Sole school in controversial Innovative School District renewed for another year

By: - July 10, 2020 5:00 am


NC State evaluators warn, however, of basic problems in the program’s structure

Buoyed by a favorable independent evaluation and positive feedback from teachers and parents, the leadership at Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County likely will remain in place despite reported tension between the school principal and the superintendent of the Innovative School District. 

Southside, which is in the town of Rowland, is the lone school in the state’s controversial ISD. The district was created by state lawmakers in 2016 with a goal to improve academic outcomes at low-performing schools. 

On Wednesday, State Board of Education officials declined comment on the reportedly toxic relationship between Southside principal Kenneth Bowen and ISD superintendent James Ellerbe. The two men have butted heads over Bowen’s management of the school, at which just under 250 students are enrolled.

Bowen remains the school’s director with a little more than a month left before schools are scheduled to reopen. 

Policy Watch obtained an unsigned, confidential letter last month addressed to the State Board of Education that cited numerous instances in which Achievement for All Children, the school’s management firm, allegedly failed to meet deadlines for reports that are contractually mandated. 

Bowen is employed by AAC and is the firm’s vice president, in addition to serving as principal at Southside. AAC is led by former state legislator Tricia Cotham, a Democrat from Charlotte. 

According to the letter, the firm reportedly failed to submit a proposed budget due May 1 and an annual financial audit that was due Oct. 15, 2019. Nor, says the letter, did AAC submit a compliance report for the district’s Exceptional Children’s Program or make requested corrections to COVID-19 staff work logs. 

Kenneth Bowen

But a favorable report produced last month by the Friday Institute at N.C. State University, an independent research organization hired to evaluate the program, indicates that teachers, students and parents are more content under Bowen’s leadership than they were under that of former principal Bruce Major, who resigned suddenly and without public explanation a year ago. 

The evaluators surveyed educators, parents and students about their experiences at Southside in its second year as an ISD school. “More parents agreed in Year 2 that they felt comfortable talking to administrators and teachers than they did in Year 1,” the evaluators wrote.  

Seventy-nine percent of parents agreed last fall that the school provided clear information about what their children were learning in school. That sentiment was expressed by 86% of parents in the spring. 

Meanwhile, teachers reported “positive changes” in school culture due to a shift to a “family-oriented” environment; a higher level of positivity among staff and students; and a change in the school administration’s organization, openness, visibility, and communication. 

Staff also said student discipline improved at Southside

Overall, staff believed that student discipline improved at Southside-Ashpole in Year 2, with some of that improvement attributable to a new approach to discipline. The report quotes an unnamed teacher saying, “[L]ast year, [misbehaving students] might just be in the office, just sitting, instead of having instruction going on. You don’t see that [this year]. . . . You don’t see students in an office, you don’t see them being bounced constantly to somebody else’s room to just sit for the whole day.”

The report also attributed an improvement in student behavior to a larger proportion of younger pupils who were new to Southside-Ashpole and its expectations under the ISD.

Students reported that they enjoyed going to school and believed they are treated fairly and with respect more so than last year. 

“I’m drawing a quick conclusion that things must be much better in terms of culture, leadership and the academic piece, compared to year’s past,” said state board member Olivia Oxendine, who resides in Robeson County and lives near the school. 

The evaluation and required annual report to the General Assembly, however, doesn’t include state testing data that would ordinarily be used to measure students’ academic growth. Those tests weren’t given this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Gov. Roy Cooper to close schools for in-person learning in mid-March. 

Dr Trip Stallings (Photo:

Trip Stallings, an evaluator with the Friday Institute, said it’s been challenging to “think through” how to evaluate the ISD with only one school, one operator — Achievement for All Children — and just one year of data. 

“That’s not enough to evaluate the impact of a policy,” Stallings said, echoing sentiments expressed last year.     

Evaluators didn’t directly address the friction between Bowen and Ellerbe but did note that the ISD structure has led to “untenable tensions across leadership levels.”     

“There remains a persistent disconnect between what the Operator and the state see as an ISD school’s defined flexibilities — a disconnect that is likely to persist as other Operators join the ISD,” the evaluators wrote. 

The ISD operates with charter-like flexibility, meaning that it’s free of some rules and regulations that govern traditional schools. Charters, for example, have flexibility as to how they spend their budgets, who to hire and what curricula to use. 

A source close to the situation who did not want to be identified in this story said that many of the problems between Bowen and Ellerbe are due to disagreements over such flexibilities. 

Stallings told the SBE that similar tension existed between the principal and ISD during the first year of operation and that they continued through in the second year despite a new principal and new ISD director. “That to me indicates to me that it’s not about individual people; it’s about the structure,” Stallings said.  

He said the board is aware of the challenges the ISD has faced maintaining relationships necessary for successful schools. 

“So, we just bring it up again to note that after two years, and with the changing of faces, it’s likely has more to do with the way the policy is structured,” Stallings said.  

Because Southside is the first ISD school, it’s serving as a laboratory for future schools, meaning lessons learned there will be applied when and if additional schools are brought into the district. 

The district’s expansion has been slow. Many schools identified for potential inclusion have resisted joining the ISD. And the state board cannot identify additional low-performing schools as qualifying for inclusion because there was no state testing for the 2019-2020 school year on which to base such assessments. 

Schools identified as qualifying schools for the 2019-2020 school year based on data from the 2018-2019 school will remain on the qualifying list, however. Schools can be brought into the ISD after three years on the list. 

The evaluators made the following recommendations for Southside and future ISD schools: 

  • ISD must address the disconnect between curriculum freedom and state standards-based assessments. Without alignment between an ISD school’s curriculum and the state’s standards-based testing, the evaluators said, measurement of academic progress “will continue to be difficult to estimate accurately.” Policymakers should resolve the issue either by requiring ISD schools to adhere to curricula that directly support state standards or by evaluating academic progress at each ISD school independently, using tests that reflect each school’s curriculum. 
  • Progress for “legacy” students and new ISD students should be measured separately. The evaluators noted that “a consistent theme” across faculty and staff has been that Southside is two schools: one for students new to the school, and one for students with a history there that pre-dates ISD. The evaluators stated a belief that there is merit in this characterization and that it is likely to be true for future ISD schools as well. In response, they recommended that assessments of an ISD school’s progress be disaggregated, when reasonable, to reflect the progress of these groups separately as well as jointly. While they noted that it is reasonable to expect that the conversion to an ISD school should help all students, regardless of their prior experience with the school, breakdowns by length of student tenure may help to identify positive trends that otherwise might not be discernible in whole-school trends during a school’s first few years in the ISD. 

In addition to the structural challenges that evaluators said led to tension between the principal/operator and ISD, they noted these challenges: 

  • Without a vetted and tested method to guide turnaround at ISD schools, the success or failure of an ISD school likely will continue to hinge on the strengths of the individuals leading each school. 
  • The ISD structure needs to address the challenges of managing a district remotely. Successful administration of a geographically fragmented district requires new solutions, but the state has little previous experience  in this realm.

The evaluators summed the challenges: 

“We highlight these three challenges without any intention of nullifying the improvements the staff and administration made at Southside-Ashpole during Year 2 and the successes that were derived from those improvements, nor of nullifying the hard work and dedication of the state office or of the Operator. We highlight them because we believe that what transpired at Southside-Ashpole over its first two years as an ISD school—both the bad and the good—was largely a result of factors that are not unique to the ISD approach: There is as yet little evidence to suggest that the current initiative structure will, on its own, lead to the initiative’s intended outcomes at any given ISD school without significant modifications to that structure.”

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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.