ROWLAND — With almost 2,600 public schools in the state of North Carolina, Southside-Ashpole Elementary is the only one being recommended for inclusion in a new state program that proponents say could be a lifesaver for students at the low-performing school, but which has been met with scorn and criticism locally.
Eric Hall, who is the superintendent of the Innovative School District, said Southside-Ashpole is the only school remaining from an original list of 48 that he will recommend to the State Board of Education for inclusion. That will happen in November, and the state board will make a decision in December.
There had been five Robeson County schools, all low-performing, on the list of 48, and the final four list included schools in the Durham, Nash-Rocky Mount and Northampton systems.
“Southside-Ashpole was selected for a variety of reasons, all related to the school performance,” Hall said. “… We can’t continue to ignore that. Also, when looking at the other three districts with schools under consideration, district-wide, Robeson County schools had the largest number of low-performing schools — 27 — and the highest percentage of low-performing schools, 66 percent.
Twenty-seven of Robeson County’s 42 schools are listed as low-performing.
Hall has tried to pitch the concept locally, including at the elementary school, where many in the audience were antagonistic and walked out during his presentation. Several members of the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson have spoken out against, with John Campbell perhaps being the most vocal.
“I believe in local autonomy instead of the state running our local schools,” Campbell said during a school board meeting in September. “We could have similar success without turning schools over to a contractor in the private sector if given the proper resources.”
The Robeson County Board of Commissioners is on record as being against Southside-Ashpole’s inclusion.
Under the program, a Republican-led initiative of the General Assembly, a private management entity, either for-profit or not-for-profit, would hire a principal to head the school. That principal would then hire staff. Current staff at the school would have to reapply.
Lisa Washington is principal of Southside-Ashpole Elementary, where about 280 students in grades pre-kindergarten through fifth are enrolled. About half the school’s students are black, a third are American Indian, and the rest a mix of Hispanic, white and other races.
Southside-Ashpole would become a charter school with autonomy to make decisions other public schools cannot, including shifting resources to hire more qualified teachers and tweaking the school calendar and school hours. The program would be for five years.
Hall is hopeful that the local reception will change as people become informed.
“We’re bringing new ideas so I understand the skepticism,” he said, “but I believe that can be overcome by raising awareness of what we are doing and clarifying some misconceptions. For example, it is important for the community to know that Southside-Ashpole will remain a community-based public school with transportation for the students and nutritional program just like they have now. What’s going to be different are the ways in which we approach curriculum and teaching, with high expectations for student learning and achievement.”
The local school system’s options will be limited. Should the school board reject inclusion, state law means the school would be closed, and its 280 students bused to other schools. Hall says that is a sorry option because so many other schools are also low-performing.
Hall pointed to the following problems at Southside-Ashpole: more than eight of every 10 students at the school are not proficient in reading and math; of the four schools that were under final consideration for inclusion in the Innovative School District, Southside Ashpole has the lowest grade-level proficiency rate and the lowest average school performance score for the past three years; and Southside-Ashpole has been a low-performing school for at least the past four consecutive years.
Hall also said the other three systems that each had a finalist, in his opinion, has a viable plan for improvement at the targeted school, but he was not convinced one existed for Southside-Ashpole.
Hall said he has been disappointed by what he believes has been a “distortion” of what the school’s inclusion would mean.
“What I did not expect is the willful distortion of facts and attempts to spread false information by people in leadership positions in the community,” he said. “People of good faith who share a passion for education can disagree on the best methods to help children succeed in school. Disagreements and discussions about what’s working and not working in our schools is a healthy thing. I welcome vigorous debate and dialogue about our schools. Communities that are having engaged discussions about the best ways to teach our kids are the communities where I know kids are going to be successful.”
Brenda Fairley-Ferebee represents the Southside-Ashpole district on the school board. Initially she spoke against its inclusion, but then softened her position.
“This may be the best thing in the world for us. I just don’t know,” she said. “If there is one good thing we can say about all of this is that we won’t know if it can help us if it’s not tried.”
Hall had this message for parents, students and staff of the Southside-Ashpole community.
“Through a partnership with the school and the larger school district, elected leaders, and the community at-large, we want to put strategies in place to ensure the students at Southside Ashpole have futures that are just as bright as every other child in our state,” he said. “Right now, there are barriers and challenges standing in the way of that goal. The students, their parents and guardians, and the community deserve better …
“Our goal is to work collaboratively with the Public Schools of Robeson County, parents, teachers and community leaders to develop innovative strategies in schools that promote improved student outcomes. This partnership, if solidified, could also result in improved opportunities for sharing effective strategies across other low-performing schools in the district, with the goal of improving outcomes for even more schools and students.”
Hall said that the state has purposely decided to start “small,” with a single school for a program that is expected to expand according to its success.
“The State Board of Education expects to select five qualifying schools for transfer to the ISD over the next few years,” he said. “Because the Innovative School District is new, we decided to start small with one school and focus all our resources and attention on getting this model right early so we can build upon a solid and successful foundation.”
Donnie Douglas can be reached at 910-416-5649.