Johnston County

Shakeup coming for Cooper, North Johnston Middle

Last fall, Johnston school system administrators dropped in on a Spanish-immersion classroom at Cooper Elementary School in Clayton. Next year, Cooper could operate much like a charter school.
Last fall, Johnston school system administrators dropped in on a Spanish-immersion classroom at Cooper Elementary School in Clayton. Next year, Cooper could operate much like a charter school. jdackson@newsobserver.com

Two of Johnston County’s low-performing schools could be fundamentally different next year, as school leaders propose to run them more like charter schools.

The change could mean school uniforms and longer school days, but school leaders also say they’ll be able to place greater emphasis on personalized learning.

The Johnston County Board of Education earlier this month endorsed a makeover for Cooper Elementary in Clayton and North Johnston Middle in Micro under North Carolina’s “restart” program. If the N.C. Board of Education says yes in March, the schools would operate largely independently from the rest of Johnston and enjoy many of the same freedoms charter schools have with respect to scheduling, hiring and curriculum.

The shakeup bucks the typical response to troubled schools, in that it gives more control to the schools themselves, rather than handing the keys over to the state, said Brandon Garland, central director for Johnston County Schools.

“In the history of North Carolina, generally when a school is low performing, what generally happens in some form or fashion is you see power removed from the district and taken back to the state,” Garland said. “This item actually brings power back to the school. Financially, calendar law, curriculum, staffing, it all brings power back.”

Low grades on the state’s annual school report card led to the proposed restarts at Cooper and North Johnston Middle, with each earning a “D” from the state the past two years.

Garland said Smithfield-Selma High School and Selma Middle were also eligible, but the school district is optimistic SSS won’t be low performing next year. Selma Middle, meanwhile, wished to stay as is and focus on feeding students into SSS’s IB program and continuing the Spanish-immersion program coming from Selma Elementary.

The state considers schools continually low performing if they receive a “D” or “F” in consecutive years or a “D,” “F” and “C” in three consecutive years.

Cooper and North Johnston Middle had plenty of options for how to remake their schools, Garland said, drawing primarily from charter models of other North Carolina schools with similar socioeconomic demographics.

“The restart policy is like a buffet: You can have anything off that buffet you want,” Garland said. “The key is picking the right foods that you want to ingest. You go to Golden Corral and you get too much off of that buffet, you might choke on it.”

Garland said the schools will not be fully independent, the way actual charter schools are, and Johnston County will still be responsible for funding, including transportation for students.

“We do not become a charter school; we just follow the same laws and regulations that charter schools follow,” Garland told the school board at its January meting. “This school is still your school. It is still the school of the people of Johnston County. It is still responsible to our taxpayers.”

The schools will share some similarities but also a few quirks. Each proposes to expand the school day Monday through Thursday and then let out early on Fridays for teacher training. They’ll both reassign select teachers to be “curriculum coaches” on each hallway and try to improve personalized learning for students. Cooper Academy, as it will be known, proposes uniforms, which school officials called “spirit wear,” but no change in the dress code is planned for North Johnston Middle.

First-year Cooper principal Jocell Flores said the restart at her school will focus on getting students on a path to college early.

“We want our students to know that regardless of their background, environment, subgroup description, experiences, they can succeed, they can achieve, they can persevere, they can go to college, and they can have a successful future,” Flores said. “Cooper has been around a long time and has had a diverse, resilient, ever-changing history. It’s time again to restart. We need to start from the beginning. I believe in the staff and students at Cooper Elementary, and I know this revitalization is what we need.”

North Johnston Middle principal Brian Johnson, also in his first year, said the new model will help him staff the school, which he said has been one of the biggest struggles. Under the proposal, only half of the school’s teachers would need to be licensed.

“That opens up our pool of applicants for this school; we can bring in new people,” Johnson said. “One of the hardest things for me to do at North Johnston Middle School is hire, and this will give me a wider pool to pull from.”

Johnson said his school is improving, but he thinks turning the school upside down could help it get where it needs to be more quickly. More than anything, Johnson said classrooms will work to find ways to adapt information to the ways kids learn today.

“That’s some of the change we have to have take place, because that’s how our student population learns now,” Johnson said. “We have to be innovative, we have to change with our students, and at this time, we are not able to do that with the facets that are in place at North Johnston Middle School. ... We can make the change now on our own, but it’s going to be a very slow process. This will allow us to do it in a very timely and impactful way.”

Garland said he foresaw no increased operational costs except possibly in transportation as buses respond to the altered schedules. To help students who might not be able to afford the uniforms planned for Cooper, the school system will try to find sponsors from the business community, he said.

The school board unanimously endorsed the proposed changes. School board member Dorothy Johnson, whose children went to Cooper and whose name adorns the school’s library, said the school has served some students well, but she hopes these changes will help improve the education of all the students.

“You’re going to get people that are interested in children and what they can do and how they can encourage them and inspire them to do what needs to be done,” Johnson said. “When I came on the board that wasn’t a word in the vocabulary. They didn’t say a-l-l. Now they say it. You’ve got to have an interest in all children.”

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