A new charter school that would enroll 2,000 students wants to open in Cary

First grade teacher Morgan Perry works with, from left (around the table), Dylan Ort, David Christie, Jasmine Xie and Tanya Puenpa during class at Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary, N.C., on Dec. 2, 2015. Cardinal’s board wants to open a new K-12 charter school for more than 2,000 students on the border between Cary and Chatham County.
First grade teacher Morgan Perry works with, from left (around the table), Dylan Ort, David Christie, Jasmine Xie and Tanya Puenpa during class at Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary, N.C., on Dec. 2, 2015. Cardinal’s board wants to open a new K-12 charter school for more than 2,000 students on the border between Cary and Chatham County.

One of the largest charter schools in North Carolina could open in 2019 in Cary, accelerating the rapid growth of these non-traditional public schools in fast-growing western Wake County.

Cardinal Charter Academy West Campus plans to enroll more than 2,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and organizers anticipate high demand from families in western Wake, eastern Chatham and southern Durham counties. The school’s application was submitted in September but it’s already on track for a vote at next week’s State Board of Education meeting after winning support from the Charter Schools Advisory Board.

“That community is experiencing substantial population growth and that’s certainty a driver,” said Richard Page, chief impact officer of Charter Schools USA, the Florida-based for-profit company that could earn more than $2 million a year from managing the new charter school. “The traditional public school system – their ability to keep up and putting seats on line – is certainly part of why charter schools in general open up in areas like that.”

The new 20-acre school would be located at Yates Store and New Hope Church roads in the Weldon Ridge development, pending approval of a rezoning request by the town of Cary. Organizers project nearly three-quarters of the school’s students will come from Wake County.

Critics say charter schools are targeting the more-affluent families who live in western Wake, where test scores are higher and the percentage of low-income students is lower than the Wake County school district average. Charters are taxpayer-funded public schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow.

“The attractiveness of western Wake is due to the relative low cost of educating the students who will come,” said Wake County school board member Bill Fletcher, who represents much of Cary. “It will be a highly profitable school because you won’t have the children in poverty.

“It’s somewhat cherry picking. I don’t think it’s good public school policy, but that’s what we have in this state.”

Western Wake has become a magnet for charter schools in recent years. Charters have been promoting how they can provide stability at a time when growth is causing the Wake school system to reassign students each year.

Two new charter schools opened this year in Apex and Holly Springs, and a new charter school has state approval to open in 2018 in Fuquay-Varina.

Three new charter schools hope to open in 2019 in western Wake, not including Cardinal Charter Academy West, which is officially in Chatham County but is in Cary’s jurisdiction.

Western Wake’s charter school growth is part of the booming statewide growth in charter schools since state lawmakers lifted the 100-school limit in 2011. There are 173 charters open in North Carolina this year with 20 more approved to open in 2018.

Final numbers aren’t in yet, but Wake County school system planners projected charter school growth in Wake would exceed the district’s enrollment growth this school year. Charters are independent of local districts.

Charter Schools USA came to Wake when Cardinal Charter Academy opened in Cary in 2014. The school has grown to nearly 1,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade with a waiting list of 682 students.

Third graders, from left, Jack McIlhargey, Alexis Trebeau, Krish Babu and Claire Nguyen work on making their own lesson plans at Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary, N.C., on Dec. 2, 2015. Ethan Hyman

“The sense of community that we build into the school is one of the biggest attractions we have,” said Allen Taylor Jr., president of Triangle Charter Education Association, the local nonprofit group that governs both Cardinal Charter Academy and the proposed Cardinal Charter West.

Cardinal Charter in Cary was originally planned to be a K-12 school. But Page said a standalone high school wouldn’t be viable so a decision was made to seek state approval for a new K-12 charter school to go along with the existing Cardinal Charter in Cary.

Organizers project the new school’s enrollment will exceed 2,000 students by its fifth year, which would make it larger than most of the state’s other charter schools.

“If you look at Cardinal Charter, there’s been long waiting lists since we opened,” Page said. “That community and that area has a lot of demand for this school, so we’re confident that we’ll be successful.”

In its charter application, Cardinal wants to replicate the existing Cary school, which got a B this year on the state’s A-F system for grading school performance.

“What we’re kind of hoping to replicate is A and B schools,” Steven Walker, vice chairman of the Charter Schools Advisory Board, said as Cardinal Charter West’s application was reviewed this month.

But advisory board members also questioned why Cardinal’s students did not meet academic growth targets on state exams this past school year. Rebecca Draper, Cardinal’s principal, said students come in performing at a high level so it makes it hard to achieve growth.

Charter schools are not required to provide school bus service or participate in the federal school lunch program, but Cardinal Charter West says it will provide meals. It is also proposing to help families arrange carpools. If more help is needed, the application says, money has been set aside to contract for one bus to transport children who live within two to four miles of the school.

An outside team of reviewers questioned how Cardinal Charter West’s transportation plan would allow it to meet its goal of having a school population where 10 to 15 percent of students receive subsidized school lunches. Danielle Allen, one of the outside reviewers, wrote that low-income families often rely on school-provided transportation so a system based mainly on carpools puts these students at a disadvantage.

“Only planning for one bus brings into question the ability of school leaders to adequately serve these students,” Allen wrote.

No matter what happens with the new charter school, Fletcher, the Wake school board member, said the district will continue to do its job of preparing young people for success in college and career and to be good citizens.

“If parents want to choose a different curriculum that’s not dealing with the 4C’s (communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity) and the complex social fabric of the community, that’s fine,” he said. “That’s their choice. We’re going to continue to educate every child that walks through our doors.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer