NEW HANOVER COUNTY — While state accountability scores released last week show New Hanover County schools are making improvements in some areas — though yet to return to pre-pandemic performance levels — other sectors have declined. Data highlights schools with greater populations of students that fall in the lower socioeconomic status may be suffering most.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction compiled annual data on schools based largely on end-of-grade test scores, while also accounting for student learning growth — the amount of academic progress that students make over the course of a grade or class. The 2021-2022 school year was the first year the state assigned schools a letter grade, A-F, since prior to the pandemic.
The new report tracks 13 out of 39 NHC schools as “low performing,” meaning the institutions received a D or F, compared to only five before the pandemic. The report excludes six pre-K centers and non-traditional schools in the county. New Hanover County is not necessarily unique in its increase; across the state, the number of low-performing schools nearly doubled.
Out of five schools that earned an A grade in 2018-2019, one — Ogden Elementary — did not receive the same mark in 2021. This year’s four A schools are Wrightsville Beach Elementary, Wilmington Early College High, Masonboro Elementary, and Isaac M. Bear Early College High School.
Director of testing and accountability Elizabeth Murray noted that emerging from the aftereffects of the pandemic will be a gradual process.
“Our learners are very different,” she said. “And what we know about learning loss is that it’s the idea that learning decays over time if students don’t engage with it regularly. And so, for nearly two years, our students haven’t been able to engage regularly.”
Many students are two years behind in learning. Inequities became apparent during Covid-19 shutdowns, as not all students had internet access across the county to participate in virtual school.
Still, Murray noted the school district has improved its graduation rate, which rose from last year’s 87% to 89% this year, compared to the overall state rate of 86%. ACT scores are eighth in the state and scores on WorkKeys, an assessment of career readiness, are fourth in the state.
“We began to already see significant recovery of learning,” Murray said.
School board members Nelson Beaulieu, Judy Justice, Stephanie Walker and Stefanie Adams agree letter grades are not sufficient in capturing a school’s success. Essentially, the board members are concerned it ignores the hard work students and staff put in on a daily basis.
“I’ve had a long-time problem with assigning the school a simple letter grade,” board member Nelson Beaulieu said. “I would come away with the idea that all of my hard work is not valued properly, is not reflected in a simple letter grade contrived by somebody who’s looking at paper and has never been in my building.”
“My response has never changed — I don’t believe that a school report card score is representative of what is truly going on in a school ever,” Adams added.
Studies have shown evaluating a student’s ability or comprehension based on test scores is a flawed system, although standardized testing in schools has been the normal way of operating since the 1970s. Some funding is tied to test scores due to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
The state calculates its letter grade 80% based on test scores and 20% on growth.
“I would flip it,” Beaulieu said.
Walker echoed it is more important to look at a school’s growth numbers as a better indicator of success, even though the number is still not all-encompassing. NCDPI calculates growth by using test scores to measure how much a student has improved learning from their previous test.
The 2021-2022 report pinpoints four of the “low performing” schools — Holly Shelter Middle, Wrightsboro Elementary, Myrtle Grove Middle and Forest Hills Global Elementary — did not meet growth expectations, or students were not making gains in learning on par with state guidelines. One school, Sunset Park Elementary, exceeded growth standards.
Even though testing score data can be limited, Walker said the numbers should not be ignored and do give clues on where the district can improve its support.
Thirteen NHCS schools that received D or F are predominantly made up of students that come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, A. H. Snipes Academy of Arts & Design, which received an F, has a population wherein 90% of student households operate at the poverty level and close to 100% of students receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch.
According to the U.S. News & World Report, every school except one — Myrtle Grove Middle — that rated low-performing has a minority population over 50%.
Justice and Walker said the data reflects the district’s “neighborhood schools” assignment model, adopted a decade ago. It prioritizes students attending institutions near to where they live. The two board members claimed the model basically resegregated county schools.
Decades ago, NHC schools were required to retain between 15% and 50% African American students in each facility, following a Title VI complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in the 1990s. The order expired in 1997, but the efforts continued until the late 2000s, when the board then voted to take a “neighborhood” approach.
