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Questions linger over charter school

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

The state board of education is scheduled to decide this week whether to accept the recommendation of its Public Charter School Advisory Council to approve the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School as one of 25 new charters across the state.

Meanwhile, some fundamental questions about the proposed school remain unanswered, including where the school will be located and what it will provide that will be different from what’s already offered in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

Also of concern to some is the for-profit management company with whom the school is partnering, Michigan-based National Heritage Academies (NHA), which operates more than 70 charter schools, including five in North Carolina, in nine states. The company has faced litigation in the past for presenting creationism as a scientifically based theory and promoting religious activities.

The school’s original application included a section on religious freedom and teaching religion, but it was removed from a later version.

Off the fast track

The Lee school had previously been given fast-track approval to open for the 2012-13 school year, one of nine schools initially approved after the General Assembly lifted the 100-school cap on charters in the state.

But the school’s applicants ran into some snags, and its board notified the Department of Public Instruction in the spring that it had “encountered challenges regarding the school’s facility” and would need to delay its opening.

It then had to resubmit an application for the 2013-14 school year.

A permanent site has since been proposed, but not yet approved. In June, the developers of Claremont South, a development planned for the south side of Homestead Road, proposed to the Town of Carrboro revising their plans to include the school.

Angela Lee, daughter of Howard and Lillian Lee and lead applicant for the proposed charter school, has said that the school will help fill the school district’s achievement gap.

The school’s application states that it will do so through implementation of a rigorous curriculum, the use of data, a professional-development program for teachers and creation of a school culture that provides a “safe and nurturing learning environment.” 

Howard Lee is a former mayor of Chapel Hill, state senator and chair of the N.C. Board of Education. His longtime role as a leader in the black community provided, for some local residents, cache to the charter school’s application.

But the NAACP spoke out early against approval of the school. Calling for more initiatives within the district’s traditional schools, Robert Campbell, president of the NAACP’s local chapter, said, “We believe at this time that a charter school is not the answer for our educational gap. Let us try to come together to do the right thing for our schools.”

For Mia Burroughs, chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education, the primary issue wasn’t one of diverting funds from the school system, but of whether the proposed school would provide something the school system doesn’t.

Burroughs said that some charter models provide “wrap-around social services” that she could have supported.

“This model doesn’t strike me as really being different” from what the school system currently offers, she said.

Burroughs said she received calls when the school was first proposed from residents concerned that it would be a step toward re-segregation, and that it was the local NAACP’s opposition that had really gotten her attention.

The proposed location also concerns Burroughs. Homestead Road doesn’t strike her as a good location for attracting students who would benefit from efforts at closing the racial and economic achievement gap.

The school’s application states that “we will not allow transportation to be a barrier to any child attending Lee Scholars. We expect that most parents will provide transportation for their children.” A school liaison will coordinate carpooling opportunities.

Proactive on First Amendment

Angela Lee declined The Citizen’s requests for answers to questions about the school, referring the questions to NHA spokespersons.

David Palumbo, the company’s chief academic officer, wrote in response that NHA will partner with faculty, staff and school board to deliver a comprehensive K-8 instructional program that provides “a rigorous academic curriculum, aligned to The Common Core State Standards Initiative adopted by the state of North Carolina in 2012, and focuses on every student being at or above the college readiness threshold.” 

“NHA personalizes our learning program through small group differentiated instruction,” he continued. “We aggressively develop our instructional teams by a structured program of academic deans, weekly observations, data reviews and coaching sessions.”

According to Palumbo, NHA schools follow federal guidelines for providing free and reduced-price lunches. “If families meet the standards, students are provided the lunch if they elect to do so.”

“Values are fundamental to a great education and will be an integral part of the curriculum at Lee Scholars,” Palumbo wrote. “Our Moral Focus emphasis is one of the central parts of the school culture at all schools operated by NHA.”

Regarding the verbiage on religious freedom that was in the original application under the heading “First Amendment Policy” but was removed from the re-application the school had to file when it missed its 2012 deadline, Burroughs noted that there was nothing incendiary about the language – that it read as boilerplate material.

The policy stated that religion is a “legitimate part of a complete education. There may be the study of religion and religions, but not the sponsorship or the practice of religion with its purpose and effect to educate about, rather than promote or denigrate, religion.”

“Truthfully, their First Amendment policy doesn’t look that far off from something [our school system] might have,” Burroughs said.

Sam Chaltain, an education activist and former director of the Washington, D.C.-based Forum for Education and Democracy, agreed, and said that it was in the best interests of any school to be proactive on First Amendment policies.

“Almost any major litigious issue that unfolds in the school community is a First Amendment issue,” Chaltain said. In 2000, an NHA-run school in Michigan took corrective action against religious practices after facing a lawsuit.

But the policy addressed only religious freedom; nothing on the other four First Amendment freedoms.

“I think it would definitely be in a school’s best interests to tackle all five First Amendment freedoms,” Chaltain said. “Only having a First Amendment policy about religion is pretty myopic on the part of the school.”

What, he asks, is the school’s policy if, for example, a student comes to school wearing a T-shirt with a swastika on it?

Ongoing discussion

As for why the state Public Charter School Advisory Council advised the board of education to grant the Lee school fast-track approval when it hadn’t yet secured a location, Joel Medley, director of the state Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Charter Schools, said the decision came down to “governance, finance and educational plan.” 

The advisory council “really wants to see that the mission is reflected throughout the application and is the primary focus of the budget,” Medley said, and believed the Lee school applicants “would be able to operate a strong charter school.”

Whether the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School will offer a special focus on religious studies remains unanswered.

Regardless, Chaltain said the he believes a discussion around issues such as those raised by the Lee school’s application create “a great opportunity to have a really meaningful local conversation about what kind of schools you want,” and the role that the teaching of religion plays in those schools.

Of course, here in Orange County that conversation is a perpetual one.

Still, Burroughs said, “Between this issue and the dual-language issue, I’ve learned so much about the complexities of our community … the depths and the nuances.”

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