Politics & Government

NC won’t take over low-performing school. District has 2 years to turn things around.

Wayne County Public Schools has two years to turn around a low-performing elementary school to avoid having it be taken over by the state and potentially run by a charter school operator.

The State Board of Education voted Thursday to approve Wayne County’s request to use a state program called the “restart model” to try to turn around Carver Heights Elementary School in Goldsboro. The vote reverses the state board’s earlier decision to take over Carver Heights and add it to the state’s Innovative School District.

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 in the program this school year. The school is now managed by a company that has ties to a wealthy political donor who helped pass the law creating the program.

Carver Heights was the only school recommended to be added in 2019. Wayne County school leaders objected and warned they might close the school rather than give it up.

The state board praised Wayne County’s plan for turning around the school but said in December their hands were tied by state law.

During the December special session, lawmakers dropped the requirement that any schools had to be added in 2019 and gave Wayne County the option to use the restart model to keep control of Carver Heights.

The state Department of Public Instruction backed Wayne County’s request, noting how Patrice Faison, a former North Carolina Principal of the Year, was recently hired to run Carver Heights.

“They chose a principal who has a history of turning around low-performing schools,” said James Ellerbe, DPI assistant director of district and regional support. “She’s known as a mover and a shaker.”

The state board’s decision was applauded Friday by Wayne County school leaders.

“Yesterday’s decision was a vote of confidence in the ongoing school improvement efforts currently in place at Carver Heights Elementary,” Wayne County Superintendent Michael Dunsmore said in a press release. “I would be remiss if I did not thank our local delegation and the bi-partisan support for Carver Heights Elementary, together with our State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction.

“The recent legislative changes gave the State Board of Education the legal ability to accept our Restart application and to allow Wayne County Public Schools to retain local control of the school as we work to improve its academic trajectory.”

The restart model gives continually low-performing schools the kind of flexibility from state rules that charter schools enjoy. For instance, Carver Heights will get flexibility in how it spends money, what curriculum it teaches, the school calendar it uses and whether it wants to only hire licensed teachers.

But if Carver Heights is still among the lowest 10 percent in the state academically after the 2020-21 school year, state law says the school would be transferred to the Innovative School District.

“I am elated about the State Board’s decision,” Faison, Carver Heights’ principal, said in the district’s press release. “Since November, my teachers have stepped up to the challenge of implementing powerful changes that will turn our school around.

“While there is still much work to be done, it is validating that our efforts have garnered the support of both the North Carolina General Assembly and the State Board of Education. Through both the Board’s and the legislature’s actions over the past few weeks, Carver Heights now has the opportunity to prove to everyone that our students and staff have the ability to do great things.”

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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.