Round pegs in square holes, that’s how Johnston County Schools superintendent Ross Renfrow explains the rise of alternative schools in the district over the past few years.
The biggest changes have come on under the watch of Renfrow, who took over as superintendent last year and has overseen the addition or makeovers of a half dozen alternative schools and the restarting of two low-performing schools in the county.
In the past year, Johnston added firefighting academies to two high schools, established and then moved an early college leadership academy, and started a middle school-level lab school focusing on project-based and digital learning. The school system also announced the closing of the college-prep Johnston County Middle College High School and the troubled South Campus Middle and High School for students facing disciplinary issues.
The schools bring countywide changes to a district that’s repeatedly affirmed an identity based on community schools, where students often attend schools named after their towns no more than a few miles from their homes. While there’s still a desire for that, Renfrow said, education today is about choices. Renfrow said that if the school system isn’t offering parents what they’re looking for, they’ll find it somewhere else, either at a charter school, at home, or even online.
“If a parent or student is dissatisfied, they have too many other options to find something else,” Renfrow said of Johnston’s educational competition. “We’re in the day of personalized learning, where students have personal needs that need to be met. We’ve got to be the ones to meet those needs.”
Over last summer, as Renfrow prepared to enter his first full year on the job, he held meetings in each feeder pattern on what parents and teachers wanted to see in their schools. That’s where he said he heard the call for alternative options. Before that, Johnston had Early and Middle College high schools, which fast track first generation college students, but bypass the traditional high school experience. There was also an International Baccalaureate program at Smithfield-Selma High School and a farming program at South Johnston High School done with the help of Mt. Olive University.
There’s been a repeated call for magnet schools in Johnston, particularly in the Smithfield Selma area, where some in the community have called for busing as a solution to schools suffering dramatic socioeconomic unevenness. In some way, the alternative schools operate as magnets by another name, but Renfrow said Johnston will continue to believe in community schools and reject busing, outside of the alternative schools.
“Our commitment is to community and neighborhood schools,” Renfrow said. “That’s as American as hot dogs, apple pie, Chevrolet and the Fourth of July.”
Renfrow instead pointed to a successful program, the Spanish immersion program at Selma Elementary, saying it responds to a need in that community, but that if others in the county want to take part, they can.
“We have theme schools in Johnston County not magnet schools,” Renfrow said.
Two other schools will look dramatically different next year in an effort to turn around low-performing schools without state takeover. Cooper Elementary in Clayton and North Johnston Middle will each operate under North Carolina’s restart program next year, allowing them to function more like charter schools, but retaining local control. Both scored “Ds” in their latest state school report card –North Johnston for the past two years and Cooper for the past three. School officials say the shakeup allows the two schools to focus more on their own needs and speed up growth.
“Ultimately we don’t want to be labeled consistently low performing,” Cooper principal Jocell Flores said to the Clayton Town Council last month. “That’s like a smack in the face for every student and every staff member at the school. We don’t need to have that label anymore. That’s the reason we’re restarting.”
Flores said that as Clayton’s only Title I school, Cooper sees a lot of teacher turnover. The school struggles when compared to other schools in the county with higher percentages of free and reduced lunch students. She called the results of the state report card “heart wrenching” but said the restart model could help put a generation that might not be thinking about college back on track early.
“When I say transform into college prep, I mean I want our students to have plans and aspirations for when they finish high school,” Flores said. “I want them to leave us knowing exactly what they want to do.”
Cooper will still be subject to state end-of-year tests, Flores said, and will still be governed and controlled by the Johnston school board.
The daily schedule of the schools will change, with both Cooper and North Johnston operating longer Monday through Thursday and letting out early on Fridays for teacher training and student remediation. The schools will have relaxed hiring requirements like those of charter schools, where college degrees and expertise in a subject will be needed but there will be latitude with licensing.
Cooper, but not North Johnston, is also considering uniforms.
North Johnston principal Brian Johnson said hiring at the school has been a challenge and that not all classroom positions were filled in the year. He said teachers will still be North Carolina certified, but that having a license to teach high school classes but not middle school would no longer hold up the school from hiring a teacher. He said the restart model offers North Johnston a way to respond faster to its own needs.
The state approved Johnston’s restart requests in March and Renfrow said the program will be given time to show results.
“Any time you try something different, you hve to give it time to work out,” Renfrow said. “This is not a flavor of the month, it’s not going away. This is a way to minimize red tape and beaucracy and improve student learning in the most effective way.”