Updated on Nov. 11, 2019.
Low-performing schools around North Carolina are being put on notice that they need to improve their academic performance over the next few years or else they could be turned over to an outside group such as a charter school operator.
State education officials on Nov. 7 released a list of 69 schools that qualify for inclusion in the Innovative School District based on their low state test scores. The lowest performing schools that remain on the list for four years in a row are slated to be taken over by the Innovative School District, which would hire a group to run their day-to-day operations.
Forsyth County had the most schools of any district on the list at eight, followed by seven in Nash-Rocky Mount and six in Guilford County. Charlotte-Mecklenburg had four schools: Ranson Middle, Druid Hills Academy, Bruns Avenue Elementary and Allenbrook Elementary.
There were two schools in Wake County (Barwell Road and Bugg elementary schools), two in Durham (C.C. Spaulding and Fayetteville Street elementary schools) and two in Johnston County (North Johnston and Selma middle schools). There was one school in Harnett County (Wayne Avenue Elementary) and one in Iredell-Statesville (N.B. Mills Elementary).
The new list is the latest attempt to try to reshape a program that has gotten off to a rocky start.
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.
Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County is the only school in the district and 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.
State lawmakers change how schools are picked
Under state law, four more schools were to be added to the district for the 2020-21 school year. But after lobbying from the State Board of Education and State Superintendent Mark Johnson, lawmakers passed a bill that says no schools have to be added for next school year.
“We all agreed that we were not ready for another school to be entered into the ISD next school year,” Cecilia Holden, legislative director for the state board, said at Thursday’s meeting. “The General Assembly listened.”
Senate Bill 522 became law on Nov. 11 without Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature. In a letter last week to State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis, Cooper reiterated his opposition to the Innovative School District and asked that the Board prioritize in its short session budget request the supports needed to help North Carolina’s lowest performing schools improve.
“Turning over control of a public school to a private charter school operator is both bad policy and ineffective, and I am fundamentally opposed to the ISD concept,” Gov. Cooper said in his letter. “Senate Bill 522 does make some positive improvements to the ISD, including providing a way for low-performing schools to improve before being subject to take over.”
In return for not picking a school this year, the legislation will require the state’s lowest scoring school in the 2019-20 school year to be transferred to the district for the 2021-22 school year. It also requires the lowest scoring school in the 2020-21 school year to join the district the following school year.
The automatic selection comes after some communities have fought against their schools being taken over.
Senate Bill 522 also creates the new multi-year system for determining which schools will be added in the future. It also expanded the schools eligible for takeover to include middle schools and high schools.
The 69 schools identified Thursday make up the lowest performing 5% of schools in the state. If they’re still on the qualifying list after two years they’re moved to a watch list. Schools that are still on the qualifying list after three years are put on a warning list.
The five lowest performing schools that were on the warning list the previous year and were also on the qualifying list for four years in a row would be automatically turned over the Innovative School District.
James Ellerbe, the superintendent of the Innovative School District, said he had spoken to the superintendents of the 30 school districts who have schools on the list. Ellerbe said he will work with the 69 schools to try to help them improve their performance so they can get off the qualifying list.