Chatham’s four “Low Performing Schools” rebranded as “Schools in Recovery” by district administrators

By Bea Wunston

Pittsboro, NC – All located in the western half of Chatham County, Siler City Elementary, Bonlee School, Chatham Middle School, and Jordan-Matthews High School have been designated as low-performing schools by the State of North Carolina. Each of these schools received both a D performance grade in 2021-2022 state accountability results, as well as failed to exceed improvement targets from the previous year, known as “expected growth.”

“Low-Performing Schools” are identified each year by state-level metrics.

G.S. 115C-105.37 (which was passed on October 1, 2015) states: “The State Board of Education shall design and implement a procedure to identify low-performing schools on an annual basis. Low-performing schools are those that receive a school performance grade of D or F and a school growth score of ” met expected growth” or “not met expected growth” as defined by G.S. 115C-83.15.” School performance grades are letter-grades calculated using a formula which weights student achievement (test scores, etc.) at 80% and student growth (progress over previous year) at 20%.

Due to lack of data collection during the pandemic, the 2018-2019 school year was the last time these scores were reported. The number of low-performing schools has increased across the state over the previous reporting year, with 33.3%* of North Carolina schools now receiving this label. (NC DPI Annual Testing Report, 9/1/2022)

For further information about how the state calculates accountability scores, visit the NC DPI website.

Evidence of poor performance

The chart below lays out the specific metrics which landed the four Chatham County schools in the low-performing category. Virginia Cross Elementary also received a school performance grade of D, but exceeded expected growth, and Chatham Central High School did not meet expected growth, but received a C grade. Thus, those schools both avoided the low-performing status.

The 2021-2022 Accountability Results for Chatham County Schools show several exceptionally low levels of proficiency for certain cohorts within these low-performing schools. In these categories, only a small fraction of students were able to demonstrate competency on end-of-grade tests.

Jordan-Matthews High School: 

  • 12.9% of students tested proficient NC Math 1, the first of four math credit requirements for high school graduation.  (Of note, Chatham Central High and Northwood High both also scored less than 30% proficient in the same NC Math 1 category.)

Bonlee School:

  • 16.0% of 5th grade students are proficient in reading at grade-level.

Siler City Elementary

  • 27.8% of 3rd grade students are proficient in reading at grade-level.

Chatham Middle School:

  • 34.9% of 6th grade students are proficient in reading at grade-level.

Though the following slides show that these statistics were included among an array of figures as part of a presentation, they were not called-out verbally during remarks by administrators.

Page 38,  2022 CCS Board of Education Presentation Accountability Results. (GLP = Grade-Level Proficiency)

Page 26, 2022 CCS Board of Education Presentation Accountability Results.

Two of the four low-performing schools have been designated as such in the past.  Chatham Middle School has been designated as low-performing for the 3rd time since 2017 (the pandemic year excluded). Siler City Elementary has been named a low-performing school before, but previously improved enough to lose the designation. (NC DPI – Low-Performing Schools)

It is worth noting, Bonlee School, Siler City Elementary, and Chatham Middle School are among several Chatham County schools under the “Title I” program which receive additional federally supported assistance for educationally and economically disadvantage children. The CCS website states “Chatham County Schools’ Title I program provides funds to eligible schools to help ensure that all students meet state academic standards.”

Chatham County Schools seeks to obscure failure by changing labels

Rather than focusing on acknowledging and owning up to poor school performance, Chatham County administrators have chosen to disguise shortcomings with positive language. During the October 10 Board of Education meeting, Dr. Amanda Moran, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, began her presentation by saying,

“You’ve heard us say low performing schools in the past, and that’s the state terminology. We don’t like it. We think that our schools are in recovery from unique challenges.” – Dr. Amanda Moran, 10/10/2022

According to Chatham County Schools, “the performance grade does not take into account all the wonderful things taking place in our schools each and every day that cannot be captured in a test score or number. In fact, these schools had composite score increases and significant gains across multiple areas” (Agenda, CCS Board of Education Meeting, 10/10/2022). This sentiment regarding perceived “unfairness of the grades” is in line with what has been expressed by State Superintendent, Catherine Truitt. However, the state has not moved to change the terminology used to refer to these schools (Source).

Local administrators want low-performing schools to seem better.

As stated above, for the past 7 years (since 2015), school performance grades have been calculated based on 80% student achievement and 20% student growth. When presenting this year’s findings, Dr. Moran asserted that the four low-performing schools in Chatham County were unique compared to other schools across the state who have been likewise designated, and therefore, should be evaluated in a way that makes them appear better. She suggested that North Carolina should reconfigure the calculation to de-emphasize the competency-based metric, “student achievement.”

“We have schools that when we put them up against other schools across the state, they’re outperforming schools similar. Our schools are growing at rapid rates, um, and we’re really proud of that, but this model does not show that. And so, we feel certain that if that model was changed to a more 50/50 or reversed 80/20 on growth, we would see really different school performance grades here in our district.” – Dr. Amanda Moran, 10/10/2022

Board of Education holds views similar to administrators.

Board of Education Vice Chair, Del Turner, addressed this topic at the regular board session on July 18, 2022. In response to a presentation of the drafted CCS Strategic Plan, she stated:

“Since we all do not even agree that growth should be measured 80% tests and 20% growth— is there a way that we can see those other figures, so we can see 80% growth and 20% tests?”

