New report shows Buncombe schools outperformed state in most metrics last year

PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE: Buncombe County Board of Education members stand for the Pledge of Allegiance during the Oct. 5 meeting. They were joined by members of Clyde A. Erwin High School’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, who performed a presentation of the colors. Photo by Greg Parlier

Steve Earwood, Buncombe County Schools director of testing and accountability, laid out the successes and failures of the 2022-23 school year during the Oct. 5 Buncombe County Board of Education meeting.

In what he called an “autopsy” report, Earwood said the most telling data involved the cohort graduation rate — the percentage of high school freshmen who graduate within four years. Since 2006, the rate has risen by nearly 20 percentage points to 91% — nearly five points higher than the state average.

“A lot of people typically look at this as a high school measure, [but] that could not be further from the truth. The reality is this starts in kindergarten, where the foundation is laid. That’s where the excitement for school is built,” Earwood said.

Earwood also highlighted the district’s scores on the ACT, a national standardized test designed to measure college readiness. The district’s students scored 19.1 on average, almost a full point higher than students statewide.

In his analysis of school performance grades, Earwood noted that while 77.3% of the district’s schools received a C grade or better based on state standards, 10 schools qualified as low performing. A school is considered low performing if it receives a grade of D or F and either meets or does not meet growth expectations, Earwood said.

Five of those low-performing schools — Joe P. Eblen Intermediate, Clyde A. Erwin Middle, Woodfin Elementary, Emma Elementary and Johnston Elementary — are in the Erwin District northwest of Asheville.

Board member Kim Plemmons, who represents the Erwin District, contested this point. “I can tell you, they are not low-performing schools,” she said. “They are very good schools.”

Plemmons recommended that when determining a school’s performance, the district should consider how many students are learning English as a second language.

“There are many children that can’t speak English, or they know about ‘this much’ English. When they go home, they have parents that can’t speak English. I think we need to look at that,” said Plemmons. “I know it won’t change the state data, but I think we need to compare that to what’s going on.”

She said 21% of students at Eblen Intermediate, 32% at Emma Elementary and 37% at Johnston Elementary are still learning English, impacting their ability to score well on tests.

Earwood suggested that many of those students also fall within the category of economically disadvantaged students and are captured that way in his analysis.

He showed board members several scatter plot graphs to compare the two methods the state uses to determine school performance grades compared with the percentage of students that qualify for free or reduced-cost meals.

He said results on student proficiency, which makes up 80% of a school’s grade using college and career readiness and grade level placement tests, has a negative correlation with the amount of economically disadvantaged students at a school. The more students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals at a school, the lower that school’s achievement.

Conversely, results on student growth — a metric that makes up 20% of a school’s grade by comparing each student’s scores at the end of a school year with their expected growth during that year — have no correlation with the amount of free and reduced-price meal recipients, he said.

Earwood stated that growth is a better way to judge a school’s progress, and he is glad the state plans to redesign its grading rubric next spring.

Board member Rob Elliot asked what trends Earwood saw for different demographic subgroups as a way for the board to better determine where more resources were needed.

“Some of us up here ran for the seat because we were concerned about what we know to be an achievement gap in our county that exists between subgroups,” he said. “That’s not really clear from what we just saw. … I would like to see that and understand more clearly what we are doing to address the gap.”

Jennifer Reed, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said one of the key factors to achieving positive results at a low-performing school is having highly qualified teachers in classrooms.

“It takes a more intense, intentional effort at schools like Johnston [Elementary] to make sure that we have the high-quality staff,” she said. “And so, we wrap as many resources as we can around our schools that tend to have higher levels of economically disadvantaged students, potentially students of color and those who come in speaking a language other than English.”

Later in the meeting, the board voted unanimously, as required by the state, to retain the principals in their current positions at all 10 low-performing schools. The other five low-performing schools in BCS are Enka Intermediate, Enka Middle, Charles D. Owen Middle, Oakley Elementary and W.D. Williams Elementary.

Consolidation news

Recently passed House Bill 142 requires Buncombe County Schools and Asheville City Schools to “jointly study the feasibility” of a merger of the two school districts.

The Buncombe school board unanimously passed a resolution at the meeting to empower Buncombe County government to facilitate the request on behalf of the school districts.

Superintendent Rob Jackson said the county would issue a request for proposals to conduct a study, which would then be reported back to both school districts. The districts have until February 2025 to report their findings and recommendations to the General Assembly, per the new law.


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