Buncombe’s Low-Performing Schools
By Lisa Baldwin- The superintendent of Buncombe County Schools, Tony Baldwin (no relation to the article’s writer), said, “My role as superintendent, first and foremost, is to ensure that we do follow the laws, regardless of the questions that we may have about them.”
This statement comes on the heels of the Board’s November 5th refusal to comply with state law. The Buncombe school board majority had voted not to submit remediation action plans to the state for schools deemed “low-performing.” However, in a special called meeting last Friday, the Board reversed that decision and the majority approved sending the plans to the State Board of Education. Buncombe Board members Pat Bryant and Amy Churchill voted in the negative.
Johnston Elementary and Erwin Middle School were deemed low-performing per state criteria. A North Carolina law approved on Sept. 18, 2015 required BCS to submit plans for academic improvement.
Board member Max Queen complained that developing the plans according to state requirements “really distracted from staff time.” Mr. Queen’s daughter, Charlotte Hipps, is the principal at Johnston Elementary.
Queen didn’t favor what he called the label or stigmatization. “If you keep telling people they’re bad, pretty soon they’re going to believe it. “
Board member Amy Churchill also objected to “labeling” schools,“For me to sit here and agree that they (the two Buncombe schools) are low-performing is a lie,” she said. “I am emotional about this because I don’t see the failing schools.”
Rather than feeling “offended”, the low scores should prompt the school board to action. This is not about stigmatization, but about raising academic achievement for these students. Don’t we want our children to have every opportunity for learning? Isn’t this the purpose of public schools?
The Buncombe County Board of Education also voted to send a resolution to the state strongly opposing the “low-performing school” identification criteria and the school performance grade formula. Eighty percent of the school grade is based on whether students are proficient on end-of-grade or end-of-course tests and 20 percent on student growth. The Board says a 50/50 formula would be better. School officials also say the lower grades tend to be assigned to high poverty schools.
However, the Board didn’t explain how one high poverty Buncombe School, Pisgah Elementary, managed to have the highest elementary school performance grade in the county (80 out of 100). At Pisgah Elementary 68% of students receive reduced or free lunch. In contrast, Johnston Elementary was the lowest performing elementary with a grade of 46, two points lower than last year. At Johnston, 98% of students receive free or reduced lunches. Even the school with the least amount of students on free/reduced lunch (34%), Glen Arden, only scored a 78.
Interestingly, the state cannot close low-performing traditional public schools but can close public charter schools which demonstrate no growth in student performance and have annual performance composites below sixty percent (60%) in any two years in a three-year period.
The performance grade formula was approved by the North Carolina General Assembly during the 2013 long session. The inclusion of School Performance Grades as part of the North Carolina School Report Cards was included in state law G.S. §115C-83.15. When those scores first came out on February 5, 2014 Buncombe didn’t send a resolution complaining about the formula. However, Cabarrus County did, questioning the 80/20 formula. The state legislature considered a 50/50 (end of grade test/student growth) option but chose to remain consistent so the two years could be compared. Although the criteria used to calculte the school performance grades isn’t perfect, it’s still a good indicator of where improvements are needed.
Buncombe Joins Lawsuit
The Board unanimously approved joining with other districts to claim fines from moving violations. These are speeding tickets judges reduce to an “improper equipment” violation. The state constitution deems that these fines should go to schools; unfortunately, this has been an oversight and will soon be corrected.