Southside parents get peek at school day

ROWLAND — Tony Helton, who heads the nonprofit that will manage the day-to-day operations of Southside Ashpole Elementary School on Aug. 27, told parents and grandparents that their children “are as capable as any children in America.”

Helton, the CEO of Achievement for All Children, held a public meeting attended by approximately 30 parents and grandparents Thursday to give a progress report and tell them what a day at Southside Ashpole will look like.

North Carolina’s Innovative School District will take over the under-performing school on July 1 with the goal of turning it into one of the state’s top schools. With Achievement for All Children, it will manage the school for five years as a model for turning around other low-performing schools.

For 90 minutes, the parents grilled Helton on everything from school uniforms to accountability. A former football coach, Helton offered up a pre-game pep talk full of high expectations for student success.

“You wouldn’t hire a football coach if he promised to win five games next year,” Helton said. “I’m going to double the student proficiency at this school in the first year and make this an ‘A’ school in five years.”

Parents recounted a school with high teacher and student absenteeism, classes with a substitute teacher for an entire year and failing marks on End of Grade tests. Just 18 percent of Southside Ashpole students scored at the proficient level last years, lowest in the state.

“We can’t slam the door on a child in the third grade and say they can’t learn,” he said. “I am sick and tired of people who say kids can’t learn if they come from an economically distressed community, or because of the color of their skin, or if they’re white trash. Our kids can accomplish anything.”

Helton described a school day that will start at 8 a.m. and end at 4 p.m., considerably longer than a public school day. The day will start with 20 minutes of “core virtues” or character development and continue until 10 a.m. with uninterrupted study in the language arts core learning area.

Southside Ashpole students will have physical education every day and either music or art every day, Helton said. Parents will be asked to read with their children for 20 minutes every night, but there will be no homework.

The school will use a curriculum that Helton said has been employed successfully at more that 20 charter schools that are affiliated with Achievement for All Children.

“If this curriculum is done right, it always gets great results,” Helton said. “Nothing about this is easy, but our children’s future is worth it.”

One parent asked if there is no homework, how will she know how her child is performing. Helton said the school will communicate with parents in every way possible from an active website to traditional forms for families without high-speed internet.

To questions about textbooks and technology, Helton said every student will have a full complement of books that follow the curriculum and there will one set of computers for every two classes.

Southside will have an expected enrollment of 242 students next year. New teachers and a principal are being hired with nearly three-quarters of the staff signed on.

The school will follow the public school calendar and inclement weather days. Southside Ashpole will have two exceptional children’s teachers and contract for speech therapy.

“Our goal is one-and-a-half years of learning each school year,” Helton said. “Our children are going to be excited to be here.”

As for accountability, Helton said if the school does not succeed, he will be fired. The Innovative School District is a new model project, said Superintendent Eric Hall.

A similar project failed in Tennessee, but Hall said it involved 30 schools, including high schools.

“We’ve got a commitment to go slow and do it right,” Hall said.

To which, a parent said: “Something had to happen for Southside Ashpole.”

As for school uniforms, which the parents enthusiastically endorsed, that decision will be made later.

Tony Helton talks with Cierra Goins, one of the students at Southside Ashpole as her mother, Valerie, looks on. Helton is CEO of Achievement for All Children, which will manage the school for the next five years. Helton talks with Cierra Goins, one of the students at Southside Ashpole as her mother, Valerie, looks on. Helton is CEO of Achievement for All Children, which will manage the school for the next five years.

Scott Bigelow

Staff writer

Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 or