LUMBERTON — Robeson County may soon have two school superintendents, one with responsibility for more than 23,000 students and one with responsibility for 270.
Several steps must take place before Eric Hall and the North Carolina State Board of Education take over Southside Ashpole Elementary School, a pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade school in Rowland. Hall is the superintendent of the new Innovative School District and Southside Ashpole is the target of the first takeover.
Questions are swirling around the ISD and its superintendent: Why Robeson County? What is his plan for the low-performing school?
Hall says he does not have a one-size-fits-all plan, and that he will have to sit down with the key players to identify opportunities and obstacles to success.
Hall believes he can turn around this failing school, and that his success can help turn around the Public Schools of Robeson County. He says he will need plenty of help from the school system, its school board, the community, teachers, parents and students.
In an in-depth interview last week at The Robesonian’s offices, Hall proved confident, transparent and eager to get to work.
Question: What is your salary and who are your bosses?
Answer: “$150,000 a year. My salary does not come from funding for Southside Ashpole. I report to the State Board of Education and its Educational Innovation and Charter School Committee. The Innovative School District is the state’s 116th school district. It was created in 2016 by the North Carolina General Assembly. To start, we will have one school. We plan to add another school in early 2018 and expand to five schools. We will be at Southside Ashpole for five years. By plan, Southside Ashpole will be the only ISD school in Robeson County.”
The ISD has three permanent staff positions and a budget of $400,000 per year, Hall said. “To turn around five low-performing schools, this is a bargain.”
Question: What are your qualifications to be superintendent of an experimental school district?
Answer: “I earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree and a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of South Florida.
“I started as a biology teacher. I’ve served as a principal and school administrator. Then, I worked for a nonprofit organization overseeing 26 schools in Florida for the juvenile justice system. These were high-risk kids. Because of our success, other states invited us to serve them. Eventually, we served 56 schools in nine states.
“I was recruited to North Carolina to be CEO of the North Carolina Communities in Schools.”
Question: Why Southside Ashpole?
Answer: “If somebody does not step into Southside Ashpole, we will continue to have this conversation. If we can get the education system in Robeson County moving in the right direction, good things will follow for the entire county. We will develop a real plan to turnaround the school.”
At the meeting last week of the School Board of the Public School of Robeson County, Hall provided numbers to show that Southside Ashpole is the lowest performing school that the Innovative School District considered for takeover. He said scores have declined at the school, and only 18.4 percent of students tested at grade-level. And, PSRC has no plan to remedy the school’s performance.
Question: You will take over Southside Ashpole for the 2018-19 school year. What are the first steps?
Answer: “Hiring a principal is the first step. We will contract with a turnaround operator with a proven record of success with low-performing schools. Then, we will hire teachers. Every teacher at Southside Ashpole, who is interested, will have an interview. Teachers will have state benefits, including pay, retirement and health insurance.
“I’ll be on the ground in Robeson County. I’ll be here a lot. This summer, we will be very busy with hiring. We will be interviewing teachers to see if they want to be part of our team.”
Question: What about supplementary pay that teachers now receive? Or, will there be performance bonuses?
Answer: “We will be competitive with compensation, or we will fail. We have budget flexibility.”
Question: What about the curriculum? Will Southside Ashpole students take the end-of-grade (EOG) tests?
Answer: “Yes, the students will take the EOG. We will be accountable exactly the same as other schools. We have some flexibility with the curriculum, so we can choose our curriculum, but it will be aligned with state standards. We will work on the foundational skills, such as reading. Every student should be reading at grade level by the third grade.”
Question: Will you have additional funding from the state?
Answer: “There is no additional funding. There is a $150,000 investment if the Public Schools of Robeson County chooses to hire a turnaround specialist, a proven leader, to help the other schools. We want to turnaround this school with the same resources that are available to other schools. When we turn it back over in five years, there will be no fall off in funding. It will be a sustainable model.”
Question: Exactly, what else is “flexible” with the Innovative School District?
Answer: “We could choose a longer calendar or longer school days. The school nutrition plan will be the same. Parents should not see a change. The public schools will be responsible for transportation. That may dictate our hours of operation.”
Hall said flexibility also means the ability to partner with outside community groups to “solve non-school issues.” He called these “non-academic barriers” to student success. “My hope is that we will see improved community involvement,” Hall said. “Our hope is that parents and families will be involved. It is still the community’s school.”
Question: Does that mean you will have a parent-teacher association?
Answer: “That is possible. We may have a community advisory board. We may partner with churches and other community institutions, and maybe Communities in Schools to remove non-academic barriers. I want to see this school turn the corner. In the end, it will take a strong community to expect more from its school. I’ve seen it happen. It’s not about doing something nice, it’s about doing something intentional.”
Question: Without question you have a difficult job ahead of you. Southside Ashpole is a low-performing school in a distressed community. Before school lunches became free for every student, 99 percent of this school’s students qualified for free lunch. Rural poverty presents some difficult obstacles. Can it be done?
Answer: “We’re going to hit the reset button about what kids can do. I’ve seen it work with children at all levels. I see a school culture that does not deliver strong academics, that does not prepare students for their next step. Children will rise to the level of expectations. Resources and money do not lead to better or more sustainable outcomes.”
Question: If you achieve remarkable success at one elementary school, can the success you achieve stay with students as they move to the next level here in Robeson County? And what about the other schools? How do they benefit from what happens at Southside Ashpole?
Answer: “What we learn is something that the other schools in the district can use. I want to be a catalyst for the district. If we can partner with the district to work with all the schools, we will all have better outcomes. I see a school district that is consumed by issues of power and control and has lost sight of the goal.
“This is an urgent situation. We don’t have time. I am worried about the talk of closing the school and the effect it is having on teaching, students and parents at Southside Ashpole. The Innovative School District is new, but people who know me and my work know that I’m about kids.
“I’ve met with Southside Ashpole’s staff, and they recognized that some things need to change. They want to learn more. I am not going to bring teachers from the outside who won’t stay. That is not sustainable.
“This is a unique opportunity, a unique time, but schools cannot do it alone. I am really excited about the options before us, and we need to get to work.”