Big questions regarding capacity, connections plague Innovative School District contractor

By: - April 4, 2018 5:30 am

State Board of Education expected to approve controversial group for Robeson school takeover this week

When North Carolina’s top school board meets this week, it will consider the fate of an ethically knotty contract for the takeover of a struggling Robeson County elementary school.

That’s because members of the State Board of Education are expected to vote on a state official’s recommendation to award the job to Achievement for All Children (AAC), a Charlotte-based organization with very limited experience and very deep ties to the North Carolina General Assembly, the state’s burgeoning charter school movement and a powerful school choice lobbyist.

Keith Poston, Public School Forum

“The selection of Achievement for All Children was literally the least surprising announcement that we’ve had,” says Keith Poston, president of the nonpartisan Public School Forum of N.C. “I think everyone felt like it was going to happen, regardless of who applied.”

AAC’s leadership includes Rob Bryan, a former state lawmaker and current UNC Board of Governors member from Charlotte who shepherded the takeover district’s creation in the General Assembly two years ago. It also includes a former state charter adviser, Tony Helton, as well as other influential UNC board members such as Philip Byers and school choice advocate Darrell Allison.

Both Helton and Byers, meanwhile, are leaders in TeamCFA, a charter school network behind 13 North Carolina schools. A third AAC board member, Clinton Miller, also has business ties to TeamCFA, which was founded by wealthy, Oregon donor John Bryan (no relation to Rob Bryan). As Policy Watch reported, John Bryan lobbied the General Assembly for the takeover program, dubbed the Innovative School District (ISD).

The ISD is a controversial effort that hopes to boost performance in some of North Carolina’s lowest-performing schools, the lion’s share of which are located in poverty-riddled communities.

Poston, whose nonprofit is a longtime leader in K-12 policy and research in North Carolina, told Policy Watch this week that the optics of naming AAC for the job are “terrible.”

The ISD will launch this year with one school in Robeson County, but state leaders plan to recommend two or three more for takeover by outside groups—including, potentially, for-profit groups—later this year. State law authorizes up to five schools, selected from among the lowest-performing in North Carolina.

State board members chose Southside-Ashpole in December following an often bitterly contentious selection process. The operator would oversee management and staffing in the beleaguered school for a five-year term, starting this fall, managing more than $2.1 million dollars in public money each year.

They’ll be expected to lead a K-5 school in a remarkably diverse, yet high-poverty community. State records show 48 percent of Southside-Ashpole students are Black, while another 35 percent hail from Native American families. About 87 percent of the school’s students are considered “economically disadvantaged.”

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall told Policy Watch Tuesday that he made his March recommendation for an operator after a third-party consultant, Massachusetts-based School Works, vetted the two applicants, the nonprofit AAC and The Romine Group, a for-profit outfit headquartered in Michigan.

“We tried to make sure we understood all that we could about these two organizations,” said Hall.

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey said Tuesday that he plans to support Hall’s referral. “They have a good track record and I have a lot of respect for Rob Bryan,” said Cobey. “I believe that their intentions are good and they only want what’s best for the children.”

Yet School Works’ appraisals of both organizations were less than stellar. While the consultant complimented the groups’ intentions, the reviews cited myriad issues involving vague lesson plans, initiatives for special-needs children, questionable budgeting and, perhaps most of all, limited evidence that either could pull off a transformation in a struggling, high-poverty school like Southside-Ashpole Elementary.

School Works even questioned the eligibility of AAC—which formed only last year—under state law, which calls for an operator with a “record of results” improving low-performing schools. AAC’s contract hinges upon its entangled relationship with TeamCFA.

And while AAC turned over a memorandum of understanding to solidify its relationship with TeamCFA, the independent evaluation expressed concerns about assessing a track record based upon that arrangement, also pointing to TeamCFA’s own “mixed” results with low-performing students.

Perhaps the evaluation’s sharpest criticism came in School Works’ assessment of AAC’s plan for “at-risk” children, slamming the group’s limited budget for psychological services, scant details on its capacity to work with English language learners and its overall ability to boost performance for students with disabilities.

It’s a key point. According to state records, roughly 18 percent of Southside-Ashpole’s 230-plus students would be classified as “exceptional children,” which includes children with disabilities and English-language learners if they’re being served by the program.

AAC’s assessment

Helton, AAC’s CEO, declined comment until after this week’s state board vote. But, in an interview Tuesday, Hall said he believes his recommendation is a fair one, arrived at by a “rigorous” vetting process. Hall also complimented both applicants for their responsiveness to School Works’ concerns.

“I wouldn’t bring any recommendation that doesn’t meet those qualifications” in the law, said Hall.

Meanwhile, if there are any concerns with the group’s extensive connections to state movers and shakers, Hall said members of the State Board of Education haven’t expressed any concerns to him.

Hall added that the most important point of the process may come when the operator chooses a principal to lead the school this year. “That’s when the rubber meets the road,” he said.

Yet public school advocates have been bitingly critical of the takeover district since North Carolina lawmakers approved its creation two years ago, pointing to the lackluster performance of similar efforts in Tennessee, Michigan and Louisiana.

Poston said Achievement for All Children’s selection isn’t likely to quell those criticisms.

“I don’t doubt that there are well-intentioned folks involved that want to do a good job,” said Poston. “But this is state money that’s supposed to be turning around low-performing schools. I just don’t see that this is a formula for success.”

Poston called the third-party evaluation and its numerous criticisms of AAC “shockingly bad.”

[Tweet ““Their track record alone should have been enough to sink this application…”]

“Their track record alone should have been enough to sink this application before you even get to the troubling connections,” he said. “In reading the evaluation, it’s hard to come away with any sort of confidence that Achievement for All Children has any idea what they’re going to do at the school.”

But Hall said he’s “confident” that the state program can partner with AAC after this year’s third-party evaluation. “In the end, we’ve had a pretty strong process.”

Cobey says he has faith in Hall’s recommendation. “I believe that they’ve been vetted well enough,” he said.

Hall said he hopes to generate more than two applicants for the program’s next schools, which will be selected in late 2018.

The State Board of Education is scheduled to meet beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday and at 9 a.m. Thursday.

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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.