Politics & Government

Only low-performing schools can get charter-like flexibility. Wake says that ‘stinks.’

Innovative clubs make staying after school fun at Barwell Elementary

Nearly all of the 840 students at Barwell Road Elementary in Southeast Raleigh stay after school each Thursday to take part in clubs such as running, LEGO construction, robotics, the art of handwriting and step club.
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Nearly all of the 840 students at Barwell Road Elementary in Southeast Raleigh stay after school each Thursday to take part in clubs such as running, LEGO construction, robotics, the art of handwriting and step club.

Nineteen Wake County schools are blurring the lines between traditional public schools and charter schools with innovative calendars and grading systems, longer school days and specialized offerings that set them apart.

Those 19 Wake schools are using the state’s Restart model, which allows some low-performing schools to get the same kind of flexibility from state rules enjoyed by charter schools.

The Wake school board voted Monday to ask the State Board of Education for permission to use the restart model at six additional schools — Beaverdam, Creech Road, Forestville Road, Powell, Timber Drive and Wendell elementary schools.

But even as they clamored Monday for the extra flexibility for those six schools, Wake school leaders complained that state lawmakers have not made it available to every school.

“It stinks that our schools have to be designated as low performing in order to be able to do the things that we know benefit all schools,” said school board member Lindsay Mahaffey.

Charter schools have historically been given more flexibility than traditional public schools because they are meant to be laboratories for innovation. For instance, charter schools aren’t bound by the state’s school calendar law, have more flexibility to spend state money and only half their teachers need to be licensed. Charters are also not subject to the state’s K-3 class size rules.

Charter schools also aren’t required to provide school meals and bus service. But restart schools still offer those services.

Traditional public schools have long clamored for the same flexibility as charter schools. But with the exception of the Rowan-Salisbury School System, state lawmakers have been reluctant to extend charter-like flexibility to traditional public schools that are not struggling academically.

Since 2016, schools that have been low performing for at least two of the past three years have been eligible to use the Restart model. Wake was one of the first districts to use the model, accounting for 19 of the 158 schools statewide.

Wake’s restart schools have done things such as:

Several schools have changed their calendars, although Carroll, East Garner and East Millbrook middle schools will return this fall to the traditional calendar.

Knightdale High is changing its calendar to start the school year in early August so that the fall semester ends before winter break.

Carroll Middle School in Raleigh dropped the traditional A-F student letter grades to use an alternative grading system. Some other Wake restart schools are considering grading changes as well.

Green Elementary School in Raleigh will extend the school day by 15 minutes for the 2019-20 school year to provide more time for language arts instruction. Classes will run from 9:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Barwell Road Elementary in Raleigh has done things such as offer after-school clubs and hold staggered openings/orientation sessions for parents and students at the start of the school year.

School board member Bill Fletcher said the variety of approaches used by restart schools is proof that flexibility works.

“The fact that there is not a cookie-cutter solution is something that should be trumpeted to the legislature,” Fletcher said. “The best decisions are made closest to where the need is, not on Jones Street.”

Another plus that Wake school board members point to is how six of the 19 restart schools are no longer classified as low-performing. But the schools can stay in the restart program and keep their flexibility.

School board members say they disagree with how the state labels schools as low-performing. But they also want to celebrate how Baileywick Road, Fox Road, Lake Myra, Millbrook and Poe elementary schools and Carroll Middle are no longer listed as low-performing schools.

“While we don’t like the labels, I want to celebrate the removal of a label for these schools and will keep working on the others,” said school board chairman Jim Martin.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.