N.C. Judge’s Threat Puts Heat on Struggling High Schools

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A state judge’s threat to close some of North Carolina’s lowest-performing high schools is prompting angry reactions among local education leaders, while also spurring state efforts to give the schools promised technical help.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr., who oversees a 12-year-old school finance lawsuit in the state, announced this month that a group of high schools he identified earlier as low-performing face being closed in the fall if they fail to meet specific achievement targets this spring.

The ultimatum in a March 3 letter to State Superintendent of Schools June S. Atkinson drew criticism from some administrators in the targeted schools, who said they had improvement strategies under way and challenged the judge’s claim that the schools’ performance was due to poor leadership.

It also sparked questions about why most of the schools had not yet been assigned state “turnaround teams” called for last August by Gov. Michael F. Easley, a Democrat. So far, 10 high schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County district have been visited by such teams, out of 44 statewide that were slated to get them.

‘Fear of the Almighty’

Responding to the judge’s letter, state school board Chairman Howard N. Lee called a pair of planning meetings to speed up the deployment of the assistance teams by the state education department.

“Teachers, principals, and superintendents have had the fear of the Almighty put into their hearts,” Mr. Lee said. “They’ve been calling me saying, ‘Are schools really going to close?’ and ‘What is the state going to do?’ ”

The threat is the latest in a series of bold pronouncements by Judge Manning. He oversees the finance case, known as Leandro v. North Carolina, which was filed in 1994 by school districts that argued the state wasn’t providing for an adequate education for disadvantaged students.

Last spring, the judge issued a damning assessment of achievement in some of the state’s high schools, calling it “academic genocide.” The report helped lead to Gov. Easley’s call for turnaround teams for the 40-plus high schools with the state’s lowest test scores.

In his new letter, Judge Manning argues that insufficient leadership is the main reason for the lack of achievement.

Some school administrators he met recently, he wrote, weren’t familiar with the concept of a 9th grade academy—a common improvement strategy that involves educating freshmen separately from students in higher grades.

“Money is important,” he wrote, “but competent, effective leadership is essential to success.”

Specifically, he said he would bar any high school from reopening in the fall that failed to get more than 55 percent of its students to perform proficiently on state tests this spring, if those schools also failed to meet that target the previous four years. State officials say that standard puts 17 high schools in danger of being closed.

Judge Manning said a school could avoid a shutdown if the state replaced the school’s management and ensured that an improvement plan was being carried out with “a staff committed to implementing that change.”

Criticism Off Mark?

Frances Haithcock, the interim superintendent in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, called the letter “completely unnecessary.” Of the 10 high schools in district that received turnaround teams this school year, four are among those targeted by the judge for possible closure next fall.

Of those four, she said two already have new principals. A third has small learning communities, a strategy the judge favors, and the fourth school recently made big test-score gains.

“My biggest challenge is to attract and retain qualified teachers, and here he just goes and gets the community in an uproar about closing their schools,” said Ms. Haithcock, whose 124,000-district was singled out in the judge’s “academic genocide” claim.

N. Rene Corders, the principal at E.E. Smith High School in Cumberland County, likewise said her school—also in the judge’s crosshairs—has done much of what he advocates. It has a 9th grade academy, instructional-pacing guides for teachers in each subject, and weekly assessments.

News that the school could close prompted a rally for E.E. Smith High at a local church on a recent Sunday. A black school in the days of segregation, the school has an active national alumni association. She noted that her school was slated to get one of the turnaround teams called for by Gov. Easley last year, but it hasn’t yet.

“If in fact there are fix-it people out there, where have the fix-it people been?” said Ms. Corders, a 2003 state principal of the year. “If they come to this school and talk to the teachers and sit in on our school improvement meetings and see all the programs we have going on, I don’t think they’re going to leave and say it’s a leadership problem.”

Mr. Lee, the state school board chairman, acknowledged that the launch of the turnaround initiative has faced difficulties. The education department didn’t get additional money to run the program. Last month, the agency hired someone to coordinate it.

In Charlotte, turnaround teams of six to eight people spent about a day and a half at each of 10 low-performing high schools to offer outsiders’ assessments and suggest changes to the district’s improvement strategies.

“We stood and held up a mirror, and said: ‘At this point in time, this is what we see, and based on that, we have some broad recommendations,’ ” said Janice Davis, the state’s deputy superintendent, who oversees the teams.

Now, her agency is under the gun to reach more schools as soon as possible. After getting Judge Manning’s letter, Mr. Lee called two meetings of state and local leaders to find a way to deploy the additional teams using the existing money. Said the state board chairman: “I want us to keep our eyes on the prize, which is to make these schools function.”

PHOTO: Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. talks with lawyers in the Leandro v. North Carolina school finance case last year in Raleigh, N.C. The lawsuit was filed in 2004.
—File photo by Paul Woolverton/The Fayetteville Observer/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 28, Pages 28, 30

Published in Print: March 22, 2006, as N.C. Judge’s Threat Puts Heat on Struggling High Schools
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