Education

Durham schools 'will not quietly accept' possible takeover by charter school operator

Posted September 22
Updated September 25

— Two Durham County schools are on the state's shortlist of low-performing schools being considered for North Carolina's new Innovative School District, despite Durham school leaders' requests to be excluded from the program.

The ISD, formerly known as the Achievement School District, will take five struggling schools from across the state and hand them over to charter school operators, who will manage and run the schools in an effort to improve their academic performance. Two schools will be chosen this year, likely in December, and three next year.

Last week, the State Department of Public Instruction announced that it had shortened its list of schools under consideration from 48 to six. They are:

  • Durham Public Schools – Glenn Elementary
  • Durham Public Schools – Lakewood Elementary
  • Nash-Rocky Mount Schools – Williford Elementary
  • Northampton County Schools – Willis Hare Elementary
  • Robeson County Schools – R B Dean Elementary
  • Robeson County Schools – Southside Ashpole Elementary

In a statement Monday, Durham Public Schools Board of Education Chairman Mike Lee said "our school board and the Durham community will not quietly accept an experimental takeover of our schools by a charter management organization."

But just because a district asks not to participate doesn't mean it will be removed from consideration. If a school is chosen and declines to participate, by law it must close its doors and shut down.

Schools chosen for the ISD will be turned over to charter school operators, which means their local school boards will no longer have a say in the staffing, instruction or other educational matters at those schools. However, the school boards will still be responsible for maintaining the buildings, making sure they have the appropriate furniture and equipment and continuing to provide transportation for the students.

In a recent letter to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Durham Public Schools' leaders said they are already working "to design and pursue innovative strategies" to improve their low-performing schools and asked that they not be included in the ISD.

In a statement Friday, Durham Superintendent Bert L’Homme said his students "will be served best by school reforms that come with local accountability."

Lindsey Kennedy, with Friends of Lakewood Elementary PTA, says she worries qualified teachers and staff may be let go if their school is chosen for the ISD.

"We are absolutely devastated and gutted that this potential charter takeover may happen," she said. "We want local governance over our school ... We’ve made so much progress over the past couple years that I’d hate to see us lose that momentum."

Lakewood Elementary and the other five schools are being considered because their performance scores are among the lowest 5 percent in the state.

Eric Hall is superintendent of the Innovative School District and is tasked with suggesting which schools should participate. The State Board of Education will make the final determination, likely in December.

"You know, in a perfect world, it would be great of course if everybody was willing to participate," Hall said. "I think the task that I have to stick to and stay focused on is, in the end, what do we need to do to ensure the success of the students and the schools. For me that’s going to be front and center."

Hall said there seems to be "a perception that we’re converting the school into a charter school."

"We’re not doing that," he said. "What we’re doing is looking at someone who has been proven effective in helping produce strong outcomes for kids coming in as part of our district and really working with us in the local school system."

But Durham Public Schools' reaction to being considered for the ISD is not surprising. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest predicted the pushback last year, saying he expected "some turf wars" between the ISD and local school systems but said the "calculated risk" was necessary to help low-performing schools.

Hall, who became ISD superintendent in May, is hoping to avoid those turf wars and said he wants to work in partnership with local communities to help choose charter operators to take control of the schools.

"We will have a process to ensure that community voice and community representation is involved in that matching," he said. "My goal is not for us to just pick somebody from sitting here at the office based on an application. Our task is how do we look at what we know the school needs and what the values of that school community really are and match an operator that’s going to match those values."

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