N.C. Board of Education approves 3 Triangle charter schools, 9 statewide

kferral@newsobserver.comMarch 1, 2012 

— Three new charter schools are on their way to the Triangle this fall.

The State Board of Education approved the three schools, one each in Wake, Durham and Orange counties, along with six others statewide Thursday. They are the first new charters to open since the General Assembly lifted a 100-school cap on charter schools last year.

In Durham County, near Research Triangle Park, Research Triangle High School will focus on hands-on learning and a science, technology, engineering and math curriculum. It serve students in 9th through 12th grades.

In Orange County, the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School will target minority students and focus on closing the achievement gap and a college prep curriculum. It will initially open as an elementary school then expand to serve students through 8th grade.

In Wake County, the Triangle Math and Science Academy would also focus on math, science and technology curriculum and prepare students for careers in science. It will be a kindergarten through 12th grade school.

The State Board of Education’s charter school committee voted on the schools Wednesday and the full board approved them Thursday. The nine schools were narrowed from 27 applications submitted to the state for a fast track process last year. The fast track process gives each school four months of planning time, instead of 12 months in the regular application process. The new charter schools are scheduled to open in August 2012.

All schools must be open by August 15, or their approval is null and void, said Joel Medley, director for the Office of Charter Schools in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

The Triangle Math and Science Academy is the 14th charter school in Wake County, according to the district’s website. It offers an inquiry-based curriculum, and free after-school and weekend tutoring programs and will ultimately serve 576 students, according to its website.

Wake County's school district did not take a position on the new charter school, but charter school applications in Durham and Orange counties garnered strong opposition.

Both the Durham Public Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, along with their boards of education, opposed the new charters.

The Research Triangle High School in Durham comes at a time where the district is already struggling to make up for funding cuts, said Natalie Beyer, a DPS board of education member. And because Durham spends more per student than Wake County, it will continue to become a magnet for charter schools, she said.

“The cap has kind of buffered this discussion, but now that the cap has been lifted, the floodgates are open and more and more of these schools are going to try to come,” she said. “Rather than collaborate, they are competing for easy-to-educate students and it comes at a time when the state continues to decrease support for public education, so it’s a double hit.”

The new school also complicates the districts long-term planning for new facilities with the city and county, Beyer said.

“The charter schools have exploded so fast and have been allowed to expand so quickly that some of our facilities plans … are in question and it’s been difficult to plan and use fiscal resources wisely.”

The Durham County Commissioners passed a resolution opposing the new charter school in February and this week passed another one asking the state to freeze applications on new charter schools until they are required to provide transportation and free meals for low income students.

The high school would offer bus passes for students and provide free or reduced lunch, for students who need it, said Pamela Blizzard, executive director of the Contemporary Science Center, the nonprofit that filed the charter application.

The high school is offering another opportunity for students to get a science technology engineering math, or STEM, based education that is already in high demand; other STEM schools in Durham have huge waiting lists, she said.

“What’s going to be unique about ours is it’s going to be in the midst of Research Triangle Park ... we’re creating a porous wall between education and all the industry that surrounds the school,” Blizzard said.

Ultimately the Research Triangle High School wants to create a model for STEM education and increase access for students and teachers all over the state, she said. The school would offer an innovative curriculum and opportunities for its students to collaborate with scientists and engineers working in Research Triangle Park and intern at companies in RTP, according to its website.

“Everything we’re doing in the school, we’re thinking how can we share this with others elsewhere?” Blizzard said.

The Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars school in Chapel Hill will erect a new building in Chapel Hill, but its board of directors have not named a site.

Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent for support services for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools said the district will now start looking at how the Lee Scholars school will affect the district’s enrollment, which would then affect how much public money it gets per student.

Once the district estimates how many students the new school would take out of the district, it will begin to make budget decisions and look at the number of people it’s able to hire next year and how much money can go to each school in the district, he said.

“If we see significant drops in enrollment in a very short time period, we would need to take a really good look at our budget to identify how we were going to account for that loss,” he said.

There are currently 140 students living in the district who attend a charter school, LoFrese said. PACE Academy in Carrboro is the only other charter school in Orange County.

The district will also monitor whether the Lee school is able to get building plans approved by the town of Chapel Hill, which is notorious for its long review process.

“Building schools in Chapel Hill and Carrboro is not something you can do very quickly,” he said. The district is building a new elementary school, which took about a year to get approved, he said.

Mia Burroughs, chairwoman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education agreed.

“The first thing [is] to see if the school gets open,” she said.

After that, the district will continue its efforts to close the gap in test scores between blacks and whites that persists, she said.

“I personally am really excited about the new laser-like focus that our superintendent has on making classroom instruction more engaging and thought provoking for students,” she said. “Things are just going to keep getting better in our district.”

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools also opposed the school, citing re-segregation and concerns about the schools management company, National Heritage Academies, which is a for-profit company. A petition asking the state to vote down the charter started by NAACP member and district parent Suepinda Keith garnered more than 900 signatures over the last two months.

Ferral: 919-932-8746

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