Moore County Schools is taking a multilateral approach to helping students at three of its chronically low-performing schools under relaxed guidelines permitted by North Carolina’s “Restart” school reform model.
The district applied to the state last spring to run the Aberdeen and Robbins elementary schools, and Southern Middle, as “Restart” schools and received approval in June.
The state’s department of public instruction has defined all three schools as low-performing based on the proportion of students who test at grade level on end-of-year tests. Student growth over the year is factored in as well, to a far lesser extent.
State End-of-Grade tests were last administered in 2019. That year, 39 percent of Aberdeen Elementary students tested at grade level in reading and 30 percent tested at grade level in math.
The Moore County Board of Education learned on Monday how the school plans to change that over the next five years.
How the Restart Model Works
The Restart model exempts low-performing schools from many of the state’s guidelines for traditional public schools: allowing individual schools the ability to adopt their own calendar, set class sizes outside of state-mandated maximums for grades K-3, and more flexibly budget teacher funding in the same way charter schools can.
“It’s really important to understand that there is no prescribed method of school reform for this model,” said Mariah Morris, Moore County Schools’ innovation and special projects coordinator.
School-based “improvement teams” at Aberdeen, Robbins and Southern are each developing their own plans to revitalize their schools’ culture and provide added support to struggling students. Staff at all three schools will participate in professional development to earn a literacy certification through a pilot program with the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching.
Where the Restart program comes in is with the ability to use state funds more freely and utilize any savings to hire additional staff to provide students with more individualized attention where needed, in what’s known as “multi-tiered systems of support.”
North Carolina just began the funding conversion process for Moore County’s three Restart schools in November, so they’re still in the early stages of implementing those changes and hiring accordingly. The district is also formulating a system for monitoring those schools’ progress and measuring the effectiveness of their new programs.
“We are embarking on a five-year journey to effect authentic, meaningful change that is going to grow our students, but it might show up at different levels of growth and proficiency,” Morris said.
The schools hope to get enough students’ reading and math skills up to the appropriate grade level for improvements in the schools’ state-designated letter grades. Aberdeen, Robbins and Southern have all been “D” graded schools for the last three testing years, though Aberdeen was only considered “low performing” for two of the three based on better-than-expected growth in 2018.
Board member Ed Dennison said that he doesn’t expect all three schools to receive higher grades within a year or two, though.
“Some of our lower performing schools’ grades are so low it’s possible that they could have 100 percent growth for one, two, three or four years before it raises their achievement score far enough to be at a different grade level,” he said.
The state uses other metrics, including teacher working conditions and attendance rates, along with academic growth to evaluate the success of the Restart model. North Carolina has approved about 150 “Restart” schools around the state since 2016.
What all three of Moore County’s Restart schools have in common is a higher-than-average proportion of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Statewide, about 47 percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches based on their family’s income. At Aberdeen and Robbins, that proportion is over 80 percent. About 64 percent of students at Southern are considered economically disadvantaged as well.
On top of that, about 15 percent of Aberdeen Elementary students have an individualized education plan.
Support for Intervention
Aberdeen Principal Dante Poole said that those dynamics have informed his staff’s work toward reimagining the school’s operations under the Restart model. Aberdeen Elementary has introduced a new position at the school, a dean of curriculum and student support, to help teachers with small-group and individual level intervention for students falling behind in class.
Morris said that teachers can handle that range of student needs single-handedly when only 15 or 20 percent of their students need more individualized attention.
“One teacher can’t progress-monitor that many students in her class. When we look at what’s happening in our classrooms, there are teachers that have seven to eight students in their classrooms with an IEP, simply because of the sheer number of students in our school with an IEP,” Poole added.
“To have a dean of curriculum and student support in place to help with implementing interventions in a way that makes sense, in a way that gives them time to teach and meet the needs of students is incredible.”
“So the positions we’ve created are not managers coming down to tell teachers how to do an intervention, because our teachers know how.” Morris said. “It’s to provide support so that our teachers can realistically work this system when it’s essentially inverted, until we get it working well and then hopefully we will reduce those needs.”
Aberdeen Elementary has also shifted its existing approach to discipline with a house-based system to help students identify with values like resiliency and optimism, and to accept responsibility for their behavior in school. Last fall, Aberdeen added 15 minutes to each school day to offset the amount of time lost as students move around the campus.
The school also devotes 15 minutes per day to social and emotional learning.
“Discipline has been a huge issue at our school. We’ve tried several things to try to address it, including Capturing Kids’ Hearts, we’ve done some trauma-informed training for our staff, really trying to shore up their ability to see what's happening with a kid and how to support that kid, but some teacher turnover really has undermined our ability to sustain some of those efforts,” Poole said.
“Kids were working for an individual reward but it wasn’t translating into them making the effort to do better in terms of how they were solving problems and how they were working together, and that is influencing our discipline data.”
Examining Staff Diversity
A few board members suggested during their discussions on Monday that some of the Restart schools’ newfound latitude in budgeting for and hiring staff be used as incentive: either for teachers whose students achieve high growth, or for the schools to attract experienced educators and minorities to their teaching staff.
Board member Bob Levy took issue with the composition of Aberdeen’s teaching and administrative staff, which is almost entirely white and female.
“I am truly shocked with regard to how the faculty does not reflect the community. I don’t believe in affirmative action … but it takes some recruitment, and if money is necessary I want to know whether we need extra money, If we need to give financial incentives to teachers in order to have a more diverse faculty,” said Levy.
“The way things are today, our students need to see a diverse faculty in order to feel good in their own discipline.”
Board member Pam Thompson said that the district has ramped up its efforts to staff its schools in a way that represents the communities they serve, and not just at Aberdeen.
“We have recognized for years that we have an issue with Moore County Schools and recruiting minority teachers,” she said. “So your concern is valid, it’s my concern as well, and has been a concern of mine and other board members for years now.”
“I think there are a number of dynamics that play into why African-Americans are not coming to Moore County to teach, are not becoming educators,” Poole added. “That’s a whole other philosophical conversation that’s separate from the work we’re doing this morning.”
Board members David Hensley found a note of disagreement in whether or not schools should offer bonuses to teachers who perform well on state End-of-Grade tests. Hensley suggested it, noting that the state offers financial incentives to the principals at successful schools.
But Holmes said that teachers whose students are already at or ahead of grade level would not have as much opportunity to earn those bonuses.
“It’s unfair because you have to look at the low-performing students,” he said. “They’re a whole lot easier to raise the grades than other teachers, and it’s not fair.”
“That’s exactly why we should do it: it incentivizes the better teachers to go to our low-performing schools because they get paid more because there’s more opportunity for growth,” Hensley replied.
Hensley also suggested that local charter schools like The Academy of Moore and STARS, formerly low-rated schools themselves, might be better models for the Restart schools to emulate than successful Restart schools in other districts.
Chair Libby Carter framed the local charters’ progress as an “unfair comparison,” as both of those schools have a much lower proportion of economically disadvantaged students: 16 percent at The Academy of Moore and 25 percent at STARS.
“I think that the Aberdeen team, with Mrs. Morris’ assistance, has done well in looking for schools with demographics most like theirs,” said Superintendent Bob Grimesey. “They, instead of just looking for any place, they looked for schools that looked like them and then sought what was working for them.”
Administrators and staff at Robbins and Southern Middle are scheduled to present their schools’ individual Restart plans in the coming months.