Q & A with the new head of NC’s controversial Achievement School District

By: - March 23, 2017 2:20 pm

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall

Eric Hall says he has education in his blood.

The soon-to-be superintendent of North Carolina’s controversial achievement school district says both of his parents were educators. His wife, meanwhile, is a public school social worker.

Hall felt compelled, it seems, to join the family business. “I’ve just always had a passion,” he told Policy Watch this week. “I see education as the great equalizer for what we can do for our young people.”

For the last four years, he’s helmed Community in Schools of North Carolina (CIS), leading an organization that boasts of remarkable successes in keeping at-risk youth in school.

CIS’ model, which focuses on both in-school support and engagement with families, is being utilized in more than 300 schools in North Carolina.

Before that, Hall served as national director of educational services at AMIkids Inc., a nonprofit that assists with youth in juvenile justice programs. There, Hall says his job involved extensive work in states like Louisiana, one of three states that attempted similar achievement school district models before North Carolina.

Members of the State Board of Education voted last week to tap the unassuming Hall for North Carolina’s politically polarizing district, which could turn over control of five low-performing public schools to for-profit charter operators. The GOP-led reform passed the N.C. General Assembly last year after school choice lobbyists and charter operators mobilized in support.

But many have noted the lackluster results and purported financial missteps of a similar district in Tennessee, as well as controversies in states like Michigan and Louisiana, as reason for concern. Hall will have the power to recommend the selected schools and a managing charter operator to the state’s top K-12 leaders.

To be sure, Hall’s new job, which he will begin in mid-May, will come with a great deal of scrutiny. This week, he sat down for an interview with N.C. Policy Watch to talk about the job and his hopes for the achievement school district.

Policy Watch: How do you see Communities in Schools’ work overlapping with that of the achievement school district?

Hall: When I think about your question, I think it goes back to partnerships. It’s about how do you partner with communities to help? How do you partner with schools? How do you engage existing resources around the schools in a way that helps students thrive? Basically removing barriers so that teachers can teach and schools can lead. Building supports around students. For me, one thing I have great hope for is being able to take that personal belief and that value of partnerships, how do we use that in a way that helps to bring some innovation in a diff way to some of our schools that just need some additional support? How do we do that? At the same time, take advantage of the opportunity to really learn from others who have gone down this path before us in other states. What things worked well and what things didn’t? Partnerships, effective practices and doing those things in a way that amplifies opportunities for those schools that we’ll be working in.

Policy Watch: What’s the time frame for launching the achievement school district and picking the schools?

Hall: I don’t know yet. I do know that, if you look at the legislation, there are some time frames that have already passed. I don’t know what I don’t yet. Other than the fact that when I start on May 16, I hope to work closely with the team at (the Department of Public Instruction) to understand what do we know about where there are challenges. What do we need to know about what’s worked well? And I’ll tell you right now, it’s really hard. I don’t have any explicit answers on when the work technically starts. What I’ve heard others say is next school year’s probably not the timing because we’re already so far into this calendar year to even think about the fall. Probably like everybody else, I will learn when the rest of us do, when I get over there and start to get familiar with what’s coming.

Policy Watch: I imagine as much. Given a component of this is the public interaction with the schools that will be selected, it seems like it would take some time to notify communities.

Hall: And there needs to be. This is about how do you have conversations with a community. To me, that’s why partnership is the key word that I stick to. I think these are local assets. These schools are a big deal in our community. It’s important that we respect that while trying to look at some innovative ways to think about how we can do the work maybe a little bit different.

Build on the things that have worked well. Maybe there are some opportunities to bring in some new ideas and to partner with the local community and a local school in a different way. Because ultimately, my end goal about this whole thing is the end user, which are kids. I want to see what we have to do to really help amplify opportunities for our young people that are in schools having some challenges.

I think in the end it’s going to be about how do we focus on the end users? It’s not about working around the adults. It’s about working with the adults involved so that we find good viable solutions for the kids that are going to be impacted. Again, personally, I’ve seen what happens when kids don’t get the opportunity to have access to a high quality education or kids that have found their ways out of school settings for whatever reason. I’ve seen those personal narratives over and over again.

For me, that really is one of my motivators. If we can put the right people in the right place at the right time using the right sets of tools, hopefully we can bring some good strong outcomes to the people that are going to be impacted by that work. I look forward to working with folks and being partners and also being a student. Because I have some things I have to learn. But I think part of that learning will be taking advantage of the time that I have when I get started on May 16 to really just listen and learn and understand and start partnering with others to really figure out that path forward.

Policy Watch: What about this model do you think is going to be effective?

Hall: That in itself is a big question. We know that there are a few places around the country that have tried similar strategies. One of the things that we have seen through this model that I think has gotten some decent traction, from what I’ve read, is the i-Zone component of the legislation. Empowering local schools as well to be able to innovate in this space.

(Note: Last year’s legislation also allows local districts participating in the achievement school district to pursue “innovation zones” or “i-Zones,” granting charter-like flexibilities for up to three low-performing schools in the district.)

The other thing about the model is it’s a way to think what are some different ways to do the work? I want to be careful because I don’t start until May 16, but I want to make sure that I take the time between now and then to really become a good student of everything that we can learn.

I think it’s important also in my role that, hopefully if anything I’ll be measured with, is the ability to listen, partner and then take that information and work with our schools in our communities to find some innovative solutions that ultimately work. Some of that stuff may already be in process with some outcomes in place and in some places there’s an opportunity to come up with some good strategies.

