Johnston County Schools JoCo2020 Train Wreck: “A lot of icing, but no cake”

By: Kay Carroll
Former Johnston County Board of Education Chairman and Candidate For School Board

During the time I was on the Johnston County School Board, from 1992 to 2008, I never remember our having a problem with state tests or scores. I recently looked back on the state’s website to see some of our averages. In 2007-2008 our End of Grade (3-8 grades) overall average was 50.9 and it continued to climb to 67.5 in 2011-12. During that same time period our End of Course (9-12) average went from 68.4 to 81.4.

But in 2012-2013 during the Croom administration, according to the state’s website, the bottom fell out. The End of Grade average fell to 32% and the End of Course fell to 44.1%. During that same time period (2008-2012/13), Schooldigger, which is a national data base for schools across the country, dropped Johnston County’s rank from around 41st (the top 25% in the state) out of approximately 166 schools (including private and charter) to 79th which put us at about the 50% mark.

By the time Ed Croom left in 2015-16 and Ross Renfrow took over, we were ranked 102/192. Last summer when the scores came out, we were ranked 154/235 while districts like Wilson (115th) and Sampson (64th) were ranked higher. Even one of the poorest districts in the state, Hyde County, ranked 52nd. On top of that, this past November 2019, two of our schools were listed by the state school board as having such low scores that they are candidates for takeover by the state. What has happened to our focus and direction?

It is obvious that our students have not been as well prepared as others in the state to take the required tests, and I do not think it is the teachers’ fault. There seems to be an attitude among senior leadership of the district that tests and scores do not really matter, that they are not important, and that learning should come naturally without testing. Why has our focus changed?

Well, that is not the real world. Anyone who has a license to do anything had to take a test to prove that he/she is competent – plumbers, general contractors, doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, even teachers – the list is endless. And in order to make a good score on the test, all of these people had to research the topics to be tested, study the subject, take practice tests, and manage their review so as to cover all the areas prior to taking the test. Our students need to be well prepared to perform successfully.

This is the way it used to be in our schools. But when I visited an elementary teacher in Johnston County in the fall, she said it was not the way it was done any more. They did not worry about the goals and objectives or course outlines and did not have any pacing guides (so as to keep the teacher on schedule in order to cover all aspects before the test.) I was shocked!

I had heard that Ross Renfrow had coined the term “JoCo2020” as some sort of new way of looking at the curriculum. And a friend of mine told me she heard a middle school principal make a presentation on the “new direction” where he said that the school system really was not concerned anymore about standards (test scores) – they believed if the students had fun – really enjoyed school – that would be enough. But I remember one of our former superintendents saying that “School is where students go to do their work. They are preparing for the rest of their lives.”

It appears that, for the last three years, the school district has phased in a “canned” program that Renfrow called JoCo2020, with the first year emphasizing indoctrination of principals, the second year with teachers, and the third year with students. The slogan for last year, the third year, was “Each student counts; every moment matters.” This is a good slogan if it meant something. Retired Principal Mary Nell Ferguson shared the following about her concerns with JoCo2020 with me: “In a letter to Dr. Renfrow, I said I was very concerned that we had a lot of icing, but no cake. The cake referral is the basic education a child should receive. An example of the icing was the new furniture proudly demonstrated in the Glenn building. Dr. Renfrow did not agree with my assessment. I am still looking for evidence of the cake”.

In a video of Ross Renfrow explaining the program, he says that “the three most important words in public education are relationships, relationships, relationships.” For the principals, the program centered on “relationships, relevance, and innovation in the classroom.” In the second year, the idea was to change teachers’ mindsets – to do away with “fixed or closed mindsets” and replace them with “growth mindsets, innovation mindsets.”

The program centers around changing the method of learning from the teacher led (making most, if not all, of the decisions), to the learner (the student) being in charge of directing his/her own studies. A sample of stage three of the Personalized Learning Environment says the LEARNER self-directs how, when, and where he or she monitors, adjusts, and achieves learning goals. Another “learner centered” tenet is, The learner owns and is responsible for their learning which includes their voice and choice on how and what they learn.”

I am old school, but I can still see merit in this kind of approach IF IT WORKED. And maybe it does for tutoring or individualized instruction. But, in my opinion, there is no evidence that it has worked in our regular classrooms. The philosophical transition for teachers who tried to adapt to each student coming up with his/her own path for learning must have been monumental, laborious, and time-consuming. Previously, in our schools, we have asked teachers to give group instruction and then adapt that instruction to several different learning styles. But with upwards of 25 students, individualization for every student for every lesson is an impossible order.

Obviously the inability of many of our students to learn the material required by the state on their grade level or their inability to prove, on a written test, what they know, is staggering, and I am sure, also extremely frustrating for the students.  No one likes to fail. And this year, 2020, where is the program? Who is talking about it? The last time I checked, some pages had been pulled down from the website. So what is the district doing now?

By the way, I cannot find any reference on our district’s website to the state’s Curriculum Guides or district pacing guides by grade level. But they do exist very clearly on other district’s web pages. I invite teachers and parents to check out Cumberland County School District’s website to get this very clear information.

So, the cost over the past few years has been great. The first cost has been what our students have lost in learning. The second cost has been Johnston County’s reputation in the academic world. And then I believe there is a third cost – the program itself.

At the bottom of one of the charts on the district’s website for JoCo2020, the page cites Personalize Learning, LLC.  I have researched them as well as a few other companies that offer this type of program. On one website, a different group talks about how much cheaper their program is than textbooks – a mere $2.70/student/month based on those who participate. If even half of our students participated (16,000), in that program, the cost could be $43,200 a month, for three years.  Really?

At this point, I don’t know how much this program has cost us over the past three years.

I don’t know how many students were actually involved.

I don’t know if there was a rate schedule.

I don’t know if we are continuing the program this year. (The two developers of this particular program have split the business and gone their separate ways.)

But, I am asking lots of questions and waiting for answers.

But this I do know – somehow, some way, somebody has got to fix this wreck and get the train back on the tracks. Our children are the ones suffering.

We are better than this. Our school district deserves to be great again.