When failure means closing, NC’s charter schools face pressure to provide quality education and choice

North Carolina news

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Traditional public schools and charter schools in North Carolina are both judged on their performance by the state. Both receive funding from tax dollars, although low-performing charters face closure while struggling public schools remain open.

For almost a year now, COVID-19 has drastically impacted approaches to education. Still, the end goal remains the same — academic success.

For charter schools in North Carolina, failure means closure. Healthy Start Academy in Durham has come very close to that. Principal Alex Quigley was brought in in October 2017 to keep the doors open.

“If we change our behavior, we change our expectations, we change our instructional approach, the kids, they’re going to improve,” Quigley said. “That’s been proven over and over again.”

Healthy Start Academy opened in 1997 as one of the first charter schools in the state. However, it had been given an “F” every year since the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction began grading schools on their performance. That put the school in danger of being shut down.

“So the first thing we focused on was school culture,” Quigley said. “What are the expectations in the classroom? What are the expectations throughout the school? (We’re) making sure those are consistent in every possible way. Everything was investigated, relegated, or updated.”

Quigley said 93 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The student population is about 60 percent Hispanic and 40 percent Black.

One of the reasons Jenny Campa chose Healthy Start for her sons Benjamin and Mateo is because it gets them out of her neighborhood.

Benjamin and Mateo.

“I was trying to find a place that was offering something safe, especially in Durham,” Campa said. “We have a lot of dangerous neighborhoods. … Healthy Start Academy offered success to my kids academically, so that was like my big two things.”

Charter schools are expected to meet the same performance standards, including end-of-grade testing, as traditional public schools. The difference is public schools stay open no matter how many times they fail.

North Carolina has closed 44 charter schools since 1997.

“At the same time, we know that going in we know what the rules are,” said Dave Machado, the Director of the Office of Charter Schools. “Our schools said they could do a better job, and if they’re not doing a better job, they don’t necessarily deserve taxpayer dollars.”

About 150,000 students attend charter schools in North Carolina. Another 70,000 are on waitlists.

“(There’s a) demand for high-quality school choice in North Carolina, so we certainly feel like we should be able to meet that demand and have high-quality charter schools,” Machado said.

“When a student goes to a school that they’ve actually chosen and they understand the mission of that school, (it) speaks to them on a personal level, then that definitely makes a difference.”

Rhonda Dillingham – North Carolina Association of charter schools

It boils down to choice. Quigley said a charter’s mission is integral to it. A student selecting a school with a mission that resonates with them makes a difference in the educational experience, according to advocates.

“First of all, it starts with the idea of choice,” said Rhonda Dillingham with the North Carolina Association of Charter Schools. “When a student goes to a school that they’ve actually chosen and they understand the mission of that school, (it) speaks to them on a personal level, then that definitely makes a difference.”

If a school is failing by NCDPI standards, it has to go by the state’s charter school advisory board with an improvement plan. It can expect site visits and scrutiny to survive.

Half of charters with an “F” have been open for five years of less. That’s almost the same case with many given “D” grades.

“If everything has been done to support that school and they’re just consistently not (improving), then you know we should look at doing something different,” Dillingham said.

Campas said her children’s performance is proof of Healthy Start’s new approach and the direction it’s been heading since Quigley came on board.

“My kids are, like, way ahead when it comes to reading comprehension, and also in math,” she said.

Quigley is proud while also recognizing the pressure of keeping about 500 children from having to find a new school. The school’s report card with the NCDPI improved to a “D” in 2018. They were not graded this past year because of the pandemic. He and the school are working to bump that up to at least a “C.”

There are 200 charter schools in the state. With the North Carolina General Assembly back in session, funding is a priority for them just as it is for traditional public schools.

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