ERIC HALL: An invitation to engage in transforming public education

EDITOR’S NOTE: Eric Hall is superintendent of the North Carolina Innovation School District.

The North Carolina Public School Forum shared a list of 10 issues they suggest may improve our public schools. In reviewing this list, there are several recommendations we also embrace at the North Carolina Innovative School District (ISD). Our first alignment is centered on educator compensation. I agree that improving teacher and school leader compensation is critical to recruiting and retaining a highly effective workforce in our schools.

I also agree with the recommendation to support and improve struggling schools. At the ISD, we want all public-school options to be successful. By building capacity in our schools and communities, we can address both the academic and non-academic barriers to student achievement.

This balanced strategy must be aligned with high expectations for student outcomes with transparent accountability that demands improvement. The ISD is only one strategy in our state’s continuum of support and intervention, with a team of dedicated professionals at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction who are focused on serving schools, particularly those that are struggling.

While the ISD is designed to be the most rigorous option for intervening in a persistently low-performing school, we also have options in our state which support the notion of expanding flexibility. These additional options include the “Restart Model” as well as the ISD’s Innovation Zone (I-Zone) model. In the Restart Model, persistently low-performing schools can develop and submit a plan to the State Board of Education requesting the same flexibilities provided to charter schools in North Carolina.

I have witnessed this model grow exponentially since last year, with 117 schools implementing this option. The I-Zone model also provides this flexibility to low-performing schools in districts where an Innovative School under the ISD is established. For example, in Robeson County, the ISD will be launching its first school this August.

With this launch, the Public Schools of Robeson County can establish an I-Zone which can extend flexibilities to all 26 of their other low-performing schools. These options offer new opportunities to bring innovation to our public schools, while striving to improve student achievement.

While these options are exciting, it is important to stress that flexibility alone does not guarantee improvement. Improvement can only be realized in the presence of high expectations for learning, strong school leadership and effective educators supporting the needs of students.

Additional alignments between the ISD and the Public School Forum’s recommendations include the focus on the “whole child” and the critical importance for ensuring racial equity. In the whole-child approach, we know that students face a wide range of challenges and barriers to success. Many of these barriers exist outside the school and can be addressed only by designing and adopting practices that mitigate these obstacles.

Strategies may include extended learning, coordinated wrap-around services, and additional support programs for the nutritional, social-emotional, and health-related needs of our students. By addressing these types of barriers, we create the opportunity for students to enter the classroom ready to learn and empower teachers to teach and school leaders to lead. As we consider student needs, it is imperative that our educational systems focus on equity.

We know, based on data and research, that we have far too many minority students being left behind in our schools. This is evident in the academic achievement data as well as the student discipline data that continues to indicate that too many of our minority children are being placed at a disadvantage regarding their future opportunities. Efforts to resolve this inequity must be intentional, measurable and unapologetic for being bold in support of students.

I applaud all organizations and leaders committed to raising awareness of the challenges facing our students, particularly those students who have few choices and are left to learn in low-performing schools. At the same time, we must recognize that there are a multitude of issues contributing to these challenges, which often are not just relegated to school funding.

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying — resources count and are important, but it is equally important to ensure that resources are balanced with expectations and accountability for results. For example, since 2010, 61 low-performing schools across the state have received over $140 million in additional funds through federal school-improvement grants. Many of these schools remain low-performing even after this investment. This, in my opinion, suggests that it is not about having additional funds. It is about deploying resources in a way that delivers improved opportunity for students.

Finally, the ISD is committed to being a partner with schools, communities and local districts across North Carolina with a sole focus on improving student achievement in low-performing schools. This is our purpose and our passion. We invite the Pubic School Forum, and other organizations that are also committed to student equity, to engage with us on this journey to transform public education in North Carolina into the great equalizer that we know it can be for all students — regardless of their zip code. As the Public School Forum suggests, it is important that we all “effectively work together.”

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