School with sordid segregationist history reopens as a charter. NC Director of Charter Schools praises its commitment to diversity.

A Halifax County private school which was founded as a reaction against racial integration efforts in the 1960s has re-opened as a taxpayer-funded public charter.

North Carolina Director of Charter Schools Dave Machado attended Wednesday’s opening ceremony and praised the school’s transformation, saying “They kept coming back with stronger applications and I just think it’s exciting to see this large population of very diverse students.  It’s exactly what a charter school should look like.”

Hobgood’s charter application was laser focused on giving children a way out of poverty through education.  It noted that “the potential exists to turn the tide of poverty in this community through excellence in education” and referred to Hobgood as “the perfect place to impact the most vulnerable of our children.”  Hobgood’s professional development plan for teachers also includes diversity training using Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty–materials which have been criticized by some for reinforcing biases and ignoring the systems that actually perpetuate poverty.

While goals of helping children of poverty and working toward more integrated schools are laudable, they’re also effective marketing points for a private school whose only hope in staying open may be to turn charter.   

During Hobgood’s campaign to convert to a public charter school, a Google Site called “Let’s Charter Hobgood” was set up to organize and inform the school’s parents.  After Rodney Pierce and I published a piece about Hobgood in the Washington Post, access to that site was restricted.  (I copied its contents beforehand and you can still view it here.)  

The Hobgood parent site confirms that the primary reason behind the school’s desire to become a public charter was not to increase diversity and expand opportunity for children of poverty at all.  Rather, it was to allow children who already went to the 87% White school to continue to attend it, instead of going to Halifax County Schools, where only 4% of students are White.  According to 2010 census data, Halifax County’s residents are 40% White and 53% Black.

The site referred to the steady increase in tuition and corresponding decline in enrollment as “deadly thin ice,” holding up other area private schools that had previous closed as ominous examples of what could happen if something didn’t change.  Hobgood’s charter application to the state also mentions “significant decline in enrollment” and acknowledges that the school’s $5,000 a year tuition may be a barrier to some families.

Hobgood parents who had concerns about converting from a private school to a public charter had raised questions to those leading the charge, and a handful of answers to those questions were posted to “Let’s Charter Hobgood.”  One of the answers reads “No current law forces any diversity whether it be by age, sex, race, creed.”  The question is missing, but it’s not hard to figure out what those parents were worried about.

It’s no coincidence that the history of Hobgood Academy is also rooted in desire by Halifax County’s White community to resist efforts at racial integration, as 2019 North Carolina Council for Social Studies Teacher of the Year and Halifax County native Rodney Pierce chronicled in a Twitter history lesson earlier this year:

Hobgood Academy was founded in 1969 and opened in September 1970. IMO, this was a direct response to the U.S. Justice Department’s rejection of the Halifax County Schools District’s plan of desegregation in March 1969 that did not comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The county’s White residents resisted integration in public education so much so that the late Rep. Thorne Gregory, who was from Scotland Neck, actually filed a bill in January of 1969 to establish a separate school district for his hometown. 

Blacks made up only 18 percent of the town’s population at the time and the bill would allow the town’s mayor and commissioners to set up a five member school board and establish a supplemental school tax of 50 cents for each $100 property valuation.  Additionally, there were 8,000 Black students and 2,300 White pupils in HCS, a ratio of nearly 4:1. 

Thorne’s bill passed the House in February 1969 and the Senate in March, with some impassioned pleas from late Senator Julian Allsbrook of Roanoke Rapids.  The Justice Department filed suit against the district in June 1969 and the case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the plaintiffs in June 1972 (U.S. v. Scotland Neck City Board of Education).  

Given the proximity of the town of Hobgood to the city of Scotland Neck, and the history of White residents of Scotland Neck attempting to establish their own separate public school district, I don’t think it’s a reach to think that some of those families who resisted integration banded together to start a private academy for their children. 

Demographic data for the newly christened Hobgood Charter Academy is not yet available on the North Carolina Department of Instruction’s statistical profile, so it remains to be seen whether its racial composition has significantly changed to resemble anything close to that of the county around it.  

What is clear is that North Carolina’s newest charter school will now receive more than $2 million in state funds.  The majority of that tab will be paid by Halifax County Schools via charter pass-through transfer funding, taking resources away from students in one of North Carolina’s poorest counties.

NC Superintendent offers iPads to charter schools–but there’s a catch

North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson has offered to provide the state’s charter schools with iPads.  The catch? They only get the tablets if they agree to use the controversial new K-3 reading assessment Istation.

