Innovative School District: Lakewood Elementary School


Two weeks ago, the North Carolina Board of Education announced a list of six schools being considered for overhaul under the state’s newly implemented Innovative School District. Two members of the Durham Public School System were included on the list—Lakewood Elementary School and Glenn Elementary School. This list has since been paired down to four, in which Lakewood Elementary was cut. The NCISD—the first program of its kind not only within the state, but nationally—will ultimately select two to three schools from this final list of four and turn them over to private, charter operation for a five-year period. Following this time under charter control, the school will either be returned to the local school district or shut-down.

Following the announcement of the list of the six schools under consideration, on which Lakewood Elementary and Glenn Elementary were listed, the Durham Public Schools Board of Education Chairman Mike Lee said “our school board and the Durham community will not quietly accept an experimental takeover of our schools by a charter management organization.” In his reference to the NCISD as an “experiment,” Lee undercut the sentiment that lies at the opposing end of the NCISD debate. In effect, the Innovative School District was brought into law under the Achievement School District law which aims at “improving student outcomes in low-performing schools across the state.”  However, since the 2016 NC General Assembly’s implementation of the Achievement School District, the model has been re-envisioned with a focus on creating innovative conditions in local communities and schools, where “data-driven partnerships can come together with a single vision for equity and opportunity for all students.”

However, this “data-driven” model is inherently flawed as it undermines the individual realities of which schools like Lakewood are far different from those present in most other schools across the state. Of the population of students attending Lakewood Elementary, approximately 60% come from Spanish-Speaking families, 35% are african-American, and the remaining 5% belong to a mixed category of “other.” Within these demographics, Lakewood faces a distinct set of challenges inherently different from those whose primary population of students spent their developmental years surrounded by the same language in which they are taught at school. Yet, despite these intrinsic differences, schools across the state and across the country are held to and compared by the same norms of standardized testing.

Principle James Hopkins of Lakewood Elementary shared his time and thoughts on Lakewood within the context of NCISD—“Lakewood is a great school, we just have a unique set of challenges that other schools might not be dealing with. But trust and believe that the Lakewood community is in full support of the efforts that we are making to try and raise student achievement.” Because at the end of the day, school performance is intended to reflect and aid the students testing within, a student may have entered a school performing at a very low level an takes the end-of school test with visible improvement, but still has results below the statewide standard. In these cases, it is not an issue in which the absolution of school performance can be judged, but rather the relativity of individual success.

As Hopkins has only been the Lakewood principle for 14 weeks, he relayed that he “can’t say that demographics have impacted student achievement because I haven’t been here that long.” However, Hopkins added that he does know there “has been some research that suggests there is a correlation between socioeconomic statuses and student achievement.” Within Lakewood’s 60% of students from Spanish-speaking families, Hopkins identified the language barrier “not as a challenge, but a part of what makes Lakewood unique from a lot of schools in Durham,” despite the testing standards that they unjustly share. Hopkins added that “we are really trying make sure that our Spanish-speaking families are included in every communication and decision that we make at the school-level.” Further, “we are in the process of putting systems in place so that they do feel like Lakewood is their school, just as much as it is that of the English-speaking families.” This weight on inclusivity pervades throughout Hopkin’s broader want and vision for Lakewood. As research that identifies the adversity that English as a Second Language students face and the effect this can have on standardized tests, Hopkins wants to emphasize that Lakewood’s mission is “to make sure that they know that Lakewood is their home and they are included, we want them included.”

In addition to the relative challenge of supporting students students and families who do not speak English at home, Lakewood has a high number of transient students that tend to move in and out. According to Hopkins, though there is a “fair-share [of students] that come to Lakewood for ‘K through 5,’ the Lakewood area has historically been an area where families move in and out in frequency higher than other areas of Durham.” High numbers of transient students are linked to lower school performance as students require a level of stability in their schooling in order to gain the community and support so necessary for academic success.

