Nine Guilford County schools deemed substandard

by Jordan Green

Gov. Michael Easley’s announcement on June 13, that 44 poorly performing schools across the state would face restructuring and possibly be forced to shut down and reopen as new institutions, decisively shifts the action upholding the constitutional right of every North Carolina child ‘“to receive a sound basic education in our public schools’” from the state courts to the executive branch, in the view of some.

‘“This is no longer a Judge Manning issue; it’s a governor’s issue, a state Department of Public Instruction issue,’” said Terry Grier, superintendent of Guilford County Schools. ‘“It’s going to, quite frankly, require us to do some innovative and interesting reforms.’”

Following the NC Supreme Court’s 1997 ‘“sound basic education’” ruling, Judge Howard Manning issued findings declaring that students scoring below grade level in state tests were not receiving a constitutionally sufficient education, according to a policy brief by the NC Justice Center. Manning also ruled that it was the responsibility of the state, not local education authorities, to fix the problem.

Easley suggested that the 44 schools across the state where less than 60 percent of students performed at grade level on state proficiency tests two years in a row would face a radical overhaul, but how exactly that plays out remains to be seen.

Nine of the schools are in the Guilford County system. They include Andrews High School, Dudley High School, Eastern Guilford High School, High Point Central High School, Smith High School, Southern Guilford High School, the Middle College at Bennett, the Middle College at NC A&T and Greensboro Middle College.

As the third largest school system in the state, Guilford County Schools claims the dubious honor of having a fifth of the high schools in the state that are threatened with restructuring. And three Guilford County schools topped the list for the state’s lowest performing schools: the Middle College at Bennett, with 20.6 percent of students performing at grade level; the Middle College at NC A&T, at 24.6 percent; and Andrews High School, with 35.2 percent.

Guilford County Schools fared better than the largest district in the state, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. More than half of the high schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg ‘— 10 out of 17 ‘— are threatened with restructuring. Wake County Schools, the state’s second largest system, escaped inclusion on the list altogether.

Part of the uncertainty revolves around whether the 44 schools surpass the 60 percent mark for students scoring at grade level for the school year that recently ended. The list was drawn up to include schools that consecutively scored at less than 60 percent for both 2004 and 2005. While students have already taken the 2006 tests, the state has yet to release those results. Seth Efron, an Easley spokesman, said on June 14 that the new results would be forthcoming in mid July.

Those schools that surpass the 60 percent mark will be spared restructuring, Efron said, but will continue to be monitored by state ‘“turnaround teams.’”

Those schools that miss the mark three years in a row could face a range of consequences such as having administrators and teachers retrained, having their principals dismissed and having their doors closed.

‘“Nipping around the edges is not getting the job done and major changes are needed to improve performance,’” an Easley press release states. ‘“It is clear that these schools must go beyond traditional approaches and that significant restructuring is required. By overhauling the system, we will ensure that our students get an education that will prepare them for the 21st century workforce.’”

And yet the governor’s offer of ‘“a menu of proven, long-term restructuring options’” suggests that the changes will be more incremental than dramatic.

One option for a failing high school would be to ‘“implement a research-based high school restructuring model.’” The restructuring models have a private-sector dimension given that they are being developed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates is, of course, the chairman of Washington state-based Microsoft Corp.

Another option is for the school to be ‘“reconstituted and redesigned’” through the state’s New Schools Project. According to the press release from the Office of the Governor, the project transforms conventional high schools into new autonomous schools with no more than 400 hundred students that require rigorous learning and are designed around themes such as biotechnology, health care and information technology.

The state will leave it up to districts to decide whether the principals of schools undergoing restructuring should be replaced or remain on the job with intensive training.

Another component of Easley’s restructuring agenda includes encouraging school districts to create so-called ‘“learn and earn’” early college high school programs that allow students to graduate in five years with either an associate’s degree or two years of college credit. Guilford County Schools has been a leader in North Carolina in developing middle colleges. Yet three of the district’s middle colleges are on the state’s restructuring list.

Towards the goal of preparing students to participate successfully in a globalized economy with ever decreasing job security, Grier has said the district needs to revise its mission statement.

‘“We want our students to be ready to go to college or work, and be able to go to a job with benefits and healthcare,’” he said.

He outlined three goals necessary to achieve that mission:

‘• Ensure that all kindergarteners read at grade level by the time they complete third grade;

‘• Eliminate the achievement gap between racial and socio-economic groups in math performance for all middle school students; and

‘• Have all kindergarten students be proficient in a second language by the time they graduate as seniors ‘— that is, in 2018.

None of the goals are currently being achieved, Grier said, but from talking to instructional staff he has concluded that they are all obtainable.

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