Update on Friday, October 13: Glenn Elementary is no longer being considered for state takeover through the North Carolina Innovative School District, according to Durham school board chairman Mike Lee. Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County is the only school that will be recommended for inclusion in the new district in the 2018-2019 school year, according to an announcement from the state Department of Public Instruction.
It’s a Monday night and Tamara Vanie, who’s nearly seven months pregnant, and her husband David, who just got off of work, are knocking on doors in a mostly black and Hispanic neighborhood in East Durham. They’re talking to anyone who will listen about the possible state takeover of their neighborhood elementary school.
Shortly after the couple’s five-year-old twins started kindergarten at Glenn Elementary in East Durham this fall, they found out the school was put on a list of 48 schools eligible for the Innovative School District. The Vanies’ oldest daughter also attended Glenn for the fifth grade and is in middle school now.
State legislators, who are mostly Republican, established the Innovative School District in 2016. Under the purview of the State Board of Education, it will take control of five “low-performing” schools across the state, and manage them through contracts with charter school operators for at least five years. These schools would be the first to join the district.
The state has labelled these schools “low-performing” largely because they have had consistently low student scores on standardized tests. But the Vanies, and many Glenn parents, think their school is anything but. At a parent meeting on Tuesday, a mother broke into tears talking about how a Glenn teacher had tutored her in math so that she could help her daughter with homework.
Tamara recounts the anecdote as she talks about her children’s experiences at Glenn.
“Some of the teachers are dealing with other life things with these children. They’re more than just teachers,” she said. “At last Tuesday’s meeting... [the teachers] said, ‘These are our kids!’”
Tamara said the teachers at Glenn help students grow in ways that can’t be measured by test scores.
“They’re helping kids become adults. They’re dealing with girls going through puberty, boys going through puberty, whatever! You know what I mean? Learning to relate to each other, learning to relate to their families,” she said. “Dealing with personal issues and things like that. We have all of that. And that’s in the school system in general, but particularly in our area. These teachers are facing a lot.”
Almost all of Glenn’s students come from low-income families. And education researchers have found that poverty presents an extra set of challenges to student learning.
“Poverty may help us to identify that there’s barriers to some of the achievement,” said the superintendent of the Innovative School District, Eric Hall. “But we can’t stand by and allow that be an excuse for not achieving.”
Hall acknowledged that there are higher concentrations of poverty in those schools labelled “low-performing,” including the ones being considered for state takeover. But he says this shouldn’t be a reason for these schools to do “more of the same.”
“And there’s things that can be done out there,” he said. “We’ve seen that with good, rigorous instruction. We’ve seen that with good leadership. We’ve seen where schools are doing and working against those odds.”
Hall sees the Innovative School District as a partnership with local school districts, to help implement change. But once schools are taken over by the state, local school boards and administrators would have no say in instructional or hiring decisions at those schools.
Members of the Durham school board have criticized this potential loss of local control, saying they’re already making changes.
The district applied for and was recently granted Restart status for Glenn Elementary, as well as three other schools previously in the running for state takeover. The status permits the district to make changes at the schools that aren’t normally allowed at traditional public schools, like extending the school day or calendar, or changing the way teachers are paid.
Durham school board members want time to implement these changes without intervention from the state. They believe local educators are more familiar with their school communities than state officials, and know better what changes are needed.
“Come get to know us. Come get to know our restart plans,” Durham school board member Matt Sears said at a recent meeting. Sears has a child at Lakewood Elementary in Durham, which had been considered for takeover until last week.
“Don’t interrupt our progress,” he said. “We’re going places with these schools, and all of our schools. And I’m not going to let you take away our schools.”
Glenn is the only Durham school that remains on a list of four around the state that are still being considered for the Innovative School District. Hall will make a decision on two schools to recommend to the State Board of Education in the next few days. Up to three additional schools could be chosen next fall.
If Glenn is selected, Durham school officials can either accept the takeover, or shut the school down.
“The state is literally coming in to do what we’re already doing,” Durham school board member Xavier Cason said at a recent meeting. “And to say, we had our chance? They gave us the freedom, the permission, and then once we got off the starting gate, they’re blowing the whistle now? Nah.”