NC took over a school and gave it to a charter school operator. Test scores dropped.

More schools may be taken over by the state’s Innovative School District, even as a new report showed flat test scores and a variety of problems at the only school now in the controversial program.

Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County ended the program’s first year with an “F” grade, not meeting academic growth and a drop in the percentage of students passing state exams. Some of the schools that fought to stay under local control have higher grades now than Southside, according to a report presented Wednesday to the State Board of Education.

But speakers said Wednesday that they realize it will take time to make meaningful change at Southside or any of the low-performing schools that are added.

“We wish it were a glowing report,” said state board member Amy White. “You can see the glass half full or you can see it half empty. We can see it as an opportunity for improvement, for advancement, for the betterment of the students that are at that school and for any other school that might be added.”

The Innovative School District was created by Republican state lawmakers in 2016 to take up to five low-performing elementary schools away from local school district control and turn them over to an outside group to run.

Supporters of the program say it’s a way to help raise student achievement. But critics say the model, which has been used in other states, is a way to privatize education.

More schools could be added

Under state law, four more schools have to be added to the district for the 2020-21 school year. A list of 12 schools being considered for takeover (none in the Triangle) was released in September.

State board members and State Superintendent Mark Johnson met Wednesday with state lawmakers to ask them to approve a delay in selecting any new schools this year.

District leaders are delaying recommending new schools for inclusion in hopes state lawmakers will approve changes in the next two weeks. White said that a delay in adding more schools will give the district more time to work on the model at Southside before expanding.

“We’d like the opportunity for this to be successful and we need the chance to go back to the drawing board and get it right,” White said.

Southside Ashpole in Rowland became the first and still only school in the new district in the 2018-19 school year. The school is now managed by Achievement For All Children, a charter school operator that has ties to a wealthy political donor who helped pass the law creating the program.

N.C. State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation was hired to evaluate the program.

“This is not an evaluation of the ISD itself based upon the data that was collected,” said James Ellerbe, superintendent of the district. “But it is about the implementation of support to Southside Ashpole.”

Test scores ‘flat’

The report says academic performance “appears to have changed little from performance over the four preceding years.” The school’s passing rate on state exams dropped from 20.2% to 19.8% last school year.

The report notes that most of the five other schools that had been finalists for takeover have seen gains in academic performance, with four no longer having “F” grades.

One of the schools that fought takeover was Lakewood Elementary School in Durham, which now has a “C” grade.

The latest state results showed one-year gains in math proficiency but drops in reading. But the report says much of the overall boost in math performance came from the performance of 3rd-grade students — more than 20% of whom weren’t at Southside the prior year.

The school faced challenges such as having lost time due to Hurricane Florence.

New math and reading curricula were introduced last school year, which teachers said provided students with the structure they needed, according to Trip Stallings, director of policy research at the Friday Institute. But teachers also said the curricula didn’t cover some North Carolina standards, forcing them to adjust lessons.

Ellerbe said changes were made this year to align the curriculum with state standards. He also said that there’s been more than 50% turnover in teachers for this school year as they brought in educators who are “effective in the classroom.”

Behind the scenes, the report says rifts developed between the principal and some faculty, which were due in part to the significant leadership changes in the district. In the past two years, the program has seen three superintendents, two principals and two different people running Achievement For All Children.

“Let’s just peel back the cover and be honest that really successful turnaround requires cooperation and understanding across all leadership entities,” Stallings said. “We did not have that last year, simply put.”

Ellerbe said changes have been made to work closer with Achievement For All Children this year.

But the report found some positives, such as teachers being happy about getting more resources than when they were part of the Robeson County school system. Teachers also talked about how parents are now more involved in the school.

Stallings said the groundwork for improvement has been laid.

“Successful turnaround does take time,” he said.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.