Despite the emotional pleas of parents, students and administrators last month to save the school, the Johnston County school system will close South Campus Middle and High School this year.
For years, the alternative school served as a last chance for troubled students whose behavior might have led to lengthy suspensions from their home schools. Johnston school leaders argue there’s a better way, calling South Campus more punitive than productive in the way it isolates students. The school takes in students from all over the county, some for a few weeks or months, others for years, often trying to return them to their home schools, but also graduating others for whom the school seems to fit.
“This is less about closing a school and more about changing a district’s approach to students whose behavior may not conform with that which we have defined as traditional,” said chief academic officer Eddie Price, who recommended to the school board that it close South Campus. “This recommendation is about establishing a philosophy at each school, not just one, where relationships and personalization and the needs of each student is addressed. This is not about educators at a school not performing, but changing a district’s perception of at-risk students in an effort to ascertain greater success and produce a more functional community.”
More than a month ago, the Johnston school board held an evening public hearing on the fate of South Campus, drawing dozens from the community, filling the board’s meeting room and spilling out into the hallway to listen and watch on a flat-screen TV. Over the course of two hours, nearly 20 speakers lobbied for the life of the school, each arguing in some way that the model was working for those who needed it.
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Price said that much of what community members lauded at the school, largely the relationships and personalized learning offered by the small class sizes, is a goal of the district at-large and wouldn’t require a separate school. He said the Therapeutic Learning Center within the school, which focuses on students with mental and learning disabilities, would continue despite the closing of South Campus. The goal, Price said, is to address the root of behavior issues, rather than pass them on.
“We should embrace a model that addresses underlying causes for behavior that does not conform to traditional school expectations,” Price said.
In making his recommendation, Price appeared to acknowledge the public response the board received last month, saying his focus is to always put students first.
“When I started this administrative role 13 years ago, I told myself that whatever I did, I would make a commitment to put kids first,” Price said. “In everything I do, that’s first. Sometimes it hurts the adults, but I’m going to make decisions, I’m going to propose things that are in the best interests of the kids. I’m not going to apologize for doing what’s difficult.”
The school board was unanimous in its decision to close South Campus, but new board member Ronald Johnson offered the most insight into his vote, saying it’s an attempt to offer something different and something better to Johnston’s at-risk kids.
“We’ve got to change the way we do business,” he said. :As a police officer, I see a lot of suffering that goes on in our community. I would not support this if I thought it would take anything away from your children. ... I’m confident in this decision. I’m not a yes-man. I would gladly defy all six (board members) if I thought it was going to be something that was going to hurt these children.”
To replace South Campus, the school system proposes three “choice hubs” located around Johnston County, offering struggling students smaller class sizes and flexible schedules and the possibility of some online classes. Price argued this model offered students academic and mental support instead of the current model, where the second chance is seen as punishment. Price said the new model will help address students whose personal and family obligations compete with school, such as teen parents or students who work.
“Some students act out because their needs are not met,” Price said. “It’s hard to come to school at 6:45 a.m. when you have a kid at home and you can’t afford child care and have to rely on relatives to help out when they can. We have to find the problem and we have to solve that problem because punitive measures and assigning people away from a base population is not the answer.”
Price played two cartoon videos for the board, one depicting what he saw as the current model, where a fictional student is overwhelmed by the enormity of his high school. He’s late, he’s failing grades, and teachers and administrators don’t bother to dig below the surface of bad behavior and poor performance. He gets suspended for smoking and disrespecting a teacher and is referred to a model like the one Johnston just closed. In the other, the school’s administration responds to the student’s struggles with a personalized counselor, a smaller class and a flexible schedule.
At the public hearing, some criticized the notion of offering online classes to the district’s most vulnerable students, but Price said that wasn’t necessarily the case, that student ability and interests would affect how these choice models work, that some might want more online classes and others might want or need traditional teachers.
“The choice hubs will not place students at computers without access to teachers,” Price said.
Price said the schools best equipped to take on the new “choice hubs” are Clayton High School, South Johnston and Smithfield-Selma High School.