STATE SUPERINTENDENT UNVEILS PLAN TO BOOST CHRONICALLY LOW PERFORMING SCHOOLS
State Superintendent Mike Ward this week proposed a plan to address chronically low performing schools through an aggressive combination of state assistance, additional school resources and financial incentives for teachers and principals, and the possibility of "reconstituting" schools that fail to improve.
In announcing this plan, Ward said that North Carolina parents and students should expect that aggressive steps be taken to turn around schools that are identified as low performing for two out of three years. "Our assistance program has been successful in the majority of low-performing schools. In a handful of cases across the state, the usual types of state assistance have not resulted in these schools solidly moving out of the low performing status," Ward said. "In these cases, we have a moral obligation to intensify the support and, if necessary, take more dramatic steps on behalf of students and their communities."
Schools in North Carolina are identified as low performing if they fail to meet their growth standard for student achievement and if less than half of the school's students are performing at grade level on end-of-course tests or at proficiency level on high school end-of-course tests. The growth/gain standard is set annually by the State Board of Education for each school.
Under Ward's plan, a low performing school identified for the first time would receive state assistance, just as it currently does. If this assistance were not enough to move the school out of the low performing category, the assistance team would be reassigned to the school (possibly with some changes) and a new level of intervention would begin.
During the second year, these schools - which some education leaders prefer to call Priority Low Performing Schools -would receive additional funds to reduce class sizes significantly. Schools also could apply for funds from a state "Turn Around" Fund set up especially for them. These funds could provide teacher training, school reform projects, the extension of the school day or year and other innovative approaches. Also, adequate funding would be provided so that teachers in these schools could be employed for 11 months annually -one month longer than in typical public schools. In addition to providing more days for student instruction, this extended employment could provide opportunities for training, planning and activities to improve the school. New staff at the school also would be eligible for special bonuses to compensate them for accepting such a challenging assignment and all staff would be eligible for performance bonuses.
If a school were still low performing for a third year, all of the intervention and resources provided during the second year would continue, but the State Board of Education would begin its own intervention. Some of these actions could include the following:
requiring local boards of education to provide specific state, local or federal funds to the schools;
requiring the local board to restructure the entire school in terms of grades or programs offered;
requiring the local board of education to "reconstitute" the school, i.e. disband the school staff and re-assemble a new staff; or
allow families assigned to the school to request assignment in a higher-performing public school.
While chronically low performing schools would receive additional resources, the plan also has built-in accountability measures. During the second year, the state assistance team itself would be evaluated, as would the school's principal. The State Superintendent would assign a high-level designee to the school district and chronically low performing school to monitor progress, and the local school district central office would be expected to report regularly on the school's progress.
The third year, of course, has more stringent accountability possibilities, including a complete re-staffing of the school.
The costs of this program are estimated to be between $4.5 million and $6.1 million to work with the seven schools currently eligible. Approximately $5 million in federal education funds will be available in the 2001-02 school year for the Turn-Around Fund.
Ward said, "There are some critics who say that the answer to chronically low performing schools is to give students vouchers or other mechanisms to leave the schools. Such remedies only help a few students. We've got to have a plan that assures all children the chance to succeed. We have to rescue that school."
State Superintendent Ward presented the plan to the State Board of Education for information this month. The Board is expected to take action on the plan at its March meeting. For at least a year, Board members and Ward have been holding occasional discussions about their concerns for schools that remain in the low performing category for several years. In particular, Board members have expressed concern for the students assigned to these schools and for the difficult task that local school districts have in attracting and retaining qualified and experienced educators to low performing schools. Board members reacted optimistically to Ward's plan, noting safeguards and additional interventions that they would like incorporated into the plan.
If the Board lends its support to the plan in March, State Superintendent Ward plans to seek legislation to allow implementation to begin as soon as the 2001-02 school year.
State Board Chairman Phillip J. Kirk Jr. said that he had recently visited nine low performing schools and that "the one thing all the teachers said would help them tremendously" was to change the title of low performing schools to Priority Schools. The name change would signify the priority that state and local educators have set for improving the schools' performance.
Board member and high school teacher Eddie Davis said he "applauded the big picture concept of offering support and nurturing of these schools instead of automatically shutting them down."
The plan to improve chronically low performing schools was developed after several months of gathering input from various constituent groups, including educators and parents. It is based on several key principles identified by the state's assistance teams during their work with low performing schools in the past four years. These teams have identified that school leadership and quality teachers are central to effective schools, and that improvement depends on a partnership between the state, local district and school-level staff. Proper incentives, tools, authority and resources are important to turn around schools in trouble.
About the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction:
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction provides leadership to 115 local public school districts and 126 charter schools serving over 1.5 million students in kindergarten through high school graduation. The agency is responsible for all aspects of the state's public school system and works under the direction of the North Carolina State Board of Education.
For more information:
NCDPI Communication and Information Division, 919.807.3450.