Johnston County

Johnston might close alternative schools

The Johnston County school system might close its alternative high school and middle school.
The Johnston County school system might close its alternative high school and middle school.

The Johnston County school system is looking to close South Campus Community Middle and High School, two schools under one roof that give off-track students a last chance at public education.

In place of the Smithfield campus, the school district is considering offering more sites around the county for its troubled students, along with digital classrooms to be accessed from home.

The county will hold a public hearing Thursday, April 6, on the possible closure of South Campus, saying the model might be out of step with North Carolina practices, costing too much and not convincingly successful.

Eddie Price, chief academic officer, said it costs South Campus more than twice as much to educate students than a traditional school. Currently, the school has around 30 to 40 students, each costing $19,000 a year educate, compared to $8,000 to $9,000 for traditional students, Price said. Those costs include $275,000 to bus kids from around the county to the Smithfield school and $2.3 million to staff the middle and high school classrooms.

Price said students end up at South Campus in lieu of long-term suspensions, with most in the high school coming because of violence or drugs and those in middle school for disrupting class or fighting.

The state says alternative schools should not have demographics or percentages of exceptional students that are out of line with the county itself, Price said. But while about 15 percent of the Johnston County population has a disability, more than half of South Campus students do, he said. South Campus students are two-thirds male, half are black, a quarter are Latino, and a quarter are white. Those numbers don’t reflect the wider Johnston County population either.

“The school is disproportionately male, minority and exceptional,” Price said, noting this put the school system out of compliance.

The population of South Campus has been on a downward trend for a while, from a high point of 125 to around a fourth of that today. Price said the drop in enrollment doesn’t mean Johnston schools have fewer behavioral problems, just new perspectives on dealing with them.

“That number has decreased with legislation and with a culture of our principals keeping students on campus,” Price said.

The state mandates school districts have an alternative option to students simply being out of school for long stretches of time, but Price’s recommendation is closing South Campus and implementing what he calls a “restorative choice” model.

“There is great heavy lifting to do in order to shift this paradigm, but it is necessary if we plan to impact student lives and the greater community,” Price said.

In this new model, the district would start out with three sites around the county to take in alternative students, but Price sees the program eventually expanding to every high school in the county and also offering online options. He compared the structure to Smithfield-Selma High School’s Spartan Academy, an additional program for students after normal school hours. In researching the choice model, Price said he visited schools in Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia, with those schools keeping a second shift with a 3-8 p.m. schedule. Price said that schedule could help alternative Johnston students who might have to work to support their families or take care of siblings.

“Hopefully this is something each high school will have eventually,” Price said. “These students will still belong to that school.”

Price said the choice model would save the district about $600,000, cutting out much of the transportation costs and operations of an additional school building. While the students will have classroom teachers, they will do some of their coursework online from home. Price and the board of education see that as a great thing.

“This is yet another scenario of how Johnston County Public Schools is searching for ways to become more personalized for our stakeholders,” Price said.

School board chairman Mike Wooten said the proposed South Campus replacement was innovative. “Johnston County is on the cutting edge,” he said. “This is good stuff, another opportunity to make sure all students are successful in our school system.”

School board member Todd Sutton sees the choice model as a way to cut down on the school district’s dropout rate.

“If we’ve saved one dropout, we’ve done our job,” Sutton said. “But if we can save all dropouts, to get them a job where they can take care of their families, we’ve done what we set out to do on this board.”

While the new model would make an effort to bring troubled students back into the fold rather than sequestering them in a school by themselves, school board member Peggy Smith wondered if the demographics would really change.

“I’m concerned about the number of underrepresented-population students and how that might change in this new model,” Smith said. “We need systematic prevention, because if we don’t do that, the same portion of underrepresented and exceptional students are still going to be in those alternative programs.”

Price said the model would lean on the administrations of individual schools to know their students, develop relationships and work toward a better path. “The restorative process is about developing a relationship and now sending your student somewhere else, but being proactive,” he said.

The public hearing on South Campus’ possible closing will be at 6 p.m. April 6 in the boardroom of the Evander Simpson building on U.S. 70 Business just east of Smithfield.

Drew Jackson; 919-603-4943; @jdrewjackson