Politics & Government

NC is taking a low-performing school away from local control – but maybe not for long

Wayne County school fights state takeover

Wayne County Public Schools has produced a video showing why it says Carver Heights Elementary School has a plan for improving and doesn't need to be taken over by North Carolina's Innovative School District.
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Wayne County Public Schools has produced a video showing why it says Carver Heights Elementary School has a plan for improving and doesn't need to be taken over by North Carolina's Innovative School District.

The State Board of Education is taking a low-performing elementary school away from Wayne County Public Schools but is hoping to have the option to give the school back to the district instead of turning it over to an outside group.

The state board unanimously voted Thursday to put Carver Heights Elementary in Goldsboro in the Innovative School District over the objections of Wayne County school leaders who say they have a plan to turn the school around. State board members said their hands are tied by a state law that requires them to pick a school for the district by Dec. 15.

“This board does agree that by statute we have to select a school,” said state board member Amy White. “That’s something that in summary we have all expressed regret. The timeline is not a timeline that we would have planned.”

But several state board members said they’re hoping state lawmakers will approve a change in state law that would allow school districts whose schools are taken over by the Innovative School District to apply to run them. The bill passed in the House on Thursday and is scheduled to be voted on by the Senate on Monday.

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 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 that hasn’t worked well.

Southside Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County became the first school added to the Innovative School District for this school year and is now being run by a company that’s connected with a wealthy political donor who helped pass the law creating the program.

In October, leaders of the Innovative School District recommended Carver Heights over five other schools, citing issues such as how only 18.4 percent of students passed state exams last school year.

After the recommendation, Wayne County Public Schools put in place a new plan for turning Carver Heights around. Changes include extending the school day and hiring a former North Carolina principal of the year to lead Carver Heights.

Deputy State Superintendent Eric Hall acknowledged this week that they might not have recommended Carver Heights if the changes had been made sooner.

Wayne County could choose by Feb. 1 to close the school instead of turning it over to the state, something that state board members hope won’t happen because they want to continue the changes being made now to improve the school.

“I can’t envision a situation personally in which we would want anything other than what’s going on in that school happening,” said state board vice chairman Alan Duncan.

As part of the motion to take over Carver Heights, the board directed the Innovative School District “to exercise every legal, permissible avenue to respect, uphold and maintain the significant positive academic and leadership changes undertaken recently by Wayne County Public Schools.”

State board chairman Eric Davis said he’s hoping the new legislation will pass so transferring Carver Heights away from Wayne County would be the final option. The vote to pick the operator for Carver Heights will be made by February.

“If there’s anything we can do to turn this from a takeover to a full-throttle support for the board and the superintendent and the principal of that school, that’s what would in my opinion be in the best interests of our students,” Davis said.

Wayne County Superintendent Michael Dunsmore said Friday that he was encouraged by what state board members said about the district’s plan for the school. But since the legislation hasn’t passed yet, Dunsmore said closing the Carver Heights and sending students and staff to other schools in the district next school year is still an option.

“We’re running scenarios for closing the school to offer to my board,” Dunsmore said. “We’re going to be watching intently to see what the Senate will do.”

In a press release Friday, Innovative School District Superintendent LaTeesa Allen said it would be “unacceptable option” for Wayne County to close Carver Heights.

“My fear is that if the local school board decides to close Carver Heights Elementary, the students will simply be transferred to another low-performing school or get dispersed across the district, leaving some students with achievement gaps that may never get addressed,” Allen said in the press release. “Carver Heights Elementary has a unique opportunity to become a model of educational excellence for other low-performing schools.”

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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.