Moving ahead at Southside-Ashpole

The Innovative School District now has its inaugural school, Southside-Ashpole in Rowland, N.C. At the recent school board meeting held on Jan. 9, 2018, members of the Public Schools of Robeson County School Board voted unanimously to transfer Southside-Ashpole into the ISD for five years, after which the school will be transferred back into the local district. The ISD can now move forward to engage partners, plan and prepare for the implementation of school interventions to address the challenges and opportunities that exist in Rowland.

As currently written, the legislation states that four more low-performing schools, each from different school districts in North Carolina, will be selected and transferred into the ISD over the next couple years for a total of five schools. There is much work ahead, but getting the first school and local district identified and established as a partner with this new state-wide district is an important milestone.

After the vote last Tuesday, the hugs and handshakes that members of my team and I received and returned with various stakeholders from Rowland and Robeson County—local school board members included—reflect a sentiment I expressed from the beginning: we are all in this together. When I mentioned that credo months ago, I may not have fully appreciated just how true it was. This process was undeniably a team effort; together—the ISD team, parents, pastors, town officials, local school board members, and other community members in Rowland and throughout Robeson County—we prevailed in changing hearts and minds, and we raised awareness of the work that needs to be done to improve student achievement and success. After the vote, the mood was celebratory, but everyone quickly realized it merely signaled that the real and important work was just beginning.

Engaging the diverse network of stakeholders invested in the fate of Southside-Ashpole was a challenging, sometimes contentious, but ultimately rewarding experience. I never expected it to be easy, and it wasn’t, but through all the questioning and debate and sharing of information that took place over the past several months, I believe everyone who participated, including my team and I, learned valuable lessons. Perhaps the most important lesson was the value of listening to learn vs. listening to respond in support of preconceived notions one may have. Moving forward there will very likely be more questions and debate; there may even be some more contentiousness, but I believe there is now an emerging bond of trust and respect amongst the various stakeholders that has us all better prepared to participate in productive dialog and activities which will best serve the intended beneficiaries of our efforts — the students.

The ISD is a new idea and new ideas, with the resulting potential for disruption and change, can be concerning to those who will be impacted. That was the case in Rowland and Robeson County and it will most likely play out similarly in other districts and communities as the ISD expands into other districts in future years. The way around that is through transparency of process, information-sharing and community engagement. Will it get easier? Probably not, as each new partnering community will present a new set of challenges and opportunities to address. Also, Rowland is a rural community and the ISD will work in urban areas too, so the issues, resources, and potential for partnerships will vary with each new school considered for inclusion in the ISD. My hope, however, is that we can build on the reputation for honest engagement and collaboration that we have fostered in Rowland and Robeson County as well as the successes we are determined to bring to Southside-Ashpole.

School reform is hard work. If it were easy, all our schools would be performing well. As it is, North Carolina has more than 500 low-performing schools and 11 districts that are considered low-performing. There is a lot of work to be done and it needs to be done with a sense of urgency. Students who are not at grade level in reading by grade four have a much higher drop-out rate than those who are. The ISD is committed to being part of the solution. We’ve taken the first step hand-in-hand with the town of Rowland and are determined to expand our influence to help reduce the number of low-performing schools in the state by serving the communities where they exist. Thanks again to the local school board and the local community for being students with us in this process and for coming together in support of something new for the students at Southside-Ashpole Elementary. I look forward to a productive and rewarding journey together as partners in this mission and celebrating achievements along the way.

Eric Hall is superintendent of the Innovative School District.

Eric Hall is superintendent of the Innovative School District.