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Charter school questions unanswered

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

As the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School moves closer to a decision on approval by the State Board of Education, elected officials and concerned local residents say that communications with the proposed school’s local board of directors and the national for-profit company that will co-manage it remain inadequate.

“If you want to be part of a community, you’ve got to communitize your conversation,” Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Randee Haven-O’Donnell said on Tuesday, “and that’s not happening.”

The State Board of Education is scheduled to make a final determination on the Lee school on Sept. 6. The board’s Public Charter School Advisory Council has recommended 25 charter schools for approval across the state. If the board grants approval, the applicants will enter into a planning and training program with the state, with decisions for final charter approvals coming no later than March of next year.

The school was originally granted 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 its applicants were unable to find a location for the school and notified the state board that they would need to delay its opening. They then had to resubmit an application for the 2013-14 school year.

A location has now been proposed in Claremont South, a development planned for the south side of Homestead Road. A Claremont plan that has been revised to include the school will go before the Carrboro Board of Aldermen this fall. That plan has drawn criticism, with neighbors and others voicing concerns about traffic and the environment.

The Lee school will be administered in partnership with for-profit, Michigan-based National Heritage Academies (NHA), which operates more than 70 charter schools across the country, including five in North Carolina. NHA-run schools frequently don’t offer a comprehensive transportation plan.

The school’s charter application states that, “When parents choose to provide transportation to their child, they also give themselves an additional opportunity to be involved in the day-to-day life of the school and to develop a deeper rapport with teachers, school leaders and other families.”

It further states that a dean will be designated as the school’s transportation liaison to coordinate carpooling.

“Neighbors are really concerned about the potential additional traffic caused by the charter school,” said Julie McClintock, president of the Friends of Bolin Creek.

McClintock said that the increased hard surfaces would reduce infiltration and would wash rainwater laden with pollutants into the nearby creek.

The proposed school, she said, “would put even greater stress on an already-impaired Bolin Creek.”

First signs

Controversy began to surround the Lee school prior to discussions of its location. The school’s stated objectives are to close the racial and economic achievement gaps, “prepare students for a rigorous high school and college preparatory program” and alleviate overcrowding in the elementary schools.

But the local chapter of the NAACP wrote a letter to the State Board of Education in December 2011 stating that the “NAACP stands firmly on the position of no diversion of taxpayers’ money from our public schools to support the NHA’s profiting from building a new school here.”

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education wrote a letter to the state board the following month expressing its concern that “establishment of the proposed new school in 2012 could divert $4.6 million or more in scarce resources at a time of severely constrained budgets.”

But Haven-O’Donnell, an educator for 37 years, said that she is not categorically against the charter school. “Life has taught me there are all kinds of schools and you can’t say that a particular kind of school isn’t going to work for somebody,” she said.

Fellow board of aldermen member Dan Coleman said that having the school in Claremont “on the face of it, from a tax standpoint, seems advantageous.”

But both Haven-O’Donnell and Coleman had concerns early on. Coleman felt the location was wrong for a school with an objective of helping minority students, saying that it should be closer to where more minority students live.

He also, unsuccessfully, urged his colleagues on the board to take an official position echoing the sentiments conveyed in the local school board’s letter to the state.

For Haven-O’Donnell, the for-profit model raised concerns about a departure from the “very basic premises from which public schools function,” while using public monies.

Is the profit motive in conflict with a goal of providing the best public education possible, Haven-O’Donnell and others have asked? And if there’s a problem, who’s accountable?

Failure to communicate

Angela Lee is the school’s lead applicant and the daughter of Howard and Lillian Lee. Howard Lee was the first black mayor of Chapel Hill, a state senator and chair of the State Board of Education, and Lillian Lee was a longtime educator.

Howard and Lillian Lee, Haven-O’Donnell said, “are the gold standard as far as educators go.” She said she knows they wouldn’t put their names on something they don’t believe in.

But from the beginning, Haven-O’Donnell said, it seemed as if the school was “going to be introduced to the district rather than be woven into its fabric.”

There’s been very little conversation between the school’s local representatives and the community. Over the past several weeks, The Citizen’s requests to Angela Lee and other board members for responses to questions have not been met. Without responding directly, Lee eventually referred questions to an NHA spokesperson.

“If people don’t want to respond in a public arena to questions, there’s an issue of transparency there,” said Linda Haac, a member of Save Bolin Creek who serves on Carrboro’s transportation advisory board. “And that’s troubling.”

According to Matt Ellinwood, a policy advocate for the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, North Carolina law states that charter schools must be operated by private nonprofit organizations, but doesn’t prohibit nonprofits from contracting with for-profit educational management organizations.

It’s important though, Ellinwood said, “to ensure that for-profit companies are not operating charter schools with the nonprofit functioning as a ‘shell.’”  

This seems especially concerning in the context of the Lee school, he said, in that questions about the operation of the school have been referred to NHA.

“The big question,” Ellinwood said, “is who is really running this school?”

‘Campus of the future’

A lack of communication at the local level has had at least two consequences, Haven-O’Donnell said.

The first involves a “cookie-cutter approach” to the school facility proposed – a facility that NHA would own and lease to the Lee school. Schools should be built to last 50 years, and are built that way in this district, she said, but the one proposed at Claremont would not be.

“Look at Morris Grove or look at Rashkis,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “The school they’re looking to build is not even in the same ballpark.”

“Were I this developer,” she said, “I would probably go back to the drawing board.”

The second issue, she said, involves an integration of the school into the system.

“There is a formidable school complex” in the vicinity of the proposed site, Haven-O’Donnell said, citing Seawell Elementary, Smith Middle, Chapel Hill High and the Carolina Center for Educational Excellence.

“The worst thing is that you get this school that’s an isolate from what could potentially be a fusion of educational campuses up in that area. That, to me, should be a goal – to create “an integrated educational campus of the future.”

Of what that integration would require, Haven-O’Donnell said, “The people who should be asking that question are not asking it,” acknowledging that it must be a two-way initiative, but adding, “You would hope that if the school is interested in coming [into this community], they would initiate that conversation.”

When issues like this arise, Haven-O’Donnell said, “you’ve got to sit down with the people in the community. … If something doesn’t feel like it fits with the efforts of the community, you’ve got to sit down and have a conversation.”

“There are a lot of questions,” said Haac, “and they need to be answered. And if they’re not answered, then that raises even more questions.”

Next week: More questions

  1. Vicki Boyer

    National Heritage Academies runs 5 other charter schools in North Carolina. A search of each school’s End of Grade test scores shows that MOST subject tests in MOST grade levels were BELOW the state average. Yes, some grade levels in some subjects did get above state averages, but predominately, these schools are not providing the level of education they claim they will.