Education

Wake County wants to operate 2 Raleigh schools like charters

From left, Barwell Road Elementary school teacher Yolanda Roman helps 2nd grader Eneida Guillen-Oregon learn subtraction with 10s and 100s during math period in Roman's homeroom. Barwell Elementary is one of two Wake County schools the Wake School system that wants state permission to operate more flexibly like charter schools to help improve student performance.
From left, Barwell Road Elementary school teacher Yolanda Roman helps 2nd grader Eneida Guillen-Oregon learn subtraction with 10s and 100s during math period in Roman's homeroom. Barwell Elementary is one of two Wake County schools the Wake School system that wants state permission to operate more flexibly like charter schools to help improve student performance. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Two Southeast Raleigh elementary schools could operate more like charter schools this fall in an effort to improve how their students perform.

A new state Board of Education policy lets school systems request permission for some struggling schools to have the same exemptions from state rules and regulations as charter schools. The Wake County school board gave permission last week for staff to request charter-like flexibility for Barwell Road and Walnut Creek elementary schools for the 2016-17 school year.

If the state board approves the request, Barwell and Walnut Creek could see changes such as more days in the school calendar. Wake may also be able to change the way it staffs both schools, including how teachers are paid.

“When you have flexibility in how you staff and the instructional program, you have the potential to do some creative things that you were not able to do before because of state law,” said Marvin Connelly, the Wake school system’s chief of staff and strategic planning.

The new flexibility comes as the General Assembly is considering whether to pass legislation that would turn over a handful of struggling traditional public schools to charter school management companies. Unlike the proposed achievement school district, schools that get charterlike flexibility from the state board would remain under the control of their school systems.

Charter schools are exempt from some rules, such as North Carolina’s calendar law that sets when schools begin and end the school year. The calendar law also limits how many school days can be scheduled.

Charters also have more flexibility in how they can spend state money. They receive exemptions because they are taxpayer-funded public schools that are meant to be laboratories for innovation.

Wake County is among the school systems that have long sought permission from state legislators to operate their own charter schools or to allow their schools to have the same flexibility as charters. The General Assembly has largely rebuffed those requests.

But the new state Board of Education policy says “recurring low-performing schools” – those that have been low performing for two of the last three years – can get charterlike flexibility. The policy approved in March carries out provisions from a 2010 law passed by the General Assembly, when it still had a Democratic majority.

“I just find it interesting that a school has to enter into this state-defined category before it gets the flexibility to do the things that we know we need to do,” Wake school board member Bill Fletcher said at last week’s meeting.

The state Department of Public Instruction has determined that 401 schools, or more than 16 percent of North Carolina’s traditional public schools, are eligible for the charterlike flexibility, called the “restart model.”

It’s uncertain how many school systems will want to have quasi-charters. Chrissy Deal, a Durham Public Schools spokeswoman, said the district is not considering the restart model at this time even though as many as 16 schools might qualify.

State schools Superintendent June Atkinson said at least 15 superintendents have told her their districts are interested in using the restart model. But she said some superintendents indicated they may wait until the 2017-18 school year.

Atkinson said the restart model’s calendar flexibility is particularly attractive to school systems that want to reduce the amount of learning loss that occurs during long summer breaks.

“We know that some of our schools recognize that students need a different calendar to improve student achievement,” Atkinson said. “The summer months where students don’t have an opportunity to continue their learning aren’t in the best interests of students.”

But something that won’t change, according to state officials, is the requirement that quasi-charter schools must provide transportation and meals to students. Official charter schools are exempt from those two requirements.

Connelly told the school board that Wake will seek calendar and financial flexibility for Barwell and Walnut Creek. But he said the details haven’t been determined yet. Wake will have to tell the state how the exemptions would improve student achievement.

Ten Wake schools could be eligible for the restart model this fall, but Connelly said at this time they’re only looking at using it at Barwell and Walnut Creek. Since 2011, Wake has provided extra resources and used different programs to help both schools, which have high numbers of students from low-income families.

Connelly said state permission to use the model at other schools could be requested for the 2017-18 school year, if not sooner.

Even though Wake school board members support using the restart model, they say they don’t want Barwell or Walnut Creek to be referred to as low-performing schools.

Board members don’t like how the General Assembly’s definition of a low-performing school is one that has a D or F letter grade and whose students didn’t exceed growth expectations on state exams. Wake board member Jim Martin said labeling schools as low performing is inappropriate and puts a burden on them.

“They are doing amazing work in the environment that they have to do the work,” Martin said at last week’s meeting. “Anything we can do to help that, I want to support. But I do not want that label coming from us.”

Database editor David Raynor contributed.

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

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