The Public Schools of Robeson County voted unanimously Jan. 9 to approve Southside Ashpole Elementary School for transfer to the Innovative School District.

Southside Ashpole will contract with a school operator for five years starting in the 2018-19 school year. At the end of the contract, the elementary school will transfer back to the school district.

“This is a real opportunity for Southside Ashpole, the Rowland community and the local school board to work together with the ISD and the school operator to help improve student performance,” Eric Hall, the ISD superintendent, says in a news release.

Legislators approved the program in 2016 and require a total of five schools to be chosen for the ISD. Two schools will be chosen next year; the last two the following year. The goal is improving school performance through awarding greater flexibility not typically afforded traditional public schools.

The ISD is in the process of choosing a school operator for Southside Ashpole. Only two education management organizations are in the running: The Romine Group and Achievement for All Children. SchoolWorks, an education consulting group, is reviewing the applications and is expected to finish evaluations between Jan. 15 and Feb. 1.

Southside Ashpole was chosen in November as the first school transferred to the ISD because of its low school performance and lack of growth. For the 2016-17 school year, Southside Ashpole had a grade level performance of 18.4 percent and has received an F for school performance for the past three years. More than 80 percent of students at Southside Ashpole are economically disadvantaged.

The Public Schools of Robeson County was given the choice of either approving the transfer or closing the school by Feb. 1.

For a moment it appeared the board would close the school when the Public Schools of Robeson County on Nov. 9 issued a joint resolution with the Robeson County Board of Commissioners denouncing the ISD.

Since then the Robeson County Board of Commissioners has said it never signed off on the joint resolution. Furthermore, with an unanimous vote approving the transfer, it appears the Public Schools of Robeson County no longer opposes the ISD.

“[W]e can now move forward with identifying and selecting a proven innovative school operator to partner with Southside Ashpole and the Rowland community to develop a school-improvement plan that is tailored to the specific needs of the school,” Hall said. “The outpouring of community support for this initiative has been incredible, and I cannot thank the Rowland community enough for engaging with the ISD.”