ISD promises a lot, delivers on hope

There were about 30 parents and grandparents of students at Southside-Ashpole Elementary School who on Thursday attended a forum updating the progress of the Innovative School District, asking good questions, seemingly pleased at the answers, and demonstrating an enthusiasm for what can be at the Rowland school with a recent history of failure.

See the problem?

Although officials with ISD said they were pleased with the turnout, we would have guessed a lot more would have bothered. There are about 240 students who will attend the school in the fall, and while we know that the Leave-it-to-Beaver traditional family is no longer the norm in this country, there are hundreds of parents and grandparents of these children, and we wonder what did they have to do that was more important than learn about this emerging school experiment that is vital to their children’s future — and potentially others in Robeson County and even beyond.

We hope that the enthusiasm expressed by those who did attend is contagious, because an all-hands-on-board approach will be required if the lofty goals that have been established for Southside can be achieved.

The parents and grandparents who attended on Thursday seemed pleased with what they heard, and there was a lot to like, including a longer school day, an emphasis on character development, the promise of physical activity each day, and either music or art being a part of the everyday curriculum. There was even something for the students to cheer — no homework. But there will be a request as well that parents or grandparents spend 20 minutes each night reading to their child, a message that will have to be spread.

School uniforms have not been promised, but are a possibility, and something the parents and grandparents clearly coveted.

Tony Helton, the CEO of Achievement for All Children, the nonprofit that will manage the school, did not sandbag on expectations, promising academic progress and quickly. There is no time to waste as a five-year clock begins ticking on July 1, at the end of which Southside will be returned to the Public Schools of Robeson County.

“Our goal is one-and-a-half years of learning each school year,” Helton said.

And Helton’s pledge: “I’m going to double the student proficiency at this school in the first year and make this an ‘A’ school in five years.”

It’s an ambitious plan, and Helton was unambiguous about what was at stake for him personally, saying he would be fired if the school is not a success.

Critics of the program, and there are plenty, including those who hope it flops, point toward Tennessee, where a similar concept has been deemed a failure. But Eric Hall, the superintendent of the ISD, says Tennessee went too big, and its mistake is why the ISD is starting modestly, with a single school in its inaugural year.

The program has been increasingly embraced locally, even by those who are fundamentally opposed to the philosophy of Republicans in Raleigh of providing more school choice, the fear being that the public schools will be sacrificed.

We have no expertise on how high the ceiling is for the new Southside, but we are convinced that student achievement will climb, even if it were to fall short of the levels that Helton has promised. There is a lot to overcome, the hangover from institutionalize racism, general apathy, a culture of acceptance that some children must settle for less, and the fact these students are already far behind.

So we shall see.

But one thing we have already seen is a key ingredient that has been missing in the Southside community — hope for something better for their children.