By | August 31, 2019

By NC Policy Watch

In one-on-one interview, new Innovative School District principal admits shortcomings of Year One, expresses confidence going forward

Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in the Robeson County town of Rowland opened last August as the state’s first and only school in the new Innovative School District (ISD).

Lawmakers created the ISD in 2016 with the stated objective of helping to improve academic achievement in the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools, but the plan has sparked great controversy and met significant opposition from parents, teachers and school district leaders (most notably in Durham and Wayne Counties) that strongly and successfully resisted proposed takeovers in their areas.

It is not known yet whether Southside-Ashpole students’ performance on state tests has improved, but it is known that the school and the ISD have undergone major leadership changes over the summer.

Kenneth Bowen, an educator with a track record of success transforming low-performing schools, has replaced Bruce Major as principal of Southside-Ashpole and James Ellerbe, a N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) veteran with experience as a transformation coach, replaced LaTeesa Allen as superintendent of the ISD.

NCDPI has not shared details about the departures of Allen or Major, who was hired by Achievement for All Students (AAC), the firm the department selected to manage Southside-Ashpole.

Policy Watch learned last week there have also been leadership changes at AAC. Tony Helton, a major player in the state’s charter school movement who led the firm, resigned last month.

Helton has been replaced by former state representative Tricia Cotham, a Democrat from Charlotte who served 10 years in the General Assembly.

Policy Watch interviewed new ISD superintendent James Ellerbe in early August to discuss the changes and the future of the ISD. Here is the interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

PW: Describe what you saw on your first visit to Southside-Ashpole.

JE: I actually saw a school that has so much potential. The upkeep of the building seemed to be there. The energy from the few folks that I met, like the custodians, I think they always give you a good gauge of how a place is. They were happy to be there and liked the changes they’d seen so far, especially with culture and climate.

PW: There was initial resistance to Southside-Ashpole being brought into the ISD, but the community eventually embraced the move. Will the sudden change in principal and a new superintendent harm the progress made in that area?

JE: I don’t think it has. I have met with the leadership teams in Rowland. I’ve been down there three times, and one of the times was to meet the town hall leadership, the mayor, one of the leading pastors, the town clerk. They had questions and I was able to sit and talk with them. I think the conversation with them, because they’re leaders in the community, helped settle things. And also hiring a principal, we hired him for his skills and ability and the results he’s been able to get pertaining to student achievement, but didn’t know he [grew up] 15 miles from Rowland. He’s seen as kind of a homebody in the area.

PW: What’s your strategy moving forward? Currently, it’s one school but eventually there could be more. What’s the strategy for making ISD a success?

JE: The strategy is to get this right. There’s a lot of work involved in building an LEA (Local Education Agency or school district) – things you wouldn’t even think about like getting a tax ID number, banking accounts, the infrastructure stuff. With all the work that was done, there was little time to collaborate about curriculum and alignment and getting the strategic plan together. Our strategy is to have a strategic plan where we’re all aligned and collaborating with each other on a consistent basis. And we want to make sure to make this a model that can be replicated, especially if other schools are added on.

PW: In hindsight, do you think the ISD was launched a year or so too early?

JE: I think it might have needed more time for planning because of the fact that there were a lot of things faced that were unknowns. It’s almost like you are working in a constant sense of urgency to get things done and that tends to take you away from things you need to focus on such as the students and [academic] achievement as you’re trying to get all of the structural things done.

PW: You mentioned during your update to the State Board of Education that there was a teacher attendance problem last school year. What was going on?

JE: When you have a human being keeping up with who is present, who’s not present, you can always miss something. We need a [electronic] system where we can readily pull each and every day to see our teacher attendance. The only way I could tell we needed to improve teacher attendance is I saw how much money we were spending on substitute teachers. We’re putting in a [time and attendance] program where teachers can sign in on their phones but they have to be on the school network to do it.

PW: It would seem a program such as ISD requires great leadership and committed leadership. It also requires great teachers and committed teachers. Are you confident you have the right people in place this year?

JE: Yes, I confident. First of all, I’m confident in the leader that we’ve chosen. He has a track record for improving student achievement and to me, it’s phenomenal that he’s sometimes been able to do it in a year when it usually takes three to five years to see that needle move significantly. Through his interview and a conversation with him, and the stuff I’ve already seen him do since he started Aug. 1., I’m very confident that we have the right leader in place. And then with him coming, it’s attracted some teachers he’s had in other places that were very effective.

PW: What do you think the ISD will look like in five years?

JE: The first word that comes to mind is “partnerships.” Different states use the ISD model differently. Some of them are truly in the takeover mode. I think in North Carolina…districts have to see this as a partnership, another strategy for improving some of their low performing schools. With the legislative changes in Senate Bill 522, it becomes more transparent about how you get into the ISD. [Note: The Senate voted 43-0 this week to not concur with a House vote on SB 522. A conference committee has been created to reconcile the differences between the two bodies.] I think you’ll have less resistance because schools will have been given 3-5 years to change their outcomes before being considered for the ISD. Then as we get this blueprint right at Southside-Ashpole, I think some districts would want to partner with us. In five years, I’m thinking it will be a program where more districts would want to participate than we have the capability of handling at the time.