Last week news broke that 3,269 iPads Johnson had purchased were sitting in a DPI warehouse in Raleigh.  A day later, Johnson and DPI Communications Director Graham Wilson explained that ‘extensive, strategic work’ had occurred throughout the summer to develop a plan to provide schools with resources including iPads.

But an email sent by NC Director of Charter Schools Dave Machado to charter school directors just yesterday paints a picture of a department that appears to be scrambling to figure out what to do with those iPads.  In the message, Machado explained that DPI is providing tablets “for teachers at charter schools that have signed up to use the new Read to Achieve diagnostic tool.” 

Charter schools have the flexibility to decide what tool to use to assess K-3 reading.  Increasing the number of charter schools that are using Istation would be a PR victory for a superintendent who has endured intense criticism since announcing his decision to select the assessment tool against the recommendation of a committee of evaluators.

The practice of providing iPads only to charter schools which agree to use Istation also conflicts sharply with a communication Superintendent Johnson sent to all North Carolina teachers earlier this week, in which he urged teachers to use tablets provided by DPI “for any literacy activities in your classroom you want.”

On the same day Machado emailed charter school directors this hilariously simple survey to answer in order to claim their iPads, the North Carolina Department of Information Technology issued a stay blocking the use of Istation while it reviews the process the Department of Public Instruction followed to award the contract. 

There is no word yet from DPI on whether charter schools will be issued iPads while the contract fiasco is being sorted out.

NC Department of Information Technology pauses Istation implementation in order to review contract award

The North Carolina Department of Information Technology (DIT) has granted Amplify’s Motion to Stay the Istation contract pending administrative review of the process the Department of Public Instruction followed in awarding it.

After Superintendent Mark Johnson denied Amplify’s official protest of his decision to award the K-3 reading assessment contract to computer-based Istation, Amplify appealed the denial to DIT. With the school year set to begin, Amplify also requested the contract itself be paused while the matter is considered. DIT has granted that motion and Istation implementation now appears to be on hold.

In a statement, Amplify CEO Larry Berger said, “We learned today our motion to stay the K-3 reading assessment contract award to Istation has been granted by the NC Department of Information Technology (DIT). This decision means that Istation must halt its implementation while the proceeding is pending with DIT. We look forward to working with NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and DIT to ensure that all educators in the state have the critical opportunity to understand their students’ reading development at the beginning of the school year, just as they have in the past.”

Amplify now has 30 days to prepare Prehearing Statements, and a Prehearing Scheduling Conference is set to take place at DIT on October 8.

You can read DIT’s motion below:


NC Superintendent addresses iPad discrepancy, promises distribution

A day after news broke that 3,269 iPads were sitting in DPI storage rather than being used in North Carolina schools, Superintendent Mark Johnson went on the defensive.  

Johnson had informed the State Board of Education last March that there were “just over 2,000” iPads at the textbook warehouse and that they would be distributed in spring or summer to be ready for use in the 2019-2020 school year.  But an August warehouse inventory showed the tablets were still sitting in storage–and the actual number was significantly higher.  

On Wednesday, DPI Communications Director Graham Wilson told the media there was an “extensive, strategic” plan to distribute the tablets to North Carolina schools, and that 800 additional iPads were purchased last month as a part of that plan.  He said details about the plan would be announced next week.

In comments to WRAL, Superintendent Johnson blamed September 2018’s Hurricane Florence for the long delay.  He also attempted to deflect attention by taking a shot at former Superintendent June Atkinson:

“It’s so exciting that the money that I saved in my superintendent’s budget – because I just spend less than my predecessor – I actually bought books for children, and we bought 800 extra iPads to put on top of that.”

Johnson didn’t explain which budget line item was used to purchase the latest iPads.  There is no “superintendent’s budget.”  

3,269 iPads are collecting dust in the NC Department of Public Instruction textbook warehouse

Almost exactly one year ago, North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson announced a major technology purchase for K-3 teachers:  everyone would be getting an iPad.  

Eyebrows shot up all over the state, especially the eyebrows of anyone who had recently seen the price tags at an Apple store. 

NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) spokesman Drew Elliot said literacy consultants had recommended iPads as the overwhelming choice for early elementary children, and that purchasing a large number of devices meant a bulk discount and no sales tax.  The department put the overall cost of the iPads at around $6 million for 24,000 tablets.

