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Lee charter school awaits final approval

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

The state board of education held discussions regarding approval of 25 new charter schools, including the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School, at its monthly meetings last week and is scheduled to make a final determination on Sept. 6.

The board’s Public Charter School Advisory Council has recommended the 25 schools for approval.

The Lee school, which if approved will be located somewhere in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community, will be administered in partnership with Michigan-based National Heritage Academies (NHA), which operates more than 70 charter schools across the country, including five in North Carolina: Forsyth Academy in Winston-Salem, Greensboro Academy, PreEminent Charter School in Raleigh, Queens Grant Community School in Mint Hill and Research Triangle Charter Academy in Durham.

Angela Lee, daughter of Howard and Lillian Lee, is the school’s lead applicant. Howard Lee was the first black mayor of Chapel Hill, a state senator and chair of the state board of education. Lillian Lee was a longtime educator in the local school system.

The Lee school applicants were 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 securing a location proved problematic, and the applicants notified the state board of education that they would need to delay the opening. They then had to resubmit an application for the 2013-14 school year.

Though a site for the school has been proposed in Claremont South, a development planned for the south side of Homestead Road, the proposal has yet to be approved by the Town of Carrboro.

The Lee school has been the subject of much debate within the community. In January, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education wrote to state board of education Chair Bill Harrison, stating that while they believed the Lee school’s application to be well-intentioned, they were concerned that the school “could divert $4.6 million or more in scarce resources at a time of severely constrained budgets, and make it even more difficult for students’ needs to be served in either the CHCCS district or the new charter school.”

The Lee school’s charter states that the school will meet three primary needs in the school system: to close achievement gaps, prepare students for a rigorous high school and college preparatory program and alleviate overcrowding in elementary schools.

The charter also states that 64 percent of the 45,000 students at NHA partner schools are students of color. CHCCS Superintendent Tom Forcella expressed concerns in December that targeting minority students would reduce diversity in the public schools.

The local chapter of the NAACP also spoke out against the school.

Mia Burroughs, chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education, said last week that her primary concern was whether the proposed school would provide something the school system doesn’t.

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

Burroughs said that if the model offered “wrap-around social services,” as some charter schools do, she might have supported it.

Another concern is that NHA has faced litigation in the past for presenting creationism as a scientifically based theory and for promoting religious activities.

The Lee school’s original application included a section on religious freedom and teaching religion, but the section was removed from the re-application the school had to file when it missed its 2012 deadline.

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

Questions regarding why the language was originally included and why it was later removed have not yet been answered.

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