Over the past few months, the emerging work and strategies of the newly created North Carolina Innovative School District has generated more than a little attention. I welcome that attention; it means that there are many interested parties that recognize the realities that exist and the challenges we face in improving educational outcomes for North Carolina’s students.
Some of the attention stems from controversies surrounding other educational reform efforts implemented across the country that produced mixed results in terms of improving student achievement. One specific area of concern is ISD’s intervention tactic itself, which includes having selected schools operated by a state-managed educational turnaround partner for a specific period of time. The perception is that there will be a loss of local control.
I understand and respect the concerns. The challenge before us, however, is to get past the issues of power and control and focus on the mission that I believe everyone in this debate shares — student success and brighter futures for our children. I want to propose a new narrative, one that transcends power struggles and elicits instead an urgent call-to-action to address students’ needs across North Carolina.
I am a former teacher and administrator, and I have spent my career working in nonprofits focused on the needs of students. I challenge all of us to reframe our conversations and work together toward a common goal. If we are ever going to overcome the educational inequities facing the young people in our schools, we must look closely at the barriers to achievement and make those the target of our energy.
Academically, barriers may include lack of access to highly effective educators, proven school leaders, and evidence-based curriculums. Poverty-related barriers — those that can impede a student’s ability to reach academic excellence — may include inadequate access to quality medical care, mental health services, extended learning opportunities, and even food and clothing. These barriers are unfortunately very real for thousands of students and families across our state, and are factors that can impact a school’s ability to ensure academic success for all students.
As we work to implement strategies for the ISD, we remain steadfastly focused on the things that will have the greatest impact on our students. Depending on the specific circumstances of a school, this may include the ISD serving as an intervention that helps to redesign persistently low-performing schools into higher achieving models of education; in other cases, it may be partnering with school districts and communities to collaborate on strategies that work to address the needs of the whole child by engaging partners that can help mitigate barriers to success for students in low-performing schools.
Considering that we currently have over 500 low-performing schools in the state, it is critical that we bring a voice to the students, their families, and the people who love and care for them. They are eager, waiting, and relying on their schools — our schools — to deliver the academic programs and resources they need (and deserve) in order to achieve great things in school and in life. That will only happen if we work together to create stronger and more effective schools, with a focus on developing higher-achieving students.
Beyond increased academic achievement for students, the benefits to increasing the number of high-performing schools include stronger communities; a more capable workforce that can attract new businesses to an area; and increased economic opportunity that can help break cycles of poverty that burden so many families in our state.
Please join me in pushing the schools in our state towards improved outcomes for students. Their futures are literally at stake and their needs must be our priority in order to ensure a system of equity and opportunity for all the people of North Carolina.
Eric Hall is the superintendent of the Innovative School District.