‘Innovation school district’ is an empty term for Durham

Building support for state takeover of schools

Eric Hall, superintendent of the N.C. Innovative School District, explains why he dropped two schools from consideration for state takeover and how he's trying to build public support for the program.
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Eric Hall, superintendent of the N.C. Innovative School District, explains why he dropped two schools from consideration for state takeover and how he's trying to build public support for the program.

Who wouldn’t want to teach in or have their child attend an Innovation School District? It brings to mind young, energetic teachers, brightly colored classrooms, and student engagement spilling into the hallways and corridors. Students writing until their arms are tired while other students in teams discuss texts and ideas breathlessly, while art is created all around. The truth is the word innovate is being misused. Like other words and concepts in education, words and language are contentious. We need to be as precise as possible.

The state organization and charter groups looking to take over “failing” schools hope the term innovate grasps your attention, fills your mind with images of spectacular teaching and learning and doesn’t let go. If charter school takeovers in other states and communities are an indication, it likely will. The realities that this “innovation” might bring are far more stark.

The “innovations” that the charter companies will likely employ are innovations of budget and a more stringent focus on testing. In the increasingly pressured world of “successful” and “achieving” schools, evidence of success and achievement are almost universally moving the needle, ever so slightly, up in relation to test scores. The innovation in “innovation” districts likely also means that metaphorically, the conditions on the sinking ship that is the school(s) they are taking over are so desperate that they are allowed to “throw overboard” everything not found of value by the test. This includes health, social studies, art, music, PE as well as more artistic, creative, culturally sustaining pedagogies, or ways to teach, as well as students who may be found lacking.

The state’s own innovation district website doesn’t have much to offer. It indicates that the innovative school districts are designed to “improve student outcomes in lower performing schools”; that is, raise test scores. The contracted school will have “monitored annual expectations”; that is, to see if test scores have risen. The website also indicates that the schools in the “Innovative District” will have the “opportunity to benefit from additional flexibilities often aligned with charter schools in the state,” which begs the question, if “additional flexibilities” given to charter schools can make public schools better, why aren’t they given them from the beginning? If autonomies of budget, pedagogy and some curriculum changes are needed for schools that are struggling, why are they not given to all schools?

Typically, takeovers like this move the needle a little due to the intense focus and often punitive nature of their approach to teaching. This is neither innovative nor what’s called for. What is called for is innovation that includes a heady mixture of imagination, creativity and energy. The teachers in these schools know their students. The students know and trust them. Community members, in particular the parents, have come together asking to participate in a democratic re-imagining with the state of North Carolina, but were not given enough lead time to fully gather and be heard.

Why can’t the state, if the situation is so dire that “innovation” is necessary, encourage innovation at the school-site level by taking away some restrictions on standard curricula and testing? Why not create the circumstances where teachers could innovate through shifting the school day, finding more time to develop teaching methods that are more connected to the needs of their students? Why not encourage the school to innovate, providing it the same leniency and leeway the state was willing to afford the charter company? It could be the beginning of a renewed community partnership.

This kind of innovation could lead to a democratic practice with a long and storied history called community schooling. This process allows voice to teachers, administrators, students, parents, community members and interested individuals. They are invited to take part in deep discussions about particular issues impacting the specific school these stakeholders are invested in. Glenn Elementary School was able to speak with one voice, as parents, teachers, students and school board members came together.

As Durham County school board chair Mike Lee said, “We will not allow this to define what our public schools are about. Get ready, because Durham is ready to fight.” May they fight on and may we win. Not just resistance to the Innovation District, but to gain the ability to engage in true innovation in our public schools.

Brian Gibbs is an assistant professor in the Department of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Join the debate

Join the debate on charter schools at The News & Observer’s Community Voices forum at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 30, at the N.C. Museum of History. More information can be found at nando.com/communityvoices.

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