Big changes are on the way for some low-performing schools across North Carolina, but they won’t happen in Johnston County.
That’s welcome news for parents, teachers and administrators at Selma Middle School, which was included in a list of 48 low-performing schools that could be turned over to charter school operators. They said taking the school away from the Johnston County system would be the wrong move.
A narrowed-down list of six schools was released last week, and Selma Middle wasn’t on it.
“We are owning our issues. We are working on it,” said Eddie Price, deputy superintendent of Johnston County Public Schools. “It doesn’t make sense for somebody from the outside to come in and get to know what we already know. It would delay the work a year and there’s no need for that.”
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Next year, five N.C. schools that rank in the lowest 5 percent will be taken away from their districts and handed over to a charter school operator as part of the state’s new and controversial Innovative School District. Supporters of the new program say the change will breathe new life into struggling schools, but critics argue traditional public schools should remain under local control.
All schools included as candidates for the program consistently test poorly and include all or part of grades K-5. Selma Middle meets the requirements because it enrolls fifth-graders.
“We need to let them handle this on the local level and see what they can do,” said Bridgette Dawes, a mother of two fifth-grade students at Selma Middle. “If they fail, come step in. But we are not at the point.”
Last year, Johnston Superintendent David Renfrow tasked district officials with assessing student achievement, growth and the public perception of each school. They collected numerical data, interviewed staff, held meetings with community leaders and hosted “kitchen table” talks with parents in school cafeterias.
The study revealed that students at Selma Middle face significant challenges, including issues outside of school like poverty and difficult home environments. While student proficiency levels remain low, growth rates for students are steadily rising, which Price believes is a more accurate measure of a school’s effectiveness.
Administrators began tackling the problems of Selma Middle before the school year began last month. Price said he doubts a charter organization could do better than his local team.
“We’ve spent a year to try to unite the stakeholders,” Price said. “It doesn’t make sense to start that process over again.”
The plan to bring Selma Middle up to scratch includes a new principal, better communication between the school and families, meaningful community involvement and applying for the state’s Restart school improvement model.
Had Selma Middle applied for Restart last year, it would have automatically been excluded from consideration for the Innovative School District, but local leaders wanted to wait to apply until their assessment was complete.
Principal Chris Germanoski said his main goal is to increase community involvement, which he and Price agree is crucial in implementing any reform model.
“If we are going to restart this school, we don’t need somebody else who doesn’t know anything about the community,” Germanoski said. “If they can’t prove that they’ve got a better way to do it, then why can’t we do it the way that makes sense to us? Who knows what’s better for the community than the community?”
The Innovative School District, originally dubbed the Achievement School District, has been controversial from the start. Other states have adopted similar programs with mixed results. Democrats and the N.C. Association of Educators criticized the plan when it was first proposed in 2016.
North Carolina’s plan has drawn fire from multiple counties around the state, including Durham, which still has two schools on the list.
Despite concerns, proponents of the Innovative School District have high hopes. Eric Hall, superintendent of the district, said the Innovation Zones component will allow struggling schools near an Innovative School to operate under the existing leadership but with charter-like flexibility.
Charters schools receive public funding but do not face some of the requirements of traditional public schools, including offering transportation and meals.
“I’m extremely excited about the possibilities of the Innovation Zones,” Hall said. “That’s where I really think we have the opportunity to lift up other schools. It will free up local districts to think of new ways to handle their challenges.”
Hall said his goal is to create partnerships between local communities and the charter organizations chosen to run their schools, but he knows some areas are deeply opposed to the Innovative School District.
“My task is to stay focused on the students,” Hall said. “The common denominator is that we all want students to achieve. We have to keep them front and center in this conversation.”
Price, the Johnston County deputy superintendent, said Selma Middle should have never been considered for the program.
“Let us implement our plan and come back in three years,” he said. “If we’re still in the same boat, then we’ll turn it over, but now it would be counterproductive. We have a plan. Let us get it started.”
Autumn Linford writes story out of Johnston County for The News & Observer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.