How a Durham charter school is improving after years of failing grades from the state

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – North Carolina’s public schools — including charter and alternative schools — are given performance grades by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. These metrics are especially important to charters, which can face closure despite public schools performing at a relatively similar level remaining open.

Healthy Start Academy is a K-8 charter in Durham. According to the state, almost 70 percent of students come from economically disadvantaged households. The school said more than 90 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

The school, which opened in 1997, had been struggling when principal Alex Quigley arrived in October 2017. It had been given an “F” every year since NCDPI began grading schools on performance. It had also been given two three-year charters, which Quigley said is an indicator of potential closure.

Quigley’s immediate focus was improving academics.

“That was kind of one of my big charges — to bring the school’s culture to a place where it really fostered academic excellence, and then drive those numbers up,” he said. “Academics are critical. Charter schools are renewed based on a variety of indicators: financial, operation, and, arguably most important, academic.”

CLICK HERE TO LOOK UP PERFORMANCE GRADES FOR NORTH CAROLINA SCHOOLS

How does a school improve its report card from the state? It’s not an overnight process. Quigley said Healthy Start gained eight composite proficiency points in his first year as principal, which was enough to improve its grade to a “D.” It earned nine more points the following year. It was not graded last year because of the pandemic.

“I’ve never been prouder of a ‘D’ in my life. The school grade doesn’t say everything, but that was a pretty rapid turnaround,” Quigley said. “I would just say it’s a team effort. It’s about a team of teachers and our leaders who came together to say we can improve our performance.”

There’s greater autonomy in charter schools than traditional public schools. They have more control over staff and curriculum. Quigley said that allowed him to take the schools vision and put it into practice.

“Kids are the constant. Adults are the variable. If we change our behavior, we change our expectations, we change our instructional approach, the kids are going to improve. And that’s been proven over and over again,” he said.

What kinds of changes happened? One example is that Quigley said he noticed the breakfast line was too long. He said the students’ time is precious, so they worked to make that process more efficient. He also said they reevaluated the school’s curriculum and made sure they did their best to prepare teachers to teach it.

Results were relatively profound. Healthy Start’s performance score ranged from 35 to 39 between 2014 and 2017. It rose to 47 in 2018 then 54 in 2019. Its academic growth metrics were exceeded in 2018 and 2019.

(Courtesy of NCDPI – click for more data)

Data was another important factor in the school improving its standing with the state. Quigley said they would give mini-assessments to the students, then meet at lunch to go over them to identify areas of weaknesses.

The result was Healthy Start’s science and math performance ranked level with Durham Public Schools in 2019. English and reading performance lagged behind, though, according to NCDPI data. Other metrics — such as a 0.28 percent chronic absenteeism rate compared to the state’s 0.16 percent — further show how the school still has plenty of room for improvement.

(Courtesy of NCDPI – click for more data)

Funding is key to addressing many shortcomings. That’s especially true in metrics like students per device. Healthy Start has more than twice as many devices per student (1.78) than the state average (0.87).

“We’ve lobbied to ensure that we receive equal and fair funding,” Quigley said. “Students do not belong to the traditional public school district. They belong to their parents, and their parents make the choice of where they want to go to school. I believe the money should always follow where the student goes to school.”

The improvement is noticeable, and Quigley has his sights set on soon earning a “C” grade from NCDPI. Healthy Start’s progress goals with the state include bolstering performance in math and reading for grades 3-8.

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