Just when taxpayers’ eyebrows had settled down to their standard position, a story by NC Policy Watch’s Billy Ball shot them right back up again.  It turned out the iPad purchase had come mere months after Mark Johnson and a handful of influential state legislators were wined and dined at Apple’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. 

At its September 2018 meeting, the State Board of Education had some pointed questions for Superintendent Johnson, as board members objected to not being notified prior to this large expenditure.  According to meeting minutes and social media accounts by those in attendance, Johnson bristled and asked that such questions occur by telephone or email rather than at a public meeting.

Apart from the ethical questions raised by the interaction with Apple, the fact that this purchase was made by the superintendent at all was problematic.  State law holds that individual school districts should be provided with funds for electronic devices and allowed to make decisions about purchases on their own.  After all, each district’s needs and capabilities are different.  

At the February meeting of the State Board of Education, Mark Johnson acknowledged as much, admitting that some districts preferred to use Google Chromebooks and noting there were unused iPads remaining in the warehouse (apparently they were sent out to school districts that didn’t want them and then returned).  

Johnson said the plan was to distribute those iPads in the spring.  When pressed by board member Wayne McDevitt on the exact number of iPads in the warehouse, the superintendent said he didn’t have the exact number but it was in the “low thousands.”

When the State Board met in March, Superintendent Johnson was again asked how many iPads remained in the warehouse, this time by Chairman Eric Davis.  Johnson put the number at “just over 2,000” and said they would be distributed in spring and summer so they could be used for the 2019-2020 school year.

It turns out that number was off–by quite a lot.

According to a source within DPI, as of August 2019, the number of iPads currently in the warehouse is 3,269.  That’s right, nearly 15% of the iPads Mark Johnson bought without consulting districts are collecting dust at the North Carolina Textbook Warehouse in Raleigh.  

Let’s leave aside for a moment the argument that these tablets should probably never have been purchased to begin with, due to ethical and procedural considerations.  The fact is they belong to North Carolina taxpayers now. And they need to be in classrooms in front of our students.

**update: A day after this piece was published, Superintendent Mark Johnson offered an explanation for the discrepancy in numbers between how many warehoused iPads were reported to the State Board of Education in March and how many are currently in inventory. Johnson said he purchased an additional 800 iPads last month.

Help is on the way for North Carolina Virtual Public School teachers

This week more than 200 teachers with North Carolina Virtual Public Schools (NCVPS) were notified of an impending mandatory 31-day break in their service due to a state law governing temporary employees.  While NCVPS employment had been permitted under the statute for years, the Office of State Human Resources (OSHR) recently determined that the arrangement was out of compliance.

The furloughs would impact fall semester course offerings for thousands of students statewide who rely on the platform. 

In a Friday letter to NCVPS educators, State Board of Education chairman Eric Davis noted the “significant, practical” impacts the furloughs would have on teachers, students, and school districts.  With the beginning of the traditional school year right around the corner, the State Board and the Department of Public Instruction are working with members of the General Assembly and the Governor’s office to address the problem. 

Late Friday, the State Board’s Director of Government Relations Cecilia Holden said the board had requested a temporary waiver from OSHR and was working with the General Assembly to find a solution.  Among others, one option being reviewed is the possibility of identifying and enacting a limited legislative exemption from this requirement for NCVPS temporary employees.

Holden noted that House K-12 Education Committee Chair Craig Horn shared that the Staff and Education Chairs are working on a solution to this issue and feel that they have the situation well in hand.  They expect to have the problem solved before any such furloughs are implemented. She added, “In this time of need, we are thankful to our legislators who are working diligently to partner with K-12 education for the benefit of our students.”


NC chapter of International Dyslexia Association releases statement of concern over Istation adoption

The North Carolina chapter of the International Dyslexia Association, a nonprofit dedicated to education and advocacy about dyslexia, has weighed in on the controversy surrounding the adoption of K-3 computer-based reading test Istation.

In a statement posted on its website and on social media, the group expressed concern over the assessment’s ability to “effectively identify students at risk of dyslexia” and suggested that LEAs will now need additional tools in order to screen students for dyslexia as required by state law.

Last week Superintendent Mark Johnson addressed the dyslexia issue in his denial of Amplify’s protest of the Istation contract award.  Johnson insisted that Istation’s “measures can confidently be used to screen for dyslexia,” but he added that state law “does not actually require the Read to Achieve tool to serve as a dyslexia screener for the state.” 

You can read NCIDA’s statement in its entirety below.