Earlier this year, the N.C. State Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction launched the Innovative School District, an entity created by the General Assembly in 2016 to coordinate academic improvement in up to five low-performing elementary schools. State education officials selected Dr. Eric Hall, an experienced and highly-regarded school reformer, to be the superintendent of the ISD. Dr. Hall will oversee the transfer of school operations to a third-party operator for five years and closely monitor their progress.
Starting with a list of 48 qualifying schools and 21 corresponding school districts, Dr. Hall recommended that Southside Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County become the first ISD school in the state. The State Board of Education agreed. Local leaders were not pleased.
Hall has been honest and gracious throughout, answering difficult questions and addressing the concerns of elected officials, community leaders, and families. Despite these efforts, the Robeson County school board unanimously approved a resolution opposing the takeover of Southside Ashpole, one of 42 schools operated by the school district. Members of the Board of Commissioners have conveyed a range of opinions about the plan.
The editorial board of The Robesonian rightfully blasted the resolution and conduct of the school board, writing that they were “intentionally antagonistic and juvenile, spent too much time … demanding from Hall what all of them in all their years have been unable to provide, a viable path forward toward better student performance.” As the editorial points out, they have two options — allow the ISD to operate the school or close it permanently. The editor believes that the school board and county commission will choose the former.
It’s not difficult to understand why Southside-Ashpole Elementary School was selected in the first place. Student performance has been dismal. The school earned an F in each of the last three years and met performance growth expectations in only one. Only around 14 percent of students scored at or above grade level in math, while 19 percent scored at or above grade level in reading. Both were far below Robeson County and state averages. A shocking 40 percent of Southside Ashpole third-graders were required to repeat the grade for failing to meet Read to Achieve literacy standards. Last year, the state average retention rate was 14 percent.
So, what’s the problem? There are no easy answers.
Resources appear to be adequate. While the county provides less per student funding than any district in North Carolina, state and federal dollars allow the Public Schools of Robeson Schools to have an average per student expenditure, $9,407, that is slightly above the state average, $9,172. It is not known, however, how these dollars are deployed in the district and subsequently used in each school. School districts have a great deal of flexibility in distributing local and state dollars, so it’s possible that Southside Ashpole spends more, on a per-student basis than the district average. Even if we knew how much they spent, we would have few specifics on how they spent it.
School districts and allied advocacy groups complain that public schools do not have the resources to obtain the technology and books that they need. State data suggests otherwise. Southside-Ashpole students have sufficient access to internet-connected devices, wireless access points, and books. There is around one internet-connected device per student, one wireless access point per classroom, and a whopping 41 book titles per student.
It is worth noting that Southside-Ashpole employs a higher percentage of teachers with zero to three years of experience than the district and state average. The teacher turnover rate is comparable to the state average. Without a doubt, inexperience and turnover may impede the process of raising student achievement, but neither are insurmountable challenges. Teacher working conditions play a larger role than both.
Results from the 2016 Teacher Working Conditions Survey indicate that only around half of Southside-Ashpole teachers surveyed believe that their school leadership cultivates an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect or recognizes their achievements. Around the same percentage believe that parents and community members support teachers or contribute to their success with students. These survey results suggest that there is a lingering disconnect, perhaps better described as distrust, between teachers and leadership, parents, and the community.
Restoring these relationships, undoubtedly a key component to the ISD’s work, would be the first step toward formulating a “viable path forward toward better student performance” that has eluded Southside Ashpole and many other schools in the district for years. The truth is the district has failed to deliver the high-quality education that Southside Ashpole children deserve. Perhaps the ISD will lay the groundwork for them to do so in the years ahead. If the children are worth the effort, then the ISD is worth a try.
Terry Stoops is the vice president of Research and Director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation.