For five elementary schools in North Carolina, this school year will be the last in which they are part of the local school systems that built them.

The State Board of Education will spend this year planning for the state’s new Achievement School District, in which five low-performing elementary schools will be targeted for takeover by charter school operators.

One of those schools very well could end up being in Forsyth County.

“Absolutely,” said Beverly Emory, superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. “I would imagine… there would be some look our way.”

Based on last year’s state performance scores, Forsyth County is home to as many as eight of North Carolina’s lowest performing elementary schools and could be looked at for inclusion in the ASD. The state will choose five elementary schools, each from a different district and each performing in the bottom five percent on the state’s grading scale — based mostly on state test scores.

The bill, signed into law last month, calls upon the State Board of Education to hire a superintendent for the new district and select five schools for the ASD pilot in 2017. Once selected, a district can either relinquish that school to the state — and, eventually, the charter management operator selected to run it — or close the school.

Of the eight Forsyth County schools performing in the lowest five percent of elementary based on 2014-15 scores, at least four those currently meet additional criteria laid out for ASD eligibility. Cook, Ashley, Easton and Kimberley Park elementary schools were among those identified last school year as federal priority schools and already have turnaround plans in place that could keep them out of the ASD mix.

Awaiting test scores

Test scores for the 2015-16 school year won’t be released until next month and could affect which schools are eligible for the ASD. Schools that improve their test scores enough to pull themselves out of the bottom five percent of elementary schools in the state won’t be eligible for the ASD.

It’s unlikely, though, that Forsyth County will have moved all its school out of that group. Diggs-Latham, Gibson, Hall-Woodward and Middle Fork elementary schools could potentially be eligible without a change in their performance. Several other Forsyth County schools could fall into play with a slip in their place among the rest of the state’s elementary schools.

Because the state has about 1,350 elementary schools, the bottom five percent is right around 67 schools. Based on the data for the 2014-15 school year, Forsyth County’s eight are among the most per district. Robeson County and Durham Public schools also had as many as eight elementary schools in that group.

Emory said she hopes the district’s aggressive moves to make improvements at places like Cook Literacy Model School, which will open Monday for the first year of its “restart” with a new staff and curriculum, will convince the state to look elsewhere for schools to take over.

“The first motivation for making some changes as we have is that we want better outcomes for our kids,” she said. “But it certainly wasn’t lost on me that we need to be aggressive and try to get ahead of this, to demonstrate the kinds of things we’re trying to do different in an effort to not have a school chosen.”

‘Not going to accept failing schools’

One of the bill’s primary sponsors said those kinds of efforts are what the bill was intended to encourage. Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, said school’s targeted for takeover should be from those districts that have chronically failing schools and haven’t taken steps to address the problem. Brockman co-sponsored the bill with Mecklenburg County Republicans Rob Bryan and John Bradford.

“If you don’t like it, do everything you can to turn around your low-performing schools,” Brockman said. “We’re not going to accept failing schools.”

Emory said she hopes the district isn’t included in the ASD, but will cooperate if one of its schools is chosen. The final decision would be up to the Board of Education, but Emory said she wouldn’t expect any school to be closed.

“I think we would have to always keep the kids in mind,” she said. “No matter who runs the school these are our kids.

“What do we need to do to make sure kids and families are best served by that scenario?”

Achievement school districts are not a North Carolina invention. The state’s plan is similar to one that’s been in place in Tennessee for three years now. New Orleans and Michigan also have their own versions of achievement school districts.

No guarantee of success

While states across the country are looking for ways to improve struggling schools, achievement school districts’ ability to do so is still an open question according to a leading researcher on the topic. Gary Henry, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, has studied the Tennessee model. With three years’ more data, Henry said the only significant improvements have come from the low-performing schools left in the hands of the school districts.

“There is no data that suggests that ASD-type schools operating as neighborhood schools are able to do the kinds of turnaround required in these chronically low-performing schools,” Henry said.

Part of the problem, Henry said, is that successful charter schools have often benefited from the choice aspect of their model — meaning they’re only serving students who best fit their model.

That will not necessarily be the case when a charter management organization takes over an existing neighborhood school.

In Tennessee, it’s created problems for schools being able to provide adequate services and ASD schools have struggled to recruit and retain successful, experienced teachers.

Henry spoke to North Carolina legislators working on the bill and said they are aware of such pitfalls, though its difficult to build safeguards against them into the bill.

Tennessee’s ASD schools saw virtually no statistically significant improvements in the first three years. Schools in “iZones,” those run by school districts but with the kind of regulatory flexibility usually reserved for charter schools have seen statistically significant — and, in some cases, major — gains in student achievement.

The improvements seen in Tennesee’s iZones was not lost on North Carolina’s legislators.

Districts that give up a school to the ASD will be able to create their own “innovation zone” and will be afforded charter-like flexibility for up to three other schools.

“We’re using every tool in the toolbox,” Henry said.

Critics see the move as another way to strip resources from public schools and move toward privatization, but supporters say too many schools have been failing kids for too long. It’s time to try something new, said Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, who voted in favor of the bill in the Senate.

“Too many North Carolina children have been trapped in failing schools,” she said.

“The Achievement School District is going to give our local districts a different tool to try to improve their academic performance.

“I just hope it works.”

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