Charter schools gain strength

GOP legislature pledges to lift 100-school cap, enhancing options for parents

Staff writerJanuary 16, 2011 

  • Though they know that they want more than 100 charter schools, Republicans have not decided whether to allow for a small increase or to set no limits, said Sen. Richard Stevens, a Cary Republican who will be an appropriations chairman next year. Nor have they decided whether to change requirements for starting a charter or keeping one.

    "We want to make sure we have the right standards going forward," he said.

    The possibility that the state may throw away all limits worries Brian Lewis of the NCAE, who said it could be an invitation to trouble with national companies rushing in to take advantage.

    "You're going to create a retail environment for profit-and-loss charters to come in to North Carolina and warehouse students," he said.

    Bill Harrison, the State Board of Education chairman, said he would prefer something like the "smart cap" outlined a few years ago by a special commission studying charters. The commission report suggested lifting the limit to 106, but not counting under the cap the best charters or the first charters in counties that don't have them.

    "I would like to see it done in a thoughtful manner rather than lifting it completely," he said.

    Administrators of majority black charters in the state filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education claiming a year-old State Board of Education policy requiring charters to meet academic standards is discriminatory.

    A State Board of Education policy adopted in December 2009 says that a charter will be revoked if, in two out of three years, the school's students don't absorb at least a year's worth of material each year, or have at least 60 percent of its students pass standardized tests.

    Critics say the policy isn't fair because the state doesn't threaten to close traditional schools that fall below those lines.

    A federal investigator was in Raleigh last month interviewing State Board of Education members about the policy.

    Gov. Bev Perdue sticks by the new standards.

    "Whoever is doing new things must be held accountable," she said.

  • Charter schools are public schools that do not have to operate under all the same rules.

    Charters don't have to offer transportation or serve breakfast and lunch.

    They don't observe traditional school-attendance lines and can draw students from several counties.

    Not all charter teachers need licenses, and schools can employ them on short-term contracts.

    Some charters add hours to the typical school day or days to the traditional 180-day school year.

This promises to be the biggest year for charter schools in North Carolina since the law allowing them passed nearly 15 years ago.

Republicans who will control the legislature promise to lift the state limit of 100 charter schools, offering more options for parents and energizing school-choice groups that have clamored for more since the law was new. Legislators say they intend to offer a proposed new charter law within the first two weeks of the session that begins Jan. 26.

For years, education groups, the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. School Boards Association in particular, have opposed lifting the cap, arguing that they divert money from traditional schools. Gov. Bev Perdue during her campaign said that she was against having more than 100 charters.

But opposition is wilting in the face of political realities.

"I'm willing to listen and look at anything," Perdue said last month when asked about adding charters.

The school boards association dropped its opposition but wants the legislature to make charters meet new conditions that would make them more like traditional schools.

NCAE remains opposed, but Brian Lewis, the group's chief lobbyist, said it knows that legislators intend to raise the limit. President Barack Obama supports expansion of what his office calls "high quality charter schools." The state altered its laws last year to allow school districts to turn low-performing district schools into charters in its effort to win a federal Race to the Top education grant. Charter supporters ridiculed the change, saying these schools would be no different from traditional schools.

Charter schools are state public schools, but they don't operate under the same rules or regulations. Many are started by parents and educators who want an alternative to the public school system. In the Triangle, there are 23 charters, among them Raleigh Charter High, which consistently lands on Newsweek's list of the nation's top high schools.

By law, charters must be open to all students, but in reality, some students are blocked from attending the schools, says the school boards association.

Not all charters offer transportation - only seven of the top 24 charters did in 2009, according to a school boards association data. And only about a third of them participate in the federal program that provides free or reduced-price lunches, although more provide food to students who need it.

"We're finding that if kids can't get themselves there, if they need free meals, it's not a choice for them," said Leanne Winner, lobbyist for the association.

Those are two of the conditions the association wants met if more charters are added.

More charters likely

Legislators are promising to break the 100-charter ceiling in what has already been a pivotal year for the schools.

After years in which charter schools were bunched at the bottom of state rankings and financially weak schools closed, there's some stability in the charter-school ranks.

For the first time in five years, no charters are stuck with the "low performing" label, the worst rating the state hands out. Most charter school students do at least as well on state tests as students in traditional schools.

