Weeks after the top school board member in Robeson County predicted the southeastern North Carolina district would close the state’s only choice for a controversial charter takeover program, local leaders may be gearing up to accept the Innovative School District after all.
Multiple Robeson officials tell Policy Watch that state law—which allows school districts to close or join the state district if chosen—leaves them little choice.
“Right now, we’re at a standstill,” said Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, chairwoman of the Robeson County Board of Education. “I am more confused now than I was before. I wish somebody would just sit down and tell us about it, the pros and cons.”
Wilkins-Chavis described herself as “undecided” this week on whether or not the district will close Southside-Ashpole Elementary, a struggling Rowland school tapped by the State Board of Education last month.
If so, it would mark another reversal for the school board chair, who indicated support for the program in September but backed off after a groundswell of opposition arose in the rural North Carolina district.
The board’s talk of shuttering Southside-Ashpole stirred frustration at a State Board of Education meeting this month, as members wondered what would become of the charter takeover program if its lone selection opted to close next year.
State lawmakers established the Innovative School District program (a favorite of school choice supporters) last year, pointing to longtime struggles in some North Carolina schools, most of which primarily serve children from poor families.
The model will allow for charter management companies, including for-profit organizations, to vie for control of lagging elementary schools. The organization will steer operations and hiring at selected schools, in hopes of boosting test scores.
According to state records, Southside-Ashpole reported “F” performance scores in reading and math last year and did not meet its growth expectations. Robeson is also considered a low-performing district by the state, meaning more than half of the district’s schools qualify as “low-performing,” a controversial designation determined mostly by test scores.
But the charter takeover model has had its share of detractors. Similar efforts in states such as Tennessee, Michigan and Louisiana were met with heated public opposition and, thus far, yielded poor-to-middling results.
Robeson families were rankled by the prospects of a takeover this fall and members of the school board and county board of commissioners seemed to pass a “joint” resolution in opposition last month, although county commissioners reportedly opted not to sign off days later.
This week, Wilkins-Chavis blamed the confusion on county commissioners. “They’re the ones that brought it up to do that (resolution),” she said. Tom Taylor, chairman of the Robeson commission, could not be reached for comment for this report.
Wilkins-Chavis said she expects school board members to come to a decision on Southside-Ashpole Elementary’s fate at either their December or January meeting. State law requires a decision one way or the other from Robeson school officials by Feb. 1.
In the meantime, the school board chair said the panel is planning a meeting with town leaders in Rowland, where the elementary is located, to brainstorm strategies.
Today, she said there are “too many unanswered questions” about the district, and whether or not it will produce outcomes for the school’s 270 or so students.
“We really need to find out and know what can be done there,” she added. “What will happen if we do? What will happen if we don’t? And, in the future, what’s the consequences?”
Robeson Commissioner Jerry Stephens said school board members, some of whom are up for re-election next year, are “backtracking” on the Innovative School District (ISD) because of the public’s reaction.
But Stephens, who slammed state leaders’ takeover model last month, said he believes locals are warming up to the program because they have no choice.
“Nobody wants the school to close, nobody,” said Stephens. “They would like another chance to pull up the grades. But it looks like we don’t have enough political clout to change it, so what can you do?”
Teachers are anxious because they will be forced to re-apply for their jobs with the private charter operator, he said, and parents are riled over the notion of “outsiders” taking over their school.
Yet, while ISD critics in some counties that made the shortlist for the program’s first year promised they would close and reassign students rather than join the district, Stephens said he doesn’t think that’s likely in Robeson because of parents’ stiff opposition.
“They don’t want to have to bus their students another 10 miles to another school that’s underperforming,” he said.
ISD Superintendent Eric Hall, who leads the takeover district for the state, said he’s hoping to dissuade school board members from closing Southside-Ashpole. Today, he thinks the conversation is “starting to trend in a positive destination.”
“First and foremost, closing the school isn’t going to change the trajectory for those students,” said Hall. “Because there’s a strong chance those students are placed in other low-performing schools in the district.”
Hall added that it’s “no small feat” to reassign more than 250 students and staff within the district. But if school board members ultimately opt for closure, he told State Board of Education members this month that it would likely require him to choose more schools for the district next year.
Schools qualify for the ISD because they report performance scores in the bottom five percent statewide and did not meet growth targets in at least one of the prior three years. From that list, Hall will narrow down his selections again next September before state board members receive his recommendation.
State law allows for up to five schools in the takeover program, but Hall and state board members opted for a “slow” rollout with just one school chosen this year as the program launches.