Cary News

Western Wake County to get new charter school

Peak Charter Academy plans to open its doors in the fall of 2016 to provide an alternative to the crowded classrooms, school caps and ever-changing school zones of western Wake County, its organizers say.

The State Board of Education gave preliminary approval to Peak Charter earlier this month, making it the third charter school that could open in Cary in recent years. It joins Cardinal Charter and Triangle Math and Science Academy, two schools that quickly have reached their maximum enrollments and have lengthy waiting lists.

Peak Charter doesn’t have a location yet but is trying to find space in either Cary or Apex, organizers say.

The school will serve kindergarten through sixth grade in its first year. Seventh grade would be added the following year with eighth grade added after that.

Charter schools are publicly funded and have free admission. But they don’t have attendance zones or as many regulations as traditional schools.

“It’s a win-win,” said Melissa Caira, chair of the Peak Charter school board.

She said Peak Charter will offer an in-demand school choice to area families, but also will help parents, students and teachers who remain in traditional public schools by reducing the number of students in their buildings.

Not needing an attendance zone was a big factor behind the creation of Peak Charter, organizers say. It will be able to draw students from all over, especially students whose parents don’t like their current school but have no other options.

“We have friends who have never moved, and their children have been in three or more elementary schools – some of which are 20 or 30 minutes from their homes,” organizers wrote in the school’s application to the state.

Peak Charter aims to open with 573 students in 2016 and eventually have 909 students enrolled in K-8, according to its application. That’s fewer students than the average Wake County middle school, let alone an elementary and middle school combined.

“I like the idea of a smaller middle school,” said Caira, a health coach who lives in Cary and has three children in public schools.

“That’s important to me,” she said.

Peak Charter will be managed by National Heritage Academies (NHA), a for-profit organization based in Michigan. Like other NHA schools, Peak Charter will have a focus on character development as well as academics.

“Lessons will be geared to build strong personal character and develop the qualities needed to become good citizens,” according to the application.

There’s a high demand for charter school education in the fast-growing area, Caira said.

Cardinal Charter, which opened in fall 2014, serves K-8. Triangle Math and Science, which opened in fall of 2012, serves K-9 and is expanding to K-12.

Both schools use lotteries for admission, according to their websites, because they don’t have enough seats for everyone who applies.

Peak Charter, which still needs final approval from the state next year before opening, hasn’t started accepting applications yet and likely will begin advertising its enrollment period later this summer, Caira said. If necessary, the school will use a lottery system, too.

Meanwhile, two more charter schools could open in western Wake in the next two years.

The state decided to delay a vote to act on Pine Springs Preparatory Academy’s application until August. Pine Springs, which had asked for permission to open in Holly Springs, was originally supposed to be managed by a Florida company that’s currently being accused of grade tampering at another charter school.

Pine Springs officials told a state advisory board last week that they’re severing their ties with the Florida company in hopes of opening in 2016.

And Kaleidoscope Charter High School plans to resubmit its application in September to open in Morrisville in 2017, giving the town its only high school and the only charter high school.

Management scrutiny

While Peak Charter school will be managed by NHA, the local board is composed of two college professors, a lawyer, a bank manager and a social worker. All of them either live or work in Wake County.

Caira said most of them didn’t know each other before joining the board but have meshed well since being chosen by National Heritage Academies.

NHA is one of the largest charter school companies in the country with dozens of schools nationwide, including seven in North Carolina. Wake Forest Charter Academy opened this year, with a waiting list of nearly 1,300 students.

The six other schools have been open longer with a mixed track record. Half of them didn’t meet the state’s goals for adequate growth in student achievement last year. The company’s PreEminent Charter School in Raleigh also has been the subject of scrutiny.

The school was nearly shut down in 2009 because of poor test scores, although leaders avoided closing by promising to improve. Last year, 30 percent of students tested at grade level, and the school did not meet growth requirements.

Caira acknowledged that some NHA schools have struggled. But she said she doesn’t expect similar performance issues will find their way into Peak Charter.

“They have some (schools) in some very poor areas, and unfortunately some of those have struggled,” she said. “But the vast majority are very, very successful.”

Before Caira committed to opening Peak Charter, she toured two NHA schools in Greensboro – Greensboro Academy and Summerfield Charter. She met parents and employees, she said, and was impressed by what she saw.

Greensboro Academy, the K-8 school on which Peak Charter is based, did not meet growth requirements last year. But it had the highest proficiency rates of all of NHA’s North Carolina schools, with 76 percent of students testing at grade level.

That’s about 20 points higher than the state average. It received a B on the state’s school performance grade system.

Jennifer Hoff, a spokeswoman for National Heritage Academies, didn’t say if the company has specific policies for its North Carolina schools that aren’t meeting growth. But she said the schools receive guidance from the national office on how to improve.

“We are working diligently with school leadership to review the data provided by the state and implement strategies and targeted action plans to help all students reach their potential,” Hoff said.

Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran

Kaleidoscope refocuses application

Janet Littlejohn said she hopes the third time is the charm for Kaleidoscope Charter High School. Organizers are resubmitting their application for a Morrisville charter high school in September for the third time. Littlejohn is president of the board of directors.

The first two applications were submitted in 2013 and 2014. In this new version, Littlejohn said the application will address questions from the state and will have other changes as well.

First, the school no longer will be called the Kaleidoscope Art and Technology Charter School, though the school will still have those elements in the curriculum. The school also has a new board of directors, who Littlejohn said are excited and eager. She said that includes Morrisville Mayor Mark Stohlman. Other former board members now will be part of an advisory council.

She said the school would open with 220 students with the majority of them in ninth grade. It would grow to 650 students.

“We’re trying to keep it so it’s not too many kids,” she said.

She said the curriculum will be stimulating and student-focused, meaning students will have their say in the types of projects they’ll do over the four years. Students will need to complete a keystone project at the end of four years. There will be a two-week session between semesters for students to take part in creative or scientific projects with the assistance of experts from local RTP-based businesses.

She said the group is confident their application will be successful this go-round. She works with Sterling Montessori Academy and Charter School, which goes through eighth grade, and hopes Kaleidoscope can provide Morrisville students an option for a charter high school.

“We feel strongly that there have to be options with parents,” she said. “There are a lot of parents who want charter high schools. We’re trying very hard to make it a reality.”

For more, go to www.kaleidoscopehighschool.org or the school’s Facebook page.

Jessica Banov

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