A tale of two schools: One, taken over by the state, struggles. Another, controlled by locals, rebounds.

By: - September 12, 2019 6:30 am
Image: Adobe stock

A few short years ago, Lakewood Elementary School in Durham was a low-performing school where only one in four students was proficient in reading.

The school’s poor performance landed it on a shortlist for potential takeover by the state’s new Innovative School District (ISD) – a controversial initiative created by lawmakers in 2016 that could allow private operators to seize control of consistently low-performing public schools.

Lakewood and Glenn Elementary School, also in Durham, were among six finalists the state considered in 2017.

But ISD leaders underestimated the vigor with which Durham education and community leaders would push back.

“Durham will fight, and if you hadn’t experienced a fight about education, get ready,” Durham Board of Education Chairman Mike Lee said defiantly during one of several rallies held to protest the proposed takeovers.

Both Glenn and Lakewood were eventually dropped from ISD consideration, and much of the credit could be attributed to educators and community organizers who staged protests, and blanketed state leaders with complaints.

Poor results at sole ISD school

One school, however, did not muster much of a pushback. Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County was eventually selected for the ISD. It remains the one and only school in the fledgling district while state lawmakers sort out how future schools will be selected.

After one year under ISD, the most recent state accountability data show students at Southside-Ashpole have made few academic gains, with the exception of improvements in third-grade math. The school received a state performance grade of “F” and did not meet expected growth.

“Third-grade math did exceptionally well, and the other areas, we did not meet [expectations], but our goal is to meet [exp

(Photo by Greg Childress)

ectations] in all areas in the coming school year,” ISD Superintendent James Ellerbe told the State Board of Education last week.

The ISD and Southside-Ashpole have undergone major leadership changes in recent months. Over the summer, the ISD got a new superintendent, Southside-Ashpole got a new principal and a new president was hired to lead the private firm that manages the school. It’s unclear whether the changes were due to job performance.

School spared from program rebounds

Contrast Southside-Ashpole’s performance with that of Lakewood’s, which was granted “restart” status and charter-like flexibility. That means that while the school remains under control of the Durham County Schools, it can operate free of some of the red tape leaders of traditional public schools contend make their job more difficult.

Lakewood’s school performance grade went from an “F” to a “C” and it gained an impressive 16 percentage points in academic growth, which was the highest in the district. The school exceeded state growth expectations.

Meanwhile, grade-level proficiency jumped 17.6 percentage points, from 25.6 percent to 42.3 percent for the 2018-19 school year.

Glenn didn’t fare as well despite the district’s decision to move one of its most accomplished principals to the school a year ago. The school lost ground when it came to grade-level proficiency. It remained a “D” school and did not meet growth expectations after doing so the previous year.

Because of those achievement and growth gains, Lakewood was chosen to host the Durham Public Schools’ (DPS) press conference to celebrate the district’s accountability data.

Lee remained defiant at the press conference, calling out state leaders who support the ISD and criticizing what he described as efforts to privatize public education by turning schools over to charter management companies.

“State Board of Education, the Charter School Advisory [Board] panel, the former and present superintendents of the Innovative School District … You were wrong to think allowing an external charter company to come in and take over one or two of our schools was best for anyone.”

James Hopkins – Image: Durham Public Schools

“Hiring is everything”

Principal James Hopkins had been at Lakewood only five weeks before he found himself in a fight to stave off a possible state takeover.

“I quickly realized that this meant my entire staff was going to be the target of an experiment by the state that would completely exclude this community and district from taking action to turn this school around,” Hopkins said at the press conference.

During an interview last week at Lakewood, Hopkins discussed at length what it took to move the school from an “F” school to a “C” in such a short period.

He credited Lakewood’s rapid improvement to competent, energetic teachers who were put through rigorous interviews before being selected to work at the school.

“Hiring is everything,” Hopkins said. “Staffing is everything. We have strong teachers. They’re committed and they want to be involved. They want to give back and they’re very vocal about professional development.” 

Hopkins said the school’s young and veteran teachers provide a quality mix of educators that has led to improvements in instructional delivery and professional growth and development.  

“The young and energetic staff that we’ve been able to hire has been the spark plug for both our older staff and staff members who have been here for seven-plus years,” Hopkins said.

Restart model provides flexibility, additional resources

The school’s recent success can also be attributed to the charter-like flexibility provided under the state’s restart model, Hopkins said.

Under the restart school reform model, schools can operate free of some of the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools.

Such schools, for example, may have calendar flexibility, hiring flexibility and/or budget flexibility to use personnel and funding in a manner the principal and district think best.

“We didn’t go way outside the box,” Hopkins explained. “The district really supported us by giving us a literacy and a math coach.”

He said those coaches, along with a new testing coordinator and a full-time Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) coordinator who works with school administrators to identify and provide support for struggling students, have been game-changers.

The MTSS position isn’t a full-time position traditionally. Those duties are generally handed off to an assistant principal or school counselor.

“I made it into a full-time position, and the fruit that we’ve yielded from that has been tremendous,” Hopkins said.

Because of the restart school reform model, Lakewood also had flexibility to use a portion of its budget to hire two additional instructional assistants. The school was only allotted five, but teachers requested two more assistants.

Lakewood is a predominately Black and Latinx school located in a neighborhood that, in recent years, has drawn in more white families. 

But because of the school’s perennial low-performing status, white parents in the Lakewood School district have traditionally chosen other options such as charters, DPS magnet schools or private schools.

Hopkins, a veteran educator who has been an assistant principal at Jordan High School in Durham and, more recently, an assistant principal at Carrboro High School in Orange County, set out to change that, agreeing to meet with parents “anytime and anywhere” to share his vision.

“I’ve sat in living rooms, I’ve sat in coffee shops and I’ve sat on the steps in front of the school – talking to parents about my vision for Lakewood and how I see them as a part of this school, reflecting the neighborhood,” Hopkins said.

The approach is beginning to pay off. This year, 14 of the school’s kindergartners are white, a stark contrast from last year when the number was four.

“That’s more than the total of white students we had [enrolled in Lakewood] back in 2017-18,” Hopkins said.

About 32 of the school’s 400 students in grades K-5 are white.

The changing demographics isn’t the only thing noticeably different at Lakewood.

“Our students are walking around with their chins up, their chests out,” Hopkins said.

[Disclosure: Policy Watch Managing Editor Billy Ball has a child attending Lakewood Elementary.]

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.