If North Carolina goes forward with the recommendation to allow a private charter operator to take control of a Goldsboro elementary school, they should expect a stubborn resistance, the school’s principal told Policy Watch Wednesday.
“You’re bringing in outside people, but Wayne County is a unique district,” said Carver Heights Elementary Principal Cortrina Smith. “You are going to consistently receive pushback, because we don’t know you, but you’re in my house and you’re trying to tell us what to do. You don’t know my kids, you don’t know my community.”
Smith is in her third year as principal at the struggling Goldsboro school, which serves a predominantly poor population in eastern North Carolina. But if the State Board of Education approves the so-called Innovative School District’s (ISD) recommendation this week to turn over operations and leadership in the elementary to a yet-to-be-named private operator, the school may see many of its teachers and administrators, including Smith, scuttled in the next year.
Smith said state leaders like ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen – who took over in September for the recently-promoted Deputy State Superintendent for Innovation Eric Hall – will have much to prove.
“Where’s your track record, Dr. Hall?” Smith said. “Where’s your track record, Ms. Allen?”
Allen is expected to formally present her recommendation to the State Board of Education in November, and board members would vote on the selection by the end of the year. If the state board moves to approve, local school board members under state law would face just two options: close or accept.
“There may be a few obstacles,” Allen acknowledged. “This is not an easy task. It’s an arduous task. But we know it’s critical for students. It’s best for students. We can’t focus on the distractions.”
Carver Heights was chosen this week from a short-list of six schools for the ISD, a controversial program spearheaded and passed into law by mostly Republican lawmakers in 2016.
Allen said state officials reviewed data, conducted site visits and held a reportedly tense town hall last week with more than 200 parents and leaders in the Wayne County city, most of whom were seemingly opposed.
Locals are fired up that they received notice of the Oct. 8 town hall only two business days before the meeting, which was held just one week before ISD officials were statutorily required to make a recommendation to the State Board of Education. The meeting was convened just weeks after the school was notified that it was on the shortlist, following the release of new state academic data.
“We are upset that we were not given enough time,” said Sylvia Barnes, president of the Wayne County NAACP, which helped to organize turnout for last week’s meeting. “I think it was a short time notice as to all that was going on, not having the opportunity to really meet the entire community.”
Indeed, Smith said she was told last month by state officials that they were expecting a “quick turnaround.” “That was a red flag right there,” said Smith.
Some also argued that the meeting was a foregone conclusion for ISD leaders, pointing out that state officials did not hold a town hall meeting with any other local communities before selecting Carver Heights.
“It’s a disservice to the teachers and the staff,” said Barnes.
Allen agreed state leaders faced a “very tight timeline,” but she said Carver Heights’ recommendation followed the process set by state law.
“We worked within the time frame that we had,” said Allen, who also acknowledged that the state held no other community town halls to consider schools for inclusion.
“We focused our energy where we felt we would be recommending,” she said.
If approved, Carver Heights would be the second addition to the state program in as many years.
ISD leaders moved last year to turn over control of a Robeson County school, Southside-Ashpole Elementary, to a nonprofit with deep ties to the state’s charter industry and the legislature. State leaders faced intense public opposition in Robeson County as well, although they’re now weeks into their first year of leadership at Southside-Ashpole.
Carver Heights will be the only new recommendation for the ISD this year, officials said. They’re expected to tap another three schools next year, potentially setting up a very busy – and possibly very contentious – fall of 2019.
Supporters say the takeover by an outside charter group, some of which may be for-profit, brings fresh ideas to lagging schools.
If the school is approved by the state board, North Carolina officials would choose an operator in the coming months. Officials are accepting notices of the intent to apply from prospective operators through Nov. 1. The operator would, under the ISD, ultimately hire the staff and leadership at Carver Heights.
But critics, including the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), which advocates for teachers, have repeatedly criticized lawmakers for creating the ISD. Similar models in states like Tennessee and Louisiana have produced lackluster results and been met with stiff opposition from local communities.
“The Innovation School District is an unproven and unaccountable takeover scheme that does nothing to improve student achievement,” NCAE President Mark Jewell said Tuesday. “Having for-profit companies take over public schools will do nothing but rip our communities apart. I was just in Wayne County last week and parents, educators, and our communities have been making it loud and clear that they do not want this.”
As Policy Watch has reported, a wealthy school choice backer behind a growing charter network financed lobbying for the initiative in the N.C. General Assembly.
The program has been dogged by ethical questions too, after state leaders turned over operations at Southside-Ashpole Elementary to a group affiliated with the GOP lawmaker who spearheaded the ISD’s creation in the General Assembly, former state legislator Rob Bryan.
Under state law, schools are chosen because they’re among the lowest performing in the state, although ISD leadership also considers whether struggling schools are meeting state-set growth goals too.
According to its 2016-2017 report card, the most recent available, Carver Heights scored an “F” and did not meet growth. Carver Heights had the lowest scores among the six final schools for consideration, which also included schools in Northampton, Alamance, Nash, Guilford and Forsyth counties.
But Carver Heights serves a particularly challenging population. Roughly 90 percent of the school’s 450 or so students are considered economically disadvantaged, a group that tends to trail their peers academically. Meanwhile, 16 percent of students are classified as “exceptional children,” meaning they have been diagnosed with a disability.
Furthermore, nearly a quarter of the school’s teachers were in their first three years as educators in 2016-2017, while its teacher turnover rate – about 15 percent – was higher than the state average of about 13 percent.
Smith said local funding cuts cost the school several teachers and an assistant principal last year, and the school is badly understaffed with mental health and guidance counselors. But parents and locals who spoke last week expressed support for the new principal, as well as a belief that Carver Heights is on the rise.
“If you come out here, you’ll see that we are on the right track,” said Smith.
Smith said the school is badly in need of redistricting to break up the extreme poverty in the school’s enrollment, but locals have also expressed openness to other state reform methods like the “Restart” model, an initiative that grants charter-like flexibility in curriculum and calendar to traditional public schools.
“Also, if your operator is so good, come on in and help teach my teachers,” added Smith.
Despite the criticism, Allen expressed optimism about the program’s work in Wayne County.
“We understand that there can be resistance in any community to this decision,” said Allen. “But what we know is if we work together in partnership, we can put in place strategies that we can ensure will turn around the school. It’s not about the opposition. It’s really about staying focused on the students.”