I think it’s just going to take time right now. It’s about being cognizant of the fact that there’s a lot that we don’t know. And that we have to be open to learning about the things that we do need to know about the challenges facing some of our schools. Sometimes there’s other strategies that need to be considered. Sometimes there’s barriers that are instructional barriers.

There might be poverty related barriers. Because we do know that in a lot of the data that we see in our low performing schools is there are high concentrations of students living in poverty. How do we pay attention to what the data tells us and then design a plan that works for that school?

Policy Watch: There have been some critics of this model. And in other states that have used this model, Tennessee being one of them, the results have been mixed. How do you go about reassuring these folks who are obviously very concerned about those results and the very idea of a for-profit organization running a public school?

Hall: Part of it is going to have to involve some good conversation. Go back and find out what is the best fit for that local community. You mentioned some of the work and research from Tennessee. What excites me the most about this opportunity for our state is: It’s the opportunity to think about, yes we can learn from other states, but we also have to look at are we going to be bold enough in our state to design some things that maybe don’t look like what other states have done? In other words, are we willing to push the boundaries a little bit and think about innovations in a different way?

My hope is in the end this is about cracking the door open on some conversations that help us think more broadly of the educational challenges and some of the disparities that are facing some of our young folks and really partnering in a different way. So that’s my hope when I think about this work. How do we crack that door open to conversation that really allows us to think about some innovations? And recognize, right now, I haven’t had one of those conversations yet with a local school district.

I don’t know or anticipate what that may or may not look like, but I think anybody that knows me, will tell you that my ultimate focus is going to be on the students that are going to be the end users. I take a great sense of responsibility in that. When you have to look at young people who have been facing things that some of us just can’t imagine, it can motivate you real quickly to work with others to find some solutions that will help. That’s my motivator.

I want to find something within this whole context of what the ASD will look like and the legislation and the opportunity that lies ahead. I want to engage in conversations that helps us to find solutions that may be different than any place that’s done this anywhere else in the country. Because I’m not sure, in general, when you look across the country and there have been so many different things that have been attempted, there is a lot of research about there about things that work and things that don’t. This is where I want to see us chart our own path in North Carolina that allows us to find solutions that work in the context of our state and our communities.

Policy Watch: What do you say to those folks who see the numbers in Tennessee and the controversies in other states that attempted similar models? What do you say to those folks to convince them we should do this work?

Hall: One of the things that came from that work is it helped people unfreeze some of their thinking about what are some of the strategies that we can maybe look at some things differently. But I think the bigger thing that came from that is while those areas might have had their own challenges and their own unique set of outcomes, those outcomes are very context-dependent. Those are the outcomes they generated in their space.

My hope is that here in North Carolina we will learn from those lessons, look at the work that’s been done. I take my role very serious in being a student in this space. Do everything in my power to find out the things that worked very well and then how do we create some new strategies that work to offset some of the things that maybe didn’t work in the other models.

But I think it’s too early to give anybody too much detail until I get in there and understand the realities that we’re going to be facing. That’s the nice thing about research. Now we’ve got this massive resource that we can go to and we can look at online studies and we can look at publications. We can look at data. What does it tell us? Use that information to make good informed decisions in our context. Replicate the things that maybe worked well and re-envision those things that didn’t.

Policy Watch: How do you make the case to parents that are going to be in these five schools? Certainly, there were reports of very angry parents in places like Memphis when the achievement school district absorbed their school.

Hall: First thing I want to make sure that we do is we have to listen to parents. Again, these are local assets. We have an obligation to those communities. We have an obligation to those parents. We have an obligation to those students to get this right. I think the nice thing I really do appreciate about our version of the ASD compared to other states is that our version is not written to be this massive district right out of the chute.

We’ve committed to taking this very slowly.  In the first year, it’s two schools, and by the second year, it will be up to five schools. But there’s a commitment to taking this slow and making sure that we really get this right. That again gives me great comfort that we’re saying as a state in the legislation that was put out, this isn’t about doing something real quick. This is about taking our time and getting this correct.

I think those voices are going to be critical, the voices that you’re mentioning, the parents in the local communities. There’s going to have to be conversations locally, not just because it’s indicated in the legislation. It’s because it’s the right thing to do. You have to talk to parents. You can’t talk about providing choices but not allow parents the opportunity to engage in a conversation about how we best meet the needs of their students in a free and appropriate public education. I think the parent’s voices are going to be very big in this conversation. The obligation that we have is: How do we find the very best partner available to come in and work with those schools and work with those communities to come in and do what we’re saying we’re going to do?

Policy Watch: What are your priorities going to be in choosing a charter operator to manage the schools?

Hall: One is really trying to look at proven success. I think having a track history of success and achievement and being able to work in these spaces. Again, the nice thing about this is that now because other states have gone into this work, we now at least have a portfolio that we can look at and say who are some other folks that have done this work really well?

Who are the local communities in those states? Were they able to build a good strong culture in the school? Being able to engage families and parents and community members in a meaningful way. Being able to partner with the local district because, again, there are still assets going in locally into this work.

I would say that part of that is going to be what do we know about the schools, once we get to that point. What are the dynamics within those communities and within those schools that we need to consider? Context matters. It’s about finding the right partner and finding the right fit and working together to find the best solution. We don’t want to get this wrong. I want to make sure we get this right.

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.