In 2009, North Carolina took unprecedented action and intervened into Halifax County schools – an entire system so low-performing that Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning slapped his “academic genocide” label on it. I wrote then that the action offered an opportunity: With the state providing the right tools and support, Halifax could become an incubator for strategies on improving student learning statewide – especially for students living in poverty.
The process hasn’t been easy. Just last year, Halifax schools were still struggling mightily for a turnaround – so much so that one county commissioner declared himself “disgusted” with the system. Halifax’s 2011 test scores showed signs of progress, but they were still so bad that nearly half of North Carolina’s 13 lowest performing schools that year were in Halifax County. Those six schools also represented more than half of the 11 schools in the high-poverty, northeastern N.C. district.
This year, things were different. So different as to warrant applause – and maybe emulation. Three Halifax schools still made the low-performing list. There were 15 statewide – including two in CMS. But most Halifax schools made great progress, especially its two high schools.
Last year the passing rate for Southeast Halifax High went from 28 percent to 34 percent, and Northwest’s rate stayed flat at 44.8 percent. This year, the passing rate at Southeast took a big leap – to 68.9 percent. Northwest’s rate jumped to 60 percent.
Last week, State Superintendent June Atkinson called the change “remarkable,” noting that it reflected “a positive shift in school culture” across Halifax County and that it showed “a state-local partnership can benefit schools and students.”
The partnership does indeed seem to be paying off. But make no mistake, this was a coerced partnership.
In 2009, Judge Manning, who is overseeing a N.C. Supreme Court ruling over the state’s failure to provide students their constitutionally mandated sound, basic education, all but told the state to step in. He wrote Bill Harrison, chairman of the State Board of Education, and bluntly stated there was “... irrefutable evidence of a complete breakdown of academics in Halifax County Public Schools… This is academic genocide and must be stopped.”
Days later, Gov. Bev Perdue announced a state intervention plan that required intensive state oversight and support including rigorous coaching of Halifax teachers and principals. The school day and instructional time were lengthened, and curricula and teaching methods were overhauled. Last year, “significant changes in personnel” took place – translation, some ineffective educators were fired. It was likely a combination of factors, and not simply personnel changes, that brought better results. The tie between strategies and results is worth concerted study and analysis. The state should keep providing support beyond its three-year mandate to sustain and improve results.
CMS should take particular note of what’s happening in Halifax, especially as it rolls out its public-private partnership through Project LIFT to boost westside schools. Test scores and graduation rates show there has been progress system wide. But the system made some unwise choices that showed up on pass rates this year. West Charlotte and Harding highs are two problematic examples. Their pass rates plunged this year.
The performance of new PreK-8 schools – created when CMS closed several inner-city schools – also offer reasons for concern. One is on the state’s low performing list; others continue to struggle and most still have pass rates below that of most traditional CMS elementary schools.
Halifax’s turnaround effort already has some lessons to share: It shows that improvement takes time – both patience and perseverance are needed. But it also shows that the path to success often means taking corrective action mid-stream to get the right results.
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