defending the iPad awards.

Parmenter posted the letter on the “North Carolina Teachers United” Facebook page with this comment:

“I’m not sure if this makes me an establishment insider or media elite, but Mark Johnson’s letter is missing an explanation of how state law allows him to take funds the General Assembly allocated to DPI and give thousands of $$ worth of technology to teachers of his unilateral choosing without an equitable process,” Parmenter wrote.

“Establishment insider?” “Media elite?”

Parmenter snatched those words right out of Johnson’s letter.

“I ran for office to be an agent of change. I knew that meant establishment insiders and media elites would never like me. But I work for the people of North Carolina,” Johnson said.

Parmenter’s criticism of Johnson is the same as that hurled by some State Board of Education (SBE) members at their monthly meeting.  There, Johnson was questioned about the wisdom of unilaterally distributing iPads without a formal system or process to ensure fairness and equity.

“How do we respond when the question is, ‘Well, what criteria is used to make these awards and how does my school get into the queue to be considered for these awards?'” asked SBE Chairman Eric Davis.

Johnson responded that all teachers must do is to send him an email. His office later issued a statement that said teachers must apply to be considered for iPads.

A Pitt County teacher got 100 iPads for her classroom after she emailed Johnson to ask for them. The Ocracoke School, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Dorian, received 200 iPads after school leaders talked to Johnson.

Johnson explained in the letter that he was attempting bypass government bureaucracy, which slows the process of getting materials and supplies into classrooms.

“I travel the state often to avoid becoming yet another Raleigh insider who never meets face-to-face with constituents,” Johnson said. “I frequently hear about the delay in response time caused by bureaucracy. I also get to see firsthand how N.C. teachers make use of iPads to help provide better, personalized opportunities for students.”

Johnson’s letter also covered much of the ground he did at the SBE’s monthly meeting. He explained that he paid for the extra iPads with savings realized after implementing “efficiency” measures in the Office of Superintendent.

He also took another jab at his predecessor, June Atkinson and his SBE colleagues, to justify spending the savings on the iPads.

“In 2016, my predecessor chose to use the State Superintendent’s operating budget for sponsoring conferences and paying for meals for hundreds of attendees,” Johnson wrote. “In 2017, the Board of Education, which sued to try to keep control of the state education agency, used $380,000 to pay for lawyers in courtrooms rather than resources in classrooms.”

The $380,000 Johnson referenced is money the SBE spent in a legal tangle that involved Johnson, Republican lawmakers and the SBE over who would control the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

Education

New federal grant expected to boost diversity in North Carolina’s ‘high-quality’ charter schools

The State Office of Charter Schools (OCS) has received a $10 million federal grant to help “high-quality” charter schools serve more economically disadvantaged students.

The award is the second such grant the OCS has gotten from the U.S. Department of Education in as many years.

The OCS was awarded a $26.6 million federal grant last year, which means $36.6 million is now available to expand charter school opportunities for thousands of North Carolina students who are economically disadvantaged, homeless, non-native English speakers, disabled, immigrant students, migrant students and unaccompanied youth.

The students will be served through expansion of the Advancing Charter Collaboration and Excellence for Student Success (ACCESS). Under the five-year program, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) will award subgrants to charter schools that want to serve more students who are deemed “educationally disadvantaged.”

“This award indicates, in my opinion, an expression of confidence from the U.S. Department of Education in the work the Office of Charter Schools has undertaken through the development and launch of the ACCESS Program,” Alex Quigley, chairman of the state’s Charter School Advisory Board, said in a statement.

Here’s how the OCS breaks down how the money will used:

  • Award 60 competitive subgrants to new and existing charter schools to increase the number of educationally disadvantaged students attending high-quality charter schools and expand the number of high-quality charter schools available to educationally disadvantaged students.
  • Develop a cohort of 160 charter school leaders who can develop and demonstrate best practices in serving educationally disadvantaged students.
  • Broadly disseminate best practices in serving educationally disadvantaged students and foster collaboration in the charter school community and between charter schools and traditional public schools.

“This supplemental funding will give more charter schools the opportunity to receive subgrants and participate in the highly successful ACCESS Fellowship,” said Dave Machado, head of the state Office of Charter Schools. “It will also enhance our goals of increasing diversity in our charter schools and increasing the opportunity for educationally disadvantaged students to attend high quality charter schools.”

To be eligible for subgrants, schools must have at least a “B” school performance grade and met or exceeded growth for at least two of the past three years.

Earlier this year, the OCS awarded nine schools with five-year subgrants ranging from $250,000 to $600,000.
The additional grants could help charter schools combat criticism that charters in North Carolina promote segregation.  Many of the state’s charters are either predominately white or majority black.

Finding ways to improve diversity among charters is a frequent topic of conversation among charter supporters and critics alike.

