Charter schools may be saved

State officials had concerns about PreEminent and Torchlight in Raleigh, which have pledged to improve

Staff WriterFebruary 5, 2009 

Two Raleigh charter schools may be saved from closure after public relations campaigns and promises to improve.

PreEminent Charter will be allowed to stay open at least three more years, if the State Board of Education today goes along with a recommendation made by one of its committees Wednesday. The board may wait to decide the fate of Torchlight Academy, pending audit results.

State officials had warned PreEminent that its charter would expire in June because of poor student performance on state tests during the past four years. PreEminent is a "low performing" school where only 33 percent of the school's students passed state exams.

Under the committee's proposal Wednesday, PreEminent would lose its charter in three years if test scores don't improve.

The school's leaders had made a plan to improve student scores and had invited state officials to visit.

The school pays close attention to student performance, said Marvin Pittman, the board's community liaison for student achievement. The student information is posted in the teachers' lounge, so each teacher can see how the classes compare.

Sen. Vernon Malone, a Raleigh Democrat, was impressed by the efforts of parents, teachers and administrators. He visited the school last week. "There seems to be a very strong desire on the part of staff to improve the situation," he said.

The fate of another charter, Torchlight Academy, is undecided. The board has questions about gaps in the school's audit, board member Melissa Bartlett said. Before the board decides whether it should stay open, the committee asked the school to provide answers to questions about the audit.

A summary of audit findings listed budget deficits and failure to follow federal rules for the school lunch program. The school says it will have a budget surplus this year and will use the money to improve teaching.

Torchlight started its own intense campaign, with its leaders meeting with state school officials, legislators, and journalists. They also sought out leaders of other schools where many students are black or Latino, or are eligible for subsidized lunch.

Charter schools receive public money but don't have to follow many of the rules that apply at traditional public schools. They are usually run by private boards, and they have the freedom to set their own curriculum guidelines.

PreEminent and Torchlight are among a string of predominantly black schools that have either been shut down or come close to it. Their situation reignited a debate over whether the schools should be shut down without the state considering the extra challenges they face.

The indecision on Torchlight left Thaisha Burnette worried about the future of her children's school.

Burnette's children, Hyeim, 9, and Shalimar, 8, benefit from the structured classes and close attention they get at Torchlight, she said.

Burnette, who lives in Durham and drives a bus for Torchlight, said Hyeim, a special education student, receives individual attention to improve his reading.

"I would hate to see them close down the school," she said.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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