In an experiment, a hypothesis is tested. In the case of the Innovative School District (ISD), the hypothesis was that some of the state’s lowest-performing schools could be improved if they were grouped into one district, given charter school-like flexibility, and turned over to the management of alternative operators.
To judge by the biennium budget passed by the General Assembly in Nov. 2021, North Carolina lawmakers must have concluded that the ISD experiment did not yield the result of improving schools, at least not in the way it was originally conceived. What other conclusion can be drawn from the fact that lawmakers put an end to the project in their two-year spending plan?
The Achievement School District bill was passed during the 2016 General Assembly short session. At the heart of the legislation was the creation of a district that would eventually include five low-performing schools from around the state that could be turned over to charter school operators.
It was originally called the Achievement School District and its first superintendent, Eric Hall, said at the time that it was modeled after similar experiments from other states that had “mixed results.”
“We have an opportunity as a state to redefine what it means in North Carolina,” Hall told the State Board of Education in 2017. But that redefinition never quite came to be.
A single school
The initial plan was that all five schools in the ISD would be up and running by the 2018-19 school year. It is now the 2021-22 school year, and there is still only one school. That is thanks to, in large part, massive resistance from some of the districts approached by the state.
The single school that was taken over as part of the ISD was Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County. And it’s been a tough journey both for the school and for the district — since its inception, the ISD has had four superintendents and the school has had three principals.
Current ISD Superintendent Ron Hargrave told the State Board of Education in Dec. 2021 about visiting a kindergarten class at Southside-Ashpole on his first day. A teacher said to him: “‘Well, you’ll be number four,’ and she was talking about the number of superintendents who’ve come through there,” he said.
Hargrave replied, “I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure you don’t need a number five, because I’m here to stay.”
But turnover hasn’t been the only issue.
The nonprofit charter organization that was running the operation was ultimately relieved of its responsibilities by the State Board of Education. You can read about the difficulties with that organization, Achievement for All Children (AAC), in NC Policy Watch here and here.
‘No common ground’
Did Southside-Ashpole improve? According to data, no.
In the first year under the ISD, Southside-Ashpole had a school performance grade score of 30 — an F — and did not meet growth for the 2018-19 school year. In 2017-18, when the school was part of the Public Schools of Robeson County, it had a score of 29 and also did not meet growth. (The COVID-19 pandemic makes further comparable data hard to come by.)
Trip Stallings, whose team conducted the external evaluation of the ISD when he was with the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, said that a single school’s performance can’t really tell us anything about how well the ISD concept might work as a multi-school turnaround program.
“Because they only had one school in three years, you can’t really use that experience to validate or disprove the ISD approach,” he said. But there are a number of issues evident from even the experience of a single school that may have weakened the ISD structurally, according to Stallings.
One issue was that the legislation that created the ISD assumed there would be a wide variety of Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) vying to manage schools in the ISD. Instead, only three CMOs applied to manage Southside-Ashpole. The State Board of Education asked all three to resubmit their original proposals and, ultimately, the revised proposal from AAC was accepted.
“The real question is, ‘Why did other CMOs not apply?’” Stallings said.
Another problem according to Stallings was the disconnect among the operator, the State Board of Education, and the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) regarding how the ISD as a program should be implemented and managed.
“For example, none of the parties really reached agreement on the question of what this ‘charter-like flexibility’ means,” he said.
As a result, a superintendent, principal, and CMO leader all tried to assert separately how the single school in the district needed to operate. This led to confusion and dysfunction, he said.
Finally, Stallings said that the remote nature of the program was a “significant handicap.” DPI, AAC, and the school were all in separate locations and remote from each other not just geographically, but also culturally.
“They didn’t see many things in the same way,” he said. “For some issues, there was no common ground.”
According to the budget, Southside-Ashpole Elementary School will continue as part of the ISD until 2023-24 at the latest, when it will be returned to the Public Schools of Robeson County.
Craig Horn, a former Republican state representative from Union County, said this is terrible news. Not because he was a big fan of the ISD — he said he wasn’t — but because it is indicative of how the General Assembly operates.
Horn, an influential legislator when it came to education, lost his seat when he ran for the state superintendent position and lost to Catherine Truitt in 2020. He was there for the inception of the ISD.
“I’m going to suggest that rather than sit down and work out the problems, it’s easier and faster to say, ‘Ok, we’re done. We’re not doing it,’” he said.
Horn had a lot of problems with the ISD program, but said that if it has failed, he hopes lawmakers have done their homework to understand why.
“If we can say that we did our homework, we actually talked to the people inside, we actually talked to parents and students, we actually made some adjustments and we’re still failing, OK, then we made an informed decision,” he said. “But my experience with the General Assembly is they don’t always make informed decisions.”
Preparing for transition
The State Board of Education heard from the current leaders of the ISD and Southside-Ashpole at the Dec. 2021 meeting.
Derrick Jordan, associate superintendent of agency schools, told the Board that efforts to improve the school are still happening.
“There is absolutely still work to be done, but there is an unwavering commitment to improving outcomes for the students at Southside-Ashpole,” he said.
And Hargrave stressed to Board members that the students in that school are “full of potential.”
“It is a school full of children who desire to be loved and desire to be taught, and they have a hunger for learning,” he said.
Freddie Williamson, superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County, said the district is ready to have the school back and is already working with the school and the ISD to prepare for a “smooth, seamless transition.”
There isn’t yet a timeline for the transition, but when Southside-Ashpole does return back to the control of Robeson County schools, State Board of Education member Olivia Oxendine said she hopes it keeps innovation a priority. She said innovation takes a long time, and whatever the ISD, or the new teachers, or new principal, or the community have done, it should continue.
“Whatever is beginning to happen called innovation, let’s carry it forward,” she said.