A study from the UNC Center for Civil Rights found 28 of 42 NHC schools were racially imbalanced. Ultimately, it determined the neighborhood model increased the disparities already present due to New Hanover County’s residential segregation.
Part of the move toward a neighborhood system was to create magnet schools; Rachel Freeman, Snipes and D.C. Virgo were identified, but the white populations decreased substantially with no one filling the vacant seats. This left the schools hyper-segregated and under-enrolled, according to the UNC report.
The measures affected elementary and middle schools, the only schools to receive “low performing” scores from North Carolina Department of Public Instruction; no area high schools ranked below a C.
“Not enough people in the community are talking about this,” Walker said.
She emphasized multiple factors can impede a student’s ability to learn, with students experiencing poverty or other limiting life conditions.
“Kids bring their trauma to school and it makes it harder for students to learn,” Walker said.
Studies show schools in low-income areas often experience high levels of teacher turnover, in turn preventing schools from building a staff more attuned to students’ needs. PCD reported in 2020 the attrition rate is roughly 20% at Forest Hills, Gregory, Snipes and Freeman, while predominantly white schools, like Masonboro (neé Parsley), Ogden and Wrightsville Beach, retained the majority of experienced instructional staff for over a decade.
“Those high poverty schools, no matter how much money you throw at them, the schools need to be refigured with targeted redistricting,” Justice said. “We already have overcrowding, so we need to be doing more.”
Chief Academic Officer Patrice Faison said NHCS is assuring each child is being evaluated on their individual needs and getting connected to resources to help them succeed in the classroom. The school district offers “wraparound” services, which can include tutoring, meeting with a social worker, receiving free or reduced lunch.
“The administration has been so laser-focused with working with our nonprofit providers — look at the partnership between Port City United within our schools and communities,” school board member Adams said. “Look at the YWCA providing afterschool care. I mean, we have so many different partnerships that our students are being surrounded and wrapped in.”
Scores of area schools listed in alphabetical order; alternative schools J.C. Roe Center and Lake Forest Academy aren’t rated:
- A. H. Snipes Academy of Arts & Design: 36 (F)
- Bradley Creek Elementary: 65 (C)
- Career Readiness Academy at Moseley: 52 (D)
- Castle Hayne Elementary: 66 (C)
- Charles P. Murray Middle School: 75 (B)
- College Park Elementary: 43 (D)
- Dr. Hubert Eaton Elementary: 82 (B)
- Dr. John Codington Elementary: 73 (B)
- Edwin A. Anderson Elementary: 70 (B)
- Edwin A. Alderman Elementary: 51 (D)
- Emma B. Trask Middle School: 58 (C)
- Emsley Lane High School: 64 (C)
- Eugene Ashley High School: 64 (C)
- Forest Hills Global Elementary: 28 (F)
- Heyward C. Bellamy Elementary: 75 (B)
- Holly Shelter Middle School: 51 (D)
- Holly Tree Elementary School: 68 (C)
- International School at Gregory: 51 (D)
- Isaac M. Bear Early College High School: 91 (A)
- John J. Blair Elementary: 48 (D)
- John T. Hoggard High School: 70 (B)
- MCS Noble Middle School: 71 (B)
- Masonboro Elementary School: 88 (A)
- Mary C. Williams Elementary: 62 (C)
- Murrayville Elementary: 62 (C)
- Myrtle Grove Middle School: 54 (D)
- New Hanover High School: 55 (C)
- Ogden Elementary School: 84 (B)
- Pine Valley Elementary School: 61 (C)
- Porters Neck Elementary: 72 (B)
- Rachel Freeman School of Engineering: 22 (F)
- Roland Grise Middle School: 60 (C)
- SEA-Tech: 73 (B)
- Sunset Park Elementary: 51 (D)
- Williston Middle School: 39 (F)
- Wilmington Early College High School: 88 (A)
- Winter Park Model Elementary School: 62 (C)
- Wrightsboro Elementary: 36 (F)
- Wrightsville Beach Elementary: 89 (A)
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