Even further, Hopkins identifies Lakewood’s work to “install a culture of parent involvement at home, reinforcing curriculum expectations” as a core piece within the school’s emphasis on undermining and reinforcing the academic support received at home. In this vain, Hopkins leaves a message for each family, every Sunday evening, in which he ends by saying “and remember, making sure to read to your children at least 20 minutes or having your children read to you for twenty minutes is the most important thing we can do as parent.” This identified correlation between parents reading to their children and subsequent student performance is in fact true and just one piece of the partially illuminated puzzle that the Lakewood administration has identified in their work toward higher-performance. Hopkins hopes that “those seeds are planted early so that by the time our kindergarten, first, and second graders become fourth and fifth graders, parents are reading to their child…and developing a serious academic relationship that our parent-base and teachers are mutually taking part in.”

With these challenges and support systems in mind, schools systems’ stress on comparative testing across districts and even neighborhoods is inaccurate when used to determine an actual, wholistic, school’s performance as the numbers negate the realities that fuel adverse scores. Schools like Lakewood can be filled with more than competent teachers, administration, and smart children, but are still considered for the state’s overhaul due to the hypersensitive attention paid to a narrowed, singular, score. Hopkins spoke to the points he shared in saying “we feel the pressure of testing, the tests that are given to every school don’t take into account every circumstance a cool is confronted with.” As such, “the challenges Lakewood face are very very different from the challenges of some of the other elementary schools in the state.” Regardless, “at the end of the day, these schools are all held to the same standard.”

These truths are not only consequential in the face of each individual school, but also pose a strong effect in the state’s plan to overhaul these schools, turning them over to state-certified charters that the school-board opened applications for. In effect, the state auctioned off these schools, publicly calling for applications for companies interested in “operating an innovative school district.” But the fact within this case is that regardless of the school’s administration, in the case of Lakewood, the performance levels are likely to stay the same. The adverse effect on performance levels do not lie in the incompetence of the administration, but rather the definitive circumstances that many of the Lakewood community face. As such, Lakewood has identified this adversity and has implemented actions to address and hopefully negate the effects of these challenges.

In this vain, Lakewood was one of 14 Durham-Public schools granted “charter-like” flexibility from the state board of education in July. Under the head of this ‘Restart’ school-reform model, the schools such as Lakewood will have more scheduling flexibility and the freedom to route money to professional development and to support specific areas that affect student achievement. Democratic Senator Floyd McKissick of Durham addressed the Restart program in the face of NCISD saying that “instead of taking over public schools…lawmakers should give them the support needed to help children succeed.”

Hopkins worked to prove this stance to the NCISD Superintendent, Dr. Eric Hall. Hopkins relayed that he was able to meet with Hall and lay out Lakewood’s 90 day plan for short-term improvement, as well as his long-term vision for the school. Hopkins believes that through that conversation, Hall was swayed to take Lakewood off the list—a decision that “the entire Lakewood community is very grateful for.”

Hopkins and the Lakewood community have taken sure steps since the start of the school year to provide additional support to students and families, support that has been “…overwhelming.” Last week, Lakewood hosted their first Title 1 Night last week in which “230 students, parents, and community members came [to Lakewood] to learn about math.” Hopkins said that the group was “representative of the population,” which he takes pride in. “Lakewood is taking everything we can get and we are doing our best to make the best decisions in terms of the allocation of those resources to promote student achievement.”

In terms of the proliferation of grades and numbers, Hopkins says that “numbers don’t lie but they don’t tell the complete truth…in my opinion, the frequency of these numbers has contributed to a misrepresentation of a lot of public schools and that is unfair because we want people to come into our schools to have conversations with teachers and administrators, and not simply valuing a school based on what number or letter they see.” Hopkins ended in saying “we are more than just a number, we are more than just a letter, we are educators–undervalued in many ways, that are working with the resources we have in an effort to provide our students with the best possible education, simple as that.”

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