A new education experiment is taking place across North Carolina. It's called Restart - and the aim is to improve student performance in some of the state's low-performing schools. The program gives them more local control and flexibility similar to charters. It allows for things like hiring more teachers and extending the school day, for example.

Now, over a hundred programs are approved in the state. EducationNC and WRAL partnered on a three-part series on Restart schools. WFDD's Keri Brown talked with EdNC's Alex Granados and WRAL's Kelly Hinchcliffe about what they learned.

Interview Highlights

On how the program started:

AG: Restart was in state statute, but a lot of people didn't know it was there or that they could use it. Back in 2010, the federal government had a program called Race to the Top. In order for North Carolina to get that money, they had to come up with reform models, and one of them was Restart. None of the schools chose Restart at the time. But since then, that money has dried up. There was a push to look at ways to improve student performance in a large number of low-performing schools. A group called the Innovation Project, which includes superintendents from school districts throughout the state, worked with the Department of Public Instruction to revisit state statute and look at Restart. It began with a handful of schools in 2016. More and more districts have applied and asked the state to approve them for the program. Today, there are 103 schools in Restart.

On how the model works:

KH: I visited a school in Alamance County [called] Haw River Elementary, and one of the things they are doing is once a week they have extended their school day to host after school clubs. Students in the elementary school can choose which club they want to be part of. They have yoga, they have basketball, they have music, even Harry Potter crafts, and so the thinking is that if they can get students to enjoy being at school more and to keep them in school a little longer once a week, that they will want to be there and want to come to school and that will improve their success in school.

On some of the other benefits of having a Restart model at a school that's struggling:

AG: Other flexibilities are financial flexibility. Schools get money from the state and the money comes in the form of allotments, so basically there are strings attached. The state says, 'here's money for a specific thing, and you have to use the money for that.' Let's use classroom teachers for example. With the financial flexibility under Restart, schools can take this money and basically use it however they want to. They can pay teachers different amounts based on whatever role they are taking on in the classroom, so it's more creative uses with the money they get. [Another] one is licensure flexibility. Teachers in North Carolina have to be licensed to teach, which makes sense, but in the case in some of these low-performing schools, they have teachers who have the expertise to teach certain subjects but maybe aren't licensed specifically in those subjects.

On any concerns about the program:

KH: One of the struggles with this program that the state has found is how do you determine if a school is making progress, or how do you determine if it's working in other words? So the school that I visited with the after school clubs, that may make students want to come to school more. which is wonderful, but how do you show that is actually improving their academics? So one of the things that we have not been able to find out yet is how the schools are going to be judged. The state is planning to discuss that this summer. Alex spoke to lawmakers about this as well to get their thoughts on it.

AG: Many of the lawmakers I talked to think local schools should have more flexibility, but they have reservations about that. So right now, if you have Restart flexibility, you basically have it forever. And so, some of the legislators I talked to said, 'well, does there need to be some sort of stop date for that? If you have flexibility and after a number of years you can't improve your school, does the school keep flexibility, or do we take that away?'

On what makes this program different from others aimed at low-performing schools:

KH: I would say the main difference in this program is that it actually gives a lot of power to the schools to decide what changes they want to make. So with Restart, it's really the state backing off and saying we are just going to leave you alone a little bit more and try to let you try to figure out what you need to do, where some of the other models are more the state coming in and having, I guess, a heavier hand in some of the decisions that are made.

*Follow WFDD's Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news

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