Given the flexibility of charters, Restart schools and their students seem to be improving

By: - November 25, 2020 12:31 pm

Image: Adobe Stock

Two-thirds of 107 schools in North Carolina met or exceeded academic growth goals

Granville County Schools is embroiled in a fierce competition for students, and the is district losing. 

Over 10 years, more than 1,700 students have left the district for the promise of more opportunities at competing charter schools. Families are transferring their children because the district has fallen off academically, which even district supporters acknowledge. 

Enrollment losses have spun GCS into what former school board member Rob Rivers describes as a graveyard spiral. 

Rivers, who resigned last month out of frustration, recently explained comments he made at the last school board meeting: “We need money and we can’t get more money unless we get more students. We can’t get more students unless we improve our performance and we can’t improve our performance unless we get more money.” 

But GCS school board Chairman David Richardson attributes some of the district’s troubles to charters, which he says have an unfair advantage because they are not required to abide by the same rules that traditional public schools do.

Source: NC Department of Public Instruction

To compete with charters, four of the Granville districtrecurring low-performing schools have applied for “Restart” status, a state reform option that allows schools to essentially start anew. To qualify, a school must have been low-performing for two of the previous three consecutive years. North Carolina has 423 recurring low performing schools based on the 2018-19 accountability data.  

North Carolina has 140 schools in Restart status. Restart schools are granted “charter-like” flexibilities — in hiring, setting a school calendar, prioritizing expenditures — to operate free of much of the red tape leaders of traditional public schools contend hamstring them when competing for students against charters.

“It’s going to be interesting to see if those flexibilities pay off in those low-performing schools,” Davidson said. “I think that will be eye-opening thing. If we are giving the same flexibility, we might not lose as many students to charters.” 

An annual report for 2019 shared earlier this month with the State Board of Education examined 107 schools within the first two cohorts of Restarts  

Source: NC Department of Public Instruction

Achievement data is taken from the 2018-19 school year because state and federal testing requirements were waived for 2019-20 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemicThe remaining 33 schools will report after the completion of their first year of implementation and were not yet required to report.

The first cohort began during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years; the second started at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.  

The report found that the “charter-like” flexibilities granted schools in the first two cohorts have made a difference in students’ academic progress. 

Of the 107 schools, 83 demonstrated between 50% and 100% measurable progress from the use of their flexibilities. That means the schools were able to show a correlation between “charter-like” flexibilities granted under the Restart reform and academic progress.  

“I know we can’t point to just one factor in school improvement but it’s hard not to conclude that flexibility is really important,” SBE member Jill Camnitz said during the board’s November business meeting. 

Camnitz noted that she and other members of the board frequently hear from district superintendents that budget flexibility is important and helpful to student success. “I think we’re seeing some of that in the report,” Camnitz said. 

Budget flexibility is the most popular amenitywith 96% percent of schools using it during the 2018-19 school year. Many schools use various combinations of available flexibilities, that also include leeway in teaching the state’s Standard Course of Study and assessing student progress. 

Cynthia Martin, director of district and regional support at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, cautioned against solely crediting the Restart model for a school’s success, because there are “many factors that influence successful turnaround.” 

“The authorization alone to use ‘charter–like’ flexibilities still requires a leadership team to carefully identify the need and apply the use of flexibility,” Martin said in an emailed response to Policy Watch questions. “The leadership team, both district and school level, is a critical component of success, as the people determining how to best use the opportunity. 

The flexibility has worked well for many schools. 

Here’s a snapshot of the academic progress Restart schools have made using “charter-like” flexibility: 

  • 25 schools are no longer designated as Recurring Low Performing. 
  • 67 schools either met or exceeded academic growth goals. 
  • 69 schools posted increased achievement scores, with 34 of those schools increasing scores by 5 percentage points or more. 

In 91 schools, 50% or more students in demographic subgroups such as African-American, Hispanic or economically disadvantaged met or exceeded academic growth. 

That doesn’t mean the students excelled academically. Growth only measures a student’s progress between two points in time. So, it’s possible for a student to exceed growth expectations but not achieve at or above grade level. 

Martin said the achievement data for Restart schools shows that more intense interventions are needed to help raise achievement levels among subgroups. 

When the currently approved Restart schools and those in the state’s Renewal district — all 35 schools in the Rowan-Salisbury district have “charter-like” flexibility — are subtracted, that leaves 292 recurring low-performing schools eligible to apply to operate as a Restart. 

SBE member Amy White, who co-chairs the board’s Special Committee on School Turnaround, said the new report is an example of how data-driven decisions can help to improve academic outcomes. 

“These folks have taken a deep dive into what could have been just a title effort but they have worked hard to evaluate and investigate and look at outcomes for support for our state’s lowest performing schools,” White said. “They just weren’t satisfied just doing something for the first time and leaving it there.  They said what are we doing and how are these schools making an impact and let’s use that data to better inform future practices.” 

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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.