The improvement can be traced to changes in the state board's policy. It requires a planning year before a new charter opens. And consultants from the state charter school office now visit new schools once a month in their first two years, offer training for charter boards of directors, and work with school operators on ways to use information on student test performance to guide instruction.

Parents seek out charters for their small class sizes and special programs. Thousands of students sit on waiting lists for spots in charters that have good results and reputations. And the specter of deeper state budget cuts and turmoil in local districts has made charters a glittery option for parents and community activists yearning for quality and stability.

Voyager's approach

Across the state are charter schools that focus on arts, environmental studies, education for struggling students or hands-on learning.

One recent morning, fifth graders at Voyager Academy back-flipped, leap-frogged and jumped in rhythm to a hip-hop song about the five elements of a short story.

"Plot, character, conflict, theme, setting," they lip-synched over and over, as a fellow student with a flip camera prepared to record them.

Parents from northern Durham who weren't happy with their middle school choices started Voyager in 2007, said managing director Carl Forsyth. Voyager has expanded to include a high school and wants to add grades kindergarten through third grade. The school library is a large house on the school property donated by the developer who used to live in it.

Student projects large and small are at the center of the school's approach. Voyager operates on the premise that students learn best though guided activities.

Classes were filled with students building cardboard, self-propelled cars or learning to use computer applications.

All the teachers have flip cameras and post student presentations on a website accessible to only students, teachers and parents. As a way to introduce themselves to their classmates and practice giving step-by-step instructions, students in one class made short how-to videos demonstrating a personal talent. One student showed how to spin a basketball on his finger.

Teachers don't talk much about tests, Forsyth said.

Teachers and administrators keep up with what's on state tests and make sure test topics are covered in class, said Jenny Murray, the school's curriculum and staff development director. But they don't want to let test preparation cut into instructional time, she said. Percentages of students who pass end-of-grade tests are well above state average.

Torchlight's discipline

Torchlight Academy in Raleigh takes a different tack, where reminders of state tests are part of the décor.

Students and teachers, all in uniforms of white shirts and Navy blue slacks, jumpers or skirts, walk hallways where banners trumpet test results and goals. The fifth-grade boys class works on how to choose correct answers on an end-of-grade practice test.

Torchlight was in danger of losing its charter a few years ago, partly because of poor test scores. But results this year put student passing percentages above the state average in math and close to average in reading.

Torchlight teaches discipline as much as reading and math. Students march a military-style drill before class. While they are in school, they aren't allowed candy, cookies or any sugary treats.

Don McQueen, Torchlight executive director, has parents' permission to spank some students, and he has.

"Where there is no discipline, there is no love," says a sign in a meeting room.

Most of the classes are divided by gender, and most boys have male teachers.

"The beauty of charter schools is when you can develop an education program that is relevant to the needs of the community," said McQueen.

All Torchlight's children are black or Hispanic, and the school rules are meant to instill habits students will carry into adulthood. White shirts and ties get students used to wearing business attire, and the prohibition on sugary snacks is a response to the diabetes and obesity epidemics.

Desmond Davis, father of three children at Torchlight, said he wouldn't send his children to any other school.

"What I teach in my house, they teach in this school," he said. Davis' 9-year-old son wants to be a businessman and asked for a suit for Christmas, a vision that Davis said was planted at school.

He likes that the school focuses on African-American and Hispanic culture, that all classrooms are named after historically black colleges or universities, that lessons and homework assignments reinforce black and Latino history.

"Kids see a reflection of themselves," he said. "I think that's very, very important."

Last charter awarded

The state will likely hit the 100 charter limit this year.

A few months ago, the State Board of Education handed the last, coveted charter to a Durham school in a low-income community. The school boasts a board of directors filled with Duke and UNC system professors and administrators, including James H. Johnson, director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, William J. Fulkerson, a top administrator at Duke University Health Systems, and Norma Houston, a former chief of staff for longtime Senate leader Marc Basnight.

State budget strife and uncertainty about school assignments in local districts now have parents and teachers thinking about opening charters to fill gaps in communities and children's education.

Michelle Terrell, an independent education researcher from Raleigh, said she's talked to folks in Wake interested in opening arts and language-focused schools in the last few months. They fear schools stripped of all but the basics and children stuffed into classrooms, she said.

"People are starting to think ahead," she said.

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

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