Two Wayne County elementary schools join 46 others across North Carolina on a list of those which meet the criteria for being taken over by the state.
Brogden Primary and Eastern Wayne Elementary are rated in the bottom 5 percent statewide of schools that include grades K-5. The criteria are based on data taken from the 2016-17 achievement scores.
The program -- a number of superintendents across the state have spoken up in opposition to it -- was signed into law in mid-2016. It's called the Innovative School District program. It takes low-performing schools identified by the state board of education as having met certain criteria and transfers them from the control of the public schools districts in which they lie to that of a state charter school operator.
Michael Dunsmore, Wayne County Public Schools superintendent, said that the ISD is another in a series of "roadblocks" that the General Assembly has put in the way of public education.
"I understand the concept that, if something isn't working, they're going to come in and fix it," Dunsmore said. "But rather than putting up roadblocks, which is what I feel the General Assembly is doing, give us the ability to do that ourselves."
The General Assembly should focus on giving school districts the resources to make their schools better, he said, instead of setting districts up to struggle and then punishing them when they do.
The 48 schools listed by the state board of education were selected based on four criteria, ISD superintendent Eric Hall said.
Hall explained that the process began with identifying the schools in the bottom 5 percent, and that the list was further narrowed to any school which included classes for kindergarten through fifth grade.
Qualifying schools had to have missed the mark on growth, Hall said. Within the last three years, if a school had not exceeded expected growth in at least one year, and had not met growth in another, it became eligible for takeover.
Two other schools -- Brogden Middle and Carver Heights Elementary -- were initially on the list, but were later removed because they receive federal school improvement grants.
In addition to the ISD list, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction released last week accountability data for all state schools.
In Wayne County, the letter grades assigned to each school changed little, with two A's, no B's, 15 C's, nine D's and three F's (Dillard Middle, Brogden Middle and Carver Heights Elementary), compared to one A, two B's, 13 C's, 13 D's and two F's the previous year.
Schools with a D or F grade that do not exceed expected growth are considered "low-performing," a classification which Dunsmore said does not fully capture what goes on at a school.
The issue, he said, is one of achievement versus growth. Achievement -- a student cohort's end-of-grade test scores as compared to that grade the previous year -- accounts for 80 percent of the school's letter grade. Growth -- how far an individual student progresses from the start of the year to the end -- only makes up 20 percent.
In low-wealth counties such as Wayne, that reporting system creates a problem. Students from poorer families often come into school already below grade level, which means that even if teachers do their job -- to provide a full year's worth of academic growth in a school year -- those poorer children still fall short in testing because they started from behind.
"When you have low-wealth students come in and they're already behind, you're playing catch-up the entire time," Dunsmore said. "And then teachers are punished for not exceeding growth."
WCPS growth levels were actually down in the 2016-17 school year. Seventeen of 30 schools met or exceeded growth expectations, as opposed to 23 the previous year. But neither Brogden Primary or Eastern Wayne met their expected growth levels.
David Lewis, assistant superintendent for accountability/information technology, said it is still unclear what caused the drop in growth, which had been on a slight increase coming into the year.
Hurricane Matthew is an early suspect.
"One thing I would definitely look to is that we lost eight days of instructional time to Hurricane Matthew," Lewis said. "We made up two of those, but the state waived six. We lost about 4 percent of our instructional time. I'm certain that impacted us, I'm just not sure how much yet."
The district did make modest gains in graduation rates and saw a reduction in dropout rates -- but those statistics do not factor in to a school's performance grade.
Dunsmore said that the district is working on compiling day-to-day and week-to-week data sets to more accurately represent the state of Wayne County schools. Basing most of a school's entire performance on the results of a single test does not do it justice, he said.
Those scores do, however, form the basis of how the ISD program selects schools. Dunsmore said he intends to fight to keep the two schools under the authority of Wayne County, especially given the lackluster results of similar programs in other states.
"These teachers put in long, long hours, and it's a shame how this is being done," he said. "It's been tried in at least three other states, and it's been a Herculean failure, so I just don't understand the rationale."
Hall said that the program is intended to spur districts into action.
"We're trying to have a conversation, we're forcing a conversation and creating urgency about how we are partnering with our schools to improve performance," he said. "There are schools that are not necessarily using some of the programs available to them, and we want to create a sense of urgency to get this done right."
Dunsmore said that moving schools out of local leadership could lead to substantial staff changes, which may include layoffs of teachers whom students have already come to know.
Hall denied that schools would automatically see major staffing shakeups. He did say, however, that he and the charter or education management organizations running ISD schools would interview each employee at those schools to "make decisions about how to build the team moving forward."
Dunsmore said that local authority over schools in Wayne County is for the best and that accountability for the successes and failures of WCPS falls to him.
"Ultimately, it's on me. Obviously, as the superintendent, I'm tasked with putting the leadership team together, evaluating principals who in turn evaluate teachers," he said. "I have to take responsibility. I've only been here two years, and it takes three to really get on this stuff, but I'm the one who is here now so this is on my watch."
The state board of education is expected to vote on which two of the 48 eligible schools to move to the ISD by December.