This month marks one year since I started the journey to serve our state and local communities as the founding Superintendent of the North Carolina Innovative School District (ISD). As I reflect on the past twelve months, I marvel at the progress we’ve made. Last May, we took the first steps to transform legislation into an operational set of systems and processes for implementation in the real world. Today, we are partnering with an Innovative School Operator, planning for our inaugural school year, recruiting for a proven school leader, preparing to hold a career fair to hire teachers and support staff and engaging with thought partners to inform our work as a new statewide school district. It’s been a whirlwind of activity and a lot to navigate, but it’s also been immensely rewarding.
A year ago, when I was hired by the State Board of Education and joined the team at the Department of Public Instruction, I entered an environment that was both familiar and foreign. In my previous position as CEO of Communities In Schools of North Carolina, I was a strong partner with DPI so I came into this new role with existing relationships at the agency. At the same time, while transitioning into this work—that was not only new to me, but also for the state and the agency—a learning curve existed for me and others as we worked together to align and, in some cases, create systems and policies to accommodate the structure of the ISD. This undertaking occupied the first several months of work on the job and gave me, other members of the ISD team, DPI staff and our partners the opportunity—and challenge—to engage in experiential learning and develop new working relationships.
Fast-forward to the Fall of 2017 and the focus shifted. The ISD released its first set of qualifying low-performing schools at the September State Board of Education meeting. This list of 48 low-performing schools spanned 21 local school districts across the state.
Identifying the schools for potential inclusion into the ISD was one thing, announcing it publicly was another. The local school districts and communities with whom we were seeking to partner took note, considered the possible implications and engaged in public discourse. It was new and involved change, so naturally there was considerable debate. Ultimately, Southside Ashpole Elementary in Rowland, NC, a rural community in southern Robeson County, was unanimously approved by the state board and the local school board for transfer into the ISD.
Since our first meetings with the community, we’ve worked hard to establish and cultivate meaningful relationships with different stakeholders in Rowland. We’ve succeeded in building a broad base of support from community members in Rowland and surrounding Robeson County. While there is much to do, these relationships have set the stage for implementing authentic innovation that will help create conditions for improving student achievement, which is the ISD’s mission.
Positive and sustainable change starts at the local-level and empowers the community as the owners of that change. To that end, the ISD created a community advisory panel in Rowland comprised of members of the local school board, a county manager, the town mayor and town manager, a local faith leader, a parent from Southside Ashpole and the local district superintendent. Together, we’ve engaged in open and honest conversations, are working to craft a vision for the school and the local community, and building genuine trust based on shared goals.
As I have said repeatedly over this past year, the ISD is about partnerships. We are committed to improving the outcomes for students in low-preforming schools and we are reaching out and learning from others who are engaged in similar work across the nation. We want to discover what has worked, what hasn’t and how best to navigate the challenges and opportunities moving forward.