Board’s call on Southside-Ashpole looms

Mike Smith

LUMBERTON — With a public hearing at Southside Ashpole Elementary School looming on Dec. 12, school board members are edging closer to a decision on whether to close the low-performing school or to allow a takeover by the state’s new Innovative School District.

Several board members would like to settle the matter at the meeting scheduled after the hearing. Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, chairman of the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County, said she has made up her mind, but she is not ready to reveal her preference until January.

Fellow board member Mike Smith, who works at a bank in Rowland where Southside Ashpole is located, said he is ready to vote in December and is showing his hand. He said the handwriting is on the wall — and it’s time “to get on board” with the ISD.

At a town meeting last week, Smith heard Rowland residents say they strongly favor keeping their school open. They also expressed concerns for the school’s recent history of poor academic performance under the Public Schools of Robeson County, and they are concerned about its future with the untested ISD.

The school board has until Feb. 1 to accept the takeover or close the school. In September, the school board unanimously passed a resolution opposing the takeover but leaving the fate of the school undecided.

Created by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2016, the Innovative School District’s mission is to take over five low-performing school across the state for a five-year period. The goal is to improve student achievement and to serve as a model for turning around failing schools.

Since September, ISD Superintendent Eric Hall has met with parents, school staff, school board members and the media to make his case. Southside-Ashpole would be the first school to be taken over in North Carolina history, and school board members initial reaction may be described as ranging from cool to angry.

“I’ll let you know in January,” Wilkins-Chavis said. “I’ve been against it, and I’ve been for it. My mind is made up now.”

Wilkins-Chavis expressed the view of all board members contacted late last week: “We need to do the right thing for the children.”

“We’ve got 27 low performing schools,” Smith said. “We cannot close Southside Ashpole. What would that accomplish?

“Based on the feelings in Rowland, the best thing to do is get on board (with the ISD),” Smith said. “I’d like to see it resolved.”

Brenda Fairley-Ferebee attended the meeting and spoke at length at the town meeting in Rowland, saying she is committed to keep the school open. Fairley-Ferebee, who represents the Rowland district, could not predict how the board would vote.

Loistine DeFreece said a decision may come on Dec. 12, but she has not discussed the issue with other school board members. She did not commit one way or the other.

Craig Lowry, who like Smith and Fairley-Ferebee, attended the town meeting in Rowland, did not commit either, but he said he would express his views on Dec. 12. He said a decision is possible at the meeting.

Randy Lawson said the takeover is sounding better with time. He said the board has more information about the ISD now.

“I still want to hear what the people of Rowland have to say on the 12th,” Lawson said. “It’s a five-year proposition, and I hope it will work out for the best.”

Like other board members, Lawson is worried about the teachers at Southside-Ashpole, who will have to reapply for their jobs at the school if they wish to remain. Hall will hire a principal, who will then interview teachers.

Dwayne also said a decision on school closure may be made at the Dec. 12 meeting.

“We’ll know more at our next meeting,” Smith said. “It will be there that we’ll lay out the pros and cons.

“Everybody wants to do what is in the best interest of the kids,” he said.

Hall has suggested that the school would have the flexibility to shift resources and hire stronger teachers, who could serve as mentors for others. The school would also have the freedom to tweak the school calendar and the hours of the school day.

The Robesonian was unable to reach other board members, including Brian Freeman and John Campbell, who have been critical of the possibility of the local system surrendering control of the school.

Mike Smith Smith