As the Innovative School District’s first and only school, Southside Ashpole Elementary has a lot to live up to in terms of academic progress. An early evaluation of the inaugural school shows much work is needed.
During a meeting Wednesday, Oct. 2, the State Board of Education discussed the ISD Evaluation: Year 1 Report. ISD Superintendent James Ellerbe and Trip Stallings, director of Policy Research at N.C. State University’s Friday Institute, presented on the report.
Ellerbe said the report is in no way an evaluation of the ISD program, but rather a look at how the program has been implemented at Southside Ashpole.
The evaluation covered more than academic growth and achievement. It also looked at learning conditions, student behavior, school-community engagement, and school culture.
Southside Ashpole’s academic performance didn’t significantly improve since joining the ISD. School performance grades, released in September, showed Southside Ashpole received a 30, or an F. The school failed to meet growth. Immediately before joining the ISD, Southside Ashpole had a 29 and failed to meet growth.
The ISD — originally called the Achievement School District — places the lowest-performing schools in the state under management of charter or education organizations for five years. The goal is to improve school performance through awarding greater flexibility not typically afforded traditional public schools.
Southside Ashpole was selected as the first ISD school in November 2017 because of its low academic performance and failure to meet growth. Achievement for All Children, a charter management organization, was chosen to run Southside Ashpole.
Under the ISD, Southside Ashpole’s student academic performance has remained relatively flat. Some math scores improved. But, Stallings said, it’s unclear whether the change is because of improvements in math instruction at the school or because of differences in grade-level populations.
Achievement for All Children implemented new mathematics and language arts curriculums at Southside Ashpole. The new curriculums use Common Core Language Arts and Eureka Math. Stallings said some students weren’t prepared for the switch and had trouble adjusting. Most teachers said they liked the new curriculums and thought they provided structure, but didn’t fully cover the N.C. standards.
Ellerbe said the school is working to align the new curriculums to the N.C. standards and provide instructional walkthroughs for teachers to get more comfortable with the changes.
New student behavior policies and procedures also proved challenging for some older students and teachers. A few teachers took it upon themselves to implement their own rules in their classrooms, which, Stallings said, was a problem.
Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said the accountability results should be the start, not the end, of the discussion about the ISD and Southside Ashpole.
“The school turnaround process is not instantaneous, nor is it effortless,” Stoops said. “Stakeholders understand that it will take a few years and a lot of hard work to improve the school culture at Southside Ashpole.”
Stoops said the most worrisome finding was an apparent division between staff and leadership. The report noted rifts between the school’s principal and some faculty members.
LaTeesa Allen, a former ISD superintendent, resigned at the end of June. No explanation was given for her departure. Bruce Major, the school’s principal, left in July. Achievement for All Children published a news release following his resignation. It said Major wanted to “return his focus to international education and has accepted a position abroad.”
“Changes to school and ISD leadership should go a long way to addressing that shortcoming,” Stoops said.
Stallings said the ISD should encourage operators to pursue bolder, more comprehensive academic changes, and to prepare annual school-level reports. The ISD should set realistic expectations for success, increase pre-opening planning time for operators, and establish clear roles for partners.
Board member Amy White said people can choose to view the report in a glass half-full or half-empty scenario. Either way, it’s an opportunity for improvement, White said.
Current law requires four schools to join the ISD for 2020-21 school year. White said the board wants the General Assembly to give it more time.
“We would like there to be a pause. We felt that the data presented earlier today shows that there are many opportunities for improvements,” White said.
Senate Bill 522 would give the state education board more time and flexibility in choosing schools for the program. The bill has been assigned to a conference committee, allowing lawmakers to work on a legislative compromise.