Some schools — the Exploris School in downtown Raleigh is one example — are taking action to improve  diversity. Exploris has been granted permission to amend its charter to create a priority lottery to bring in more children of color and those from diverse economic backgrounds.

The 198 charter schools operating in North Carolina serve more than 100,000 students of which roughly 55 percent are white. Black students make up 26.1 percent of students attending state charters and Hispanic students are 9 percent of students enrolled in charters.

Education, News

Teachers asked to fill out application to get iPads from Superintendent Mark Johnson

Sate Superintendent Mark Johnson (L)

(This story has been updated to show that State Superintendent Mark Johnson has received 140 emails from educators inquiring about iPads. NCDPI Spokesman Graham Wilson reported 40 on Tuesday.) 

As it turns out, it takes more than a simple  “email me” to get iPads out of State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

Some teachers who emailed Johnson about iPads have been asked to fill out an application that must be returned to mark.johnson@dpi.nc.gov by Oct. 12.

Johnson addressed the process in a message to educators last week.

“We are going to try to fill as many requests as we can with a focus on helping those who have the highest needs for iPads,” Johnson wrote.

He also thanked teachers for their emails, and claimed to have read all of them.

“Only a few were mean-spirited, and most were positive and showed genuine interest in the opportunity to get iPads for your classrooms,” Johnson said.

Graham Wilson, spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction, said Johnson has received 140 emails from educators inquiring about iPads since he encourage them to “email me” if the need them.

Johnson made that remark at this month’s State Board of Education (SBE) in response to questions about the criteria he used to select educators he sent hundreds of iPads to last month.

A Pitt County teacher received 100 iPads after she emailed Johnson to request them.

Johnson also sent 200 iPads to Ocracoke School in Hyde County after the superintendent there requested them. Ocracoke students and teachers were displaced by Hurricane Dorian. The iPads are intended to help students stay on schedule with their classwork until they can return to school.

But some SBE members said they were concerned that teachers and school leaders would see the process Johnson used to award the iPads as unfair.

SBE Chairman Eric Davis asked Johnson how board members should respond when asked “what criteria was used to make these awards” and how to get on the list to receive iPads.

That’s when Johnson responded: “They can email me.”

Johnson used administrative savings from the Office of the State Superintendent’s budget to purchase the iPads he sent to Hyde and Pitt counties. That budget is used by the superintendent to pay for staff, operations and discretionary expenditures.

“Every agency has an administrative fund, and the Superintendent’s budget is one sub-unit within DPI’s [Department of Public Instruction]  administrative fund,” said Spokesman Graham Wilson. “This is an historical practice that predates Superintendent Johnson.”

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

Education, News

In major turnaround, General Assembly confirms three Cooper nominations to the State Board of Education

J.B. Buxton

What a difference a year or so makes.

The Republican-led General Assembly on Wednesday confirmed J.B. Buxton’s appointment to the State Board of Education (SBE) without the drama that accompanied his nomination more than a year ago.

Buxton, Wendell Hall and Donna Tipton-Rogers, all nominated by Gov. Roy Cooper, were confirmed during a joint floor session on a 140-8 vote.

Buxton, an education consultant from Raleigh and former administrator in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, was first nominated by Cooper in May 2017.

His nomination and that of Sandra Byrd, a decorated high school teacher and associate professor at UNC Asheville, were rejected by Republican lawmakers who overwhelming approved the reappointment of Reginald Kenan.

Cooper again nominated Buxton in June 2018 but Republicans shutdown the nomination down without explanation.

In October 2018, Cooper appointed Buxton, Greenville’s Jill Camnitz, a former local school board member in Pitt County and Charlotte’s James Ford, a former state teacher of the year in 2014-2015, to fill board vacancies.

Because the three were filling vacancies, they were not subject to confirmation by the state legislature.

On Wednesday, the state legislature did not vote on Cooper’s renomination of Ford and Camnitz. They will continue to serve pending further action by the General Assembly, according to a message on House Speaker Tim Moore’s website.

Hall has the distinction of being the only person to have led the N.C. School Boards Association and the N.C. Association of School Administrators.

Meanwhile, Tipton-Rogers is president and CEO of Tri-County Community College.

The confirmation of three of Cooper’s nominations gives the SBE a full slate of board members for the first time in many months.

It might also signal a thawing of years of partisan stonewalling that has marked the Republican-led General Assembly when it comes to nominations put forth by Democratic governors.

Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Republican from Blowing Rock, offered this insight in quotes published on Moore’s website.

“Each of the nominees confirmed today have distinguished backgrounds in education and are qualified for the role of board member,” Ballard said. “They appear to be without conflicts of interest and willing to follow the laws of our state and serve the best interests of our students, and we appreciate the time they spent with members of the Senate during this process.”