“I think that we would feel better looking at what we’re really doing… and I think that would be good to put out there to the public, because they do not understand, and when they’re looking at the configuration that the state has come up with, they’re like, ‘What are these people doing?'”

– Del Turner, Vice Chair, Chatham County Board of Education, 7/18/2022

Mr. David Hamm, another CCS Board Member, expressed a similar opinion regarding the proportions used to generate these calculations during the public board meeting on 10/10/2022.

The procedure and timeline for addressing low-performing schools is mandated by state regulations

Following the identification of a school as low performing, several actions are mandated by statute to occur within the first 30 days. The superintendent is required to make a recommendation to the school board regarding whether each school’s principal should be retained, transferred, demoted, or dismissed. The superintendent must also submit a preliminary plan for improving both the school performance grade and school growth score, as well as notify, in writing, the parents and guardians of students attending the low-performing schools before November 4, 2022. Chatham County Schools administrators presented their preliminary school improvement plans during the public Board of Education meeting on October 10, 2022.

The local board of education then has 30 days following the receipt of the preliminary plans to modify, reject, or approve them. They must make the plan available to the public and accept written feedback from personnel assigned to the schools and parents of students attending the schools. (NC DPI – Next Steps: Schools Designated as Low Performing, Sept 2022)

North Carolina state-mandated timeline for low-performing schools.

Board approves School Improvement Plans prior to receiving parent input.

In a repeat of the process used by Chatham County Schools in previous years, the Board of Education approved the School Improvement Plans on 10/10/2022 for the low-performing schools without first incorporating parent and faculty feedback. Citing eagerness to begin implementing the plans and reluctance to call an additional special board meeting ahead of the final deadline dictated by the state, Dr. Moran encouraged the board to approve the plans on the same night they were first presented. She assured the board that if parent feedback differed significantly from the district-constructed school improvement plans, CCS administrators would come back to the board to approve necessary modifications.

CCS School Improvement Plans to have “an equity goal and an instructional goal”

Chatham County Schools plans to provide a variety of additional supports to low-performing schools, which they have deemed “in recovery,” as well as to other schools within the district which narrowly avoided the designation (Chatham Central and Virginia Cross) and targeted subgroups within additional schools, such as students with disabilities. The CCS Summary of Overall Plan Requirements for 2022-2023 indicates schools will be evaluated against an equity goal and an instructional goal. The overall plan calls for check-in meetings and walkthroughs, as well as additional observations of staff, reviewing teacher growth data and providing professional development training when appropriate. Existing funds will be used to implement the plan.

The entire plan overview can be viewed here.

Excerpt from CCS Summary of Overall Plan Requirements for 2022-2023.**

Chatham County Schools Low Performing Schools Feedback Form: HERE

Board of Education praises administrators rather than advocating for public interest.

While disappointing, it is not entirely surprising for an organization such as CCS to try to put a positive spin on the effects of their past decisions. However, as elected officials, the Board of Education should be challenging district employees to explain poor results and to readjust their priorities accordingly, rather than piling on praise. Board members have a responsibility to serve as advocates for public interest by asking hard questions and holding the district truly accountable. Instead, the Board has been contributing to the use of smoke and mirrors, rather than fostering transparency and genuine progress.

Showing growth after massive learning loss is inevitable. Attaining high achievement levels requires substantive work

Administrators have pointed to “growth” as proof of the good things happening within Chatham County Schools. Yet, representatives of the district fail to point out that the basic improvements in learning rendered by a return to in-person instruction are likely to account for much of the growth. Remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on K-12 education across the country, and it should surprise no one that some gains have been made since students have returned to classrooms.

Additionally, why should the board or district staff waste any time lamenting the unfairness of a scoring system which is applied equally across every district in the whole state? If given the chance, each district with struggling schools could likely design a custom calculation to help improve public perceptions. But, the purpose of the scoring system is to evaluate every school against the same pre-determined yardstick. Would it be reasonable for a student to employ the same reasoning to justify their own personal failing grade? One might complain, “If only the grading scale was different than I was told in the syllabus, I would be doing well in this class!” This is a tactic which distracts and draws attention away from underlying problems.

Meanwhile, 7 out of every 8 students who completed the NC Math 1 course at Jordan-Matthews High School failed to meet proficiency standards last year. At Bonlee School, 5 in every 6 students in last year’s 5th grade class are unable to read at grade-level. Rather than rehabilitating the superficial labels of schools such as these, perhaps the Board of Education and administrators should spend more time making the case to parents that the School Improvement Plans they are implementing will make a real, tangible difference for students in western Chatham County.

Footnotes:* 33.29% =  864/ 2,595 = low-performing schools designated for 2021-2022 divided by total number of schools which received School Performance Grades (SPG) for the 2021–22 school year. Source

** SWD = students with disabilities, SIP = School Improvement Plan


Chatham County Board of Education Meeting Agenda – 10/10/2022

2022 BOE Presentation Accountability Results

CCS BOE Meeting 10.10.2022

Chatham County Schools 2022-2023 School Support Plans

NC DPI Press Release 9/1/2022