After years as the lowest-performing elementary school in the state, Cook Elementary School is getting rebooted.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools officials announced a plan Tuesday to radically change operations at Cook over the next six months, promising to transform the failing school into a innovative model for urban turnaround.

“At least by our records, Cook has been the lowest-performing elementary school in the state of North Carolina for more than six years,” said Superintendent Beverly Emory. “That is despite some incredibly dedicated and committed folks who have worked very hard in that school.

“At the end of the day, all of us have to look in the mirror and say: is there a better way? Can we do better?”

Cook will reopen in August as the Cook Literacy Model School, the district’s first “innovative school.” Other schools are expected to follow, with changes expected for 10 other schools that were, along with Cook, identified as Priority Schools (or the lowest-performing five percent of Title I schools) by the federal government.

Turning Cook Elementary into the Cook Literacy Model School will require a new principal/executive director, a new staff and a new design for how instruction is delivered and the school is run.

That process begins today, with the search for a new school leader. That person will not only serve as principal, but also as executive director of a model program that incorporates researched-backed literacy strategies into every aspect of instruction. The new leader is expected to help design, implement and model the programs for others.

Interim leadership

Currently, retired administrator Constance Hash is serving as interim principal. Cook lost its principal in the fall. Knowing that change was coming to Cook, Emory said the district brought in two retired principals to split the year, rather than bringing someone on just to replace them at the end of the year.

The new leader will hire his or her own staff, starting from scratch. Current staff members can apply to be rehired, but Emory said there will be very specific criteria for teachers. Teachers with training in specific teaching methods like Orton-Gillingham or with a proven record of success with struggling readers are prime candidates.

The principal and teachers will receive a salary supplement and teachers will have an opportunity to receive performance-based bonuses, as well.

Cook staff who do not apply or are not selected will be placed elsewhere in the district, Emory said.

The proposal, announced Monday to staff, is creating some anxiety among current Cook staff and teachers. Ronda Gordon, president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators, said she has heard from a number of staff members and parents who are concerned about Cook’s future.

“Is this change really what is needed?” Gordon asked the Board of Education.

Emory said that it is. For years Cook, which is on Eleventh Street, has been plagued by high poverty rates among its students, continually high turnover among teachers and now unstable leadership. Cook has consistently performed far below average on end-of-grade tests. Last year, just 13 percent of students passed their end-of-grade math tests and 10 percent passed their reading tests. The vast majority of Cook students scored in level 1 of 5 — the lowest possible — on end-of-grade tests.

“I don’t think we’ve moved quickly enough for Cook students,” Emory said. “We do not have time to let another grade level, another group of kids not have a different level of program.”

Despite Cook’s challenges, though, it has received strong support from its families in the past. Parents pushed back hard in 2009 when the school district considered a plan to merge Cook with nearby Brunson Elementary.

The Cook community has concerns about this new plan, too. Flossie Jackson said she doesn’t think the model is fair to the current staff.

“The teachers there are doing a fantastic job,” Jackson said.

Jackson has two grandchildren and a great-grandchild attending Cook this year. It’s their first year at the school, but she says her family has been happy at Cook.

A meeting is scheduled for Cook parents tonight. Emory said she hopes to ease concerns and answer questions. She began that process Tuesday night, saying that Cook is not becoming a magnet school. The hope is not to bring in students from outside the neighborhood, Emory said, but lure back the 200 to 300 residential students who currently opt out of Cook each year.

Testing ground

Cook is the first of the federally identified priority schools that the district has announced plans for, but the other 10 schools will also require some sort of change — though not necessarily as dramatic — by the start of next school year. Those schools are Easton, Ashley, Kimberley Park, Petree and Forest Park elementary schools; Philo-Hill and Mineral Springs middle schools; Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy, Carver and Kennedy high schools. The district is receiving $1.3 million from the federal government this year and next year to implement the changes in the 11 identified schools. This comes in addition to money from the Title I program, a federal grant to support high-poverty schools.

Among the district’s struggling schools, Cook is arguably the most challenged. Emory said that’s why the district is using it as a testing ground for what she hopes will become a model for urban school turnaround.

“We picked Cook because if we can do it here, we can do it across this district,” she said. “Change is hard, but I believe with every fiber of my being that this is doable and it needs to be done in this place, at this time.”

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aherron@wsjournal.com (336) 727-4068 @ArikaHerron

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