ROWLAND — Speaker after speaker implored Robeson County Board of Education members on Tuesday to keep Southside-Ashpole Elementary School open during a public hearing at the school.
More than a dozen parents, grandparents, preachers and elected officials came forward to say closing the school would harm the community and its children. The school board is facing a takeover of the low-performing school by the state’s new Innovative School District or closure of the school and dispersal of its students to other schools.
More than 100 people attended the hour-long hearing, which was required by the state law that created the ISD.
A decision about Southside-Ashpole’s fate will be made during the board’s regular meeting in January, board Chairperson Peggy Wilkins-Chavis said after the hearing.
The ISD’s mission is to take control of five low-performing North Carolina public schools and improve academic results. Southside-Ashpole is the first school chosen. Control of the school is to be given to the ISD for five years beginning with the 2018-19 school year.
Newly installed Rowland Mayor Michelle Shooter spoke against closure.
“Rowland is moving in a positive direction, and we need our elementary school to stay open to stay on course,” Shooter said. “Based on our conversations with them, we feel very positive about what the Innovative School District wants to do.”
Vonta Leach, a former National Football League player and Southside-Ashpole graduate, encouraged students and parents to strive for success.
“I believe in the public schools, and I also know the disparities between northern and southern schools in the county,” Leach said to the board members. “Have you done everything possible to promote student success?”
“We cannot do the same things over and over and expect different results,” he said.
The Rev. Shawn Mitchell, pastor of New Hope United Methodist Church, said he was not in favor of a takeover at first.
“After consultation with Eric Hall (ISD superintendent), I believe this is an opportunity for Rowland,” Mitchell said. “Let’s not focus on the change. Let’s focus on what’s best for our children.”
The Rev. Thomas Allen, pastor of Rowland’s First Baptist Church, said the community is “a special place with special people, who deserve a special school.”
“Our children deserve every opportunity to attend school in their community,” Allen said. “To close this school would be to separate the children from the community and their parents.”
Resources, or the lack of them, is the key issue for David Hunt, a parent of three Southside-Ashpole students.
“This school has good potential,” Hunt said “The money issue is the only thing lacking that I see.”
Student achievement also is an issue for parents who see their children receive high grades and perform poorly on the state’s End-of-Grade tests. Fewer than one-in-five Southside-Ashpole students are working at grade level.
“My kids make A’s and B’s on their grades, and when it comes to the End-of-Grade test, they make 2s and 3s,” said Angela Locklear, a grandparent. “I do not like what’s going on at this school.
“We have some of the best teachers and students. This school should not be going through this. You knew the test scores, but you did nothing.”
John Young, pastor of the St. James Missionary Baptist Church, raised another important point.
“Closing the school won’t fix the school,” Young said. “Sending the students to other low-performing schools won’t fix the students.”
Hall, the ISD superintendent, attended the meeting, but did not speak. School board members also remained silent.
Last week, the ISD received two proposals from organizations seeking to run the school. One is a for-profit group and one a nonprofit.
Both bidders have prior experience running charter schools, although Southside-Ashpole will not be a charter school. Hall said he is expecting a consultant’s analysis of the proposals before Christmas.
Under the model, the management entity would run the school and hire a principal. The principal would hire teachers, who would be paid by the state.
The school would have some flexibility, and Hall has suggested that a goal would be to hire stronger teachers who could act as mentors to their peers. The school’s calendar and hours could also be tweaked.
Staff writer Scott Bigelow may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 910-644-4497.