ROWLAND — Parents, community members and educators used their voices and their feet Thursday to make known their feelings about the prospect of control of Southside-Ashpole Elementary School being taken from the Public Schools of Robeson County.
Voices got loud and more than half of the approximately 200 people gathered in the school gymnasium walked out one hour into a forum about the state’s newly initiated Innovative School District.
Southside-Ashpole is one of four schools in North Carolina on a list from which will be chosen two to be the inaugural Innovative School District schools during the 2018-19 school year. Any school chosen will fall under the control of the state Department of Public Instruction and be managed by a hired charter management organization or educational management organization for five years.
Southside-Ashpole’s fate will be decided by the state Board of Education in November.
“We want you all to maintain an open mind,” said Shanita Wooten, superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County.
Eric Hall, Innovative School District, superintendent, began his briefing on how the program came about, how schools were selected for participation and how selected schools would be managed shortly after Wooten made her plea for open minds.
Murmurs suggesting anger and suspicion, and the shaking of heads began minutes later after Hall said the PSRC has only two choices if Southside-Ashpole is selected.
“If Southside-Ashpole is chosen the local school board has to decide to approve the transfer or consolidate Southside-Ashpole with another school,” Hall said.
The sounds of discontent were followed by harsh questions and angry comments from parents and educators. Many of the questions and comments came from people who left the meeting immediately after receiving Hall’s reply.
“You have a lot of people in the community scared and a lot of parents ready to transfer their kids if this happens,” one parent said.
Hall repeatedly explained that the school would remain essentially the same if selected. The only difference the students would see is in teaching techniques. Teachers not hired to stay at the school could be transferred to a Robeson County school that has a vacancy.
“We have no intention of recruiting outside the state for teachers,” Hall said.
One parent became angry at the idea of teachers and administrators being moved out, and how the management organization can hire its own principal.
“We’ve had principals at the school who have helped our kids, and that man beside you (Hall) has done jack squat,” she said angrily and walked off to hearty applause from the audience.
Parents asked for specifics on how the Innovative School District initiative will improve Southside-Ashpole or any selected school. Hall could only repeat that specifics would be determined later with input from parents and community members.
Others asked why they should trust a system — some called it an “experiment” — that had failed in two other states. Hall said the N.C. Innovative School District was designed using lessons learned from the past, and rather than starting with more than 20 schools, as was done in Tennessee, the N.C. Innovative School District will start with only two.
“It’s not an experiment,” Hall said. “It will be an opportunity.”
One woman who spoke softly but with force told of how she came from an area where they tried what Hall was describing and it failed and left the schools in worse shape than before. She countered Hall’s claims that the N.C. Innovative School District would keep existing busing, food service and other support operations by saying they were told the same thing but some students ended up walking to school because the busing system was altered.
Her voice rising, she told the people remaining in the Southside-Ashpole gymnasium, “Don’t trust them.”
“They did destroy our schools,” she shouted as she walked out of the gymnasium.
One Southside-Ashpole parent who walked out of the forum earlier wasn’t sure what to think about the Innovative School District. She shook her head and frowned as rain fell on Southside-Ashpole Elementary School.
“I just don’t agree with it. If it failed once, why try again?” said Veronica, who declined to give her last name.
Reach T.C. Hunter at 910-816-1974.