More than a quarter of the schools in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County received an “F” grade for school performance from the state last year. 

WFDD listener Carol Penick was wondering what the district is doing to correct this enduring problem.

In the latest installment of Carolina Curious, WFDD’s Amy Diaz looks into how the district supports these schools, as well as how performance grades are calculated. 

An “F” school

On the morning of Feb. 14, teachers and staff wearing pink and red waited by the entrance of Petree Elementary School on the east side of Winston-Salem.

As students trickled in, they wished them a good morning and a happy Valentine’s Day. 

“Are you ready for a good day?” asked Principal Alicia Bailey, sporting heart-shaped sunglasses. 

The school’s STEM classroom is visible from the front door. Nearly every inch of this room’s walls are covered with science posters. By the windows, there’s a glowing, indoor flower garden and in a small glass tank, a bearded dragon named Chevy appears to be waiting for the students to arrive. 

Once class starts, the children in this room take on the role of geologists and examine rocks. In another class, students sound out the letters of the alphabet as they learn to read and spell. The teachers have high energy, and the students are engaged. 

You probably wouldn’t know it from the inside, but North Carolina considers this an “F” school. 

Last year, 264 schools in the state received that grade. Twenty-two of them were in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools district.

Timisha Barnes-Jones is the area superintendent for the Inspire340 network, which is a group of schools in the district that are consistently designated as low-performing. She works with them on a weekly basis doing principal and teacher coaching to implement strategies that will grow students and create a positive school culture. 

But she said an “F” doesn’t accurately describe the schools she works with. 

“It’s definitely not indicative of the quality of instruction that's happening in the school,” Barnes-Jones said. “Not at all.”

The formula

The state calculates school performance grades using two measures. 

Eighty percent of the score is based on how many students tested on grade level for their final assessments. Twenty percent is how much growth students made. 

Petree actually exceeded expectations around growth last year — meaning students made more than a year’s worth of academic progress. But because the majority of them still didn’t test on grade level, the school got an “F.” 

That doesn’t seem right to Barnes-Jones. 

“If a third-grade student comes to you on a first-grade level, and you are able, by the end of the year, to get that student almost on third-grade level or even on second-grade, like you have grown this student,” she said. “That’s important, right? And I don’t think it’s just 20% important.”

She’s not alone in thinking that. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI ) is actually in the process of redesigning the whole system. 

Last September, the state convened an advisory group of about 45 stakeholders from across the state, including teachers, principals, legislators, and parents, to try to answer the question: What does high quality education look like in North Carolina?

According to a statewide survey they conducted, most respondents said student growth should be a bigger part of that picture — but that’s not the only factor they want considered. 

So far, the advisory group has come up with a list of eight indicators of school quality including postsecondary outcomes, extracurricular activities, and school climate. 

Andrew Smith from NCDPI explained that a formula based largely on student test scores doesn’t actually measure school performance — it measures poverty. 

“If you were to look at the A through F ratings, and you were to compare that to socioeconomic status, it is almost the exact inverse,” Smith said. “So, typically the schools that have A's are schools that are made up of students with high economic status. And those who are at the other end of the spectrum, are low socioeconomic status.”

Barnes-Jones said that rings true in Forsyth County. Twenty-one out of the 22 “F” schools on the list last year are Title 1 schools, meaning children from low-income families make up at least 40% of enrollment.

“Right now the way it's calculated, it's almost unfair, particularly to schools with high poverty, and mostly Black and brown students,” she said. “Let's just call it what it is.” 

According to statistics from last school year, about 83% of the student population at Petree Elementary were economically disadvantaged. Ninety-six percent were students of color. 

Schools with high levels of poverty face challenges. Teachers are working with students who may not only be below grade level, but could also be dealing with trauma and other issues that come with having a low socio-economic status. 

And when a school is labeled an “F,” Barnes-Jones said that’s a challenge in and of itself.  

“One of the challenges is just the stigma that comes with having an F grade level, because immediately the concept is that these are bad schools, that this is not a school we want to send our children to,” she said. 

The stigma

Bailey said she’s fought to change Petree's reputation since becoming the principal in 2019. 

“We really had to work with the community, with our parents, work on the culture in our building, to change how students felt about coming into the building,” Bailey said. “Letting them know that this was their home, and this was a safe space for them to be and learn.” 

At the same time, the school needed to notify parents about the “F” performance grade it received from the state, said Brad Rhew, the S.T.E.M. coach at Petree. 

“When we put these grades on the schools, we're sending this message that, ‘We're a failing school,’” Rhew said. “But parents really don't know what that means.”

He said there’s been an effort to communicate with parents about all of the innovative learning strategies at Petree too, like STEM labs and hands-on activities. 

“So parents can say, ‘Oh, yeah, our school might have this letter stuck to it. But that really doesn't represent what our teachers are really doing here to help our kids learn,’” he said. 

It’s going to be several years before the school performance grade model actually changes. 

The advisory group is still working to narrow down its list of quality indicators. From there, they’ll need to establish how those items will be weighted and measured and incorporated into a formula. 

Smith said the group will be studying and evaluating the way the indicators look at schools over the next academic year.

“The work is so consequential to the schools, we want to make sure we get it right,” he said. 

That involves making sure they’re not replicating the current system, and again favoring schools with more resources.

Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.

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