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In Chapel Hill, opposition builds against charter school

Charter schools under the microscope (Part 2/3)

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Editor's note: Comments have been closed on this story because they did not address the issue of the Lee school.

The Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars charter school is a State Board of Education vote away from becoming a reality in Chapel Hill. It's an outcome the local school board is working to stop.

Named after Chapel Hill's first and only black mayor and his wife, a career educator, the Lee school is seeking fast-track approval to open in August. According to its application filed with the state, the Lee school said it will focus on minority and low-income students, and close the achievement gap between those groups and white and middle-class/ affluent students. The school also promises to alleviate overcrowding and provide students with a more rigorous college preparatory curriculum.

The school would partner with the for-profit National Heritage Academies of Michigan, which manages 71 charter schools nationwide.

"We would like to offer parents an option, a viable option, for educating their kids, particularly those kids who have underperformed in a traditional school system," said Angela Lee, who would head the applicant's board of trustees; Lee is the daughter of Howard Lee, who is advocating for the charter school.

Howard Lee's political clout makes it difficult for many people to object to the school.

But, there is little evidence that a demand for such a charter school exists in Chapel Hill. And based on performance at other NHA schools, including several in North Carolina, it's unclear if the Lee school could achieve its lofty goals. Opponents, including the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board, the NAACP and other education advocates, contend that if the Lee school were sited within the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district, it would impede the district's ability to enact reforms that the charter applicants champion.

Opponents are also worried that the Lee school would siphon money away from the traditional schools. Traditional public schools receive state, local and federal money per pupil; when students enroll in a public charter school, that allotment goes with them.

The Lee school would begin with grades K-5 and expand to include all middle school grades by 2015. Estimated initial enrollment is 480 students, which would eventually expand to 723.

That translates to $4.6 million–$7 million in reductions to CHCCS over the next four years—a 3.6 percent–5.5 percent reduction to the overall budget, according to district documents.

Twenty to 40 of the district's 1,115 teaching jobs would be eliminated because of the funding shortfall, but because students likely would enroll at Lee from schools across the district, teacher cuts alone could not balance the books.

Funds for programs that have already narrowed the achievement gap—Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) and the Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocates (BRMA)—could be also cut.

AVID's annual budget is $334,142; BRMA's $396,450.

CHCCS board member Greg McElveen said that losing those dollars to the Lee school, especially when budgets are tight, is "actually counterproductive to accomplishing the objectives that we all espouse."

McElveen drafted a letter on behalf of CHCCS opposing the Lee school to the State Board of Education, which will consider the application Feb. 1. In March the education board will vote on whether to grant Lee a charter for up to 10 years with options for renewal.

The charter's board of directors would include four African-Americans—Angela Lee, Pastor Damien Fields, Danita Mason-Hogans and Stephanie Perry—and one white person, Jeanne Kirschner.

Perry, a lead organizer with Orange Justice United, an interfaith social justice group, said she wishes she would have had a charter school option for her five children. (There are two charters in Orange County, Pace Academy and Orange Charter.)

In a Chapel Hill News guest column in November, published two days after the Lee application was submitted, Perry complained that one of her children, who was enrolled in CHCCS, was recommended for special education because of illegible handwriting. Another of her children was evaluated as "athletic and speaks well," she wrote, concluding racial stereotypes contribute largely to the achievement gap.

"Part of what's driving the achievement gap in Chapel Hill is an expectation gap, and there's stuff going on within the leadership, the structure and the teachers that needs to be addressed," Perry said during the school's interview with the N.C. Public Charter School Advisory Council earlier this month.

"It's not about separation, it's just about diversity and accepting that sometimes one size does not fit all. We have to come up with creative ways to serve everybody."

CHCCS test results show that there is still a 36 point gap in the passage rate for End of Grade tests between white and black students. However, that gap has narrowed by 10 points since the 2008–2009 school year.

For Hispanic students in CHCCS, the passage rate has improved by more than 10 points, nearly twice the state average, and the gap is 29.8 points.

McElveen cites 10 initiatives—including adding intervention specialists, teaching assistants, literacy coaches and tutoring in public housing projects and at community centers—as responsible for the progress.

In the Lee school application, which is scant on NHA data, the board stated that it partnered with the company because of Howard Lee's familiarity with the group while he served on the State Board of Education. It also cited the school's "moral focus curriculum" and its "data-driven" approach that tests students three times a year to assess progress.

NHA spokesman Joe DiBenedetto said that the curriculum includes four key components: moral, intellectual, performance and social character.

CHCCS school board member James Barrett, who won election in November after campaigning on closing the achievement gap, criticized the amount of testing. He compares NHA to KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), a successful nonprofit charter school creator. School board members recently visited a KIPP school in Gaston.

"KIPP teachers are engaged in deep thinking, challenging all students to just learn. They have test results that show the quality of their education, but clearly they weren't just teaching things on a surface level for test-taking purposes," Barrett said. "NHA has a clear focus on testing and 'we're going to prepare the kids for the test and use them continuously.'"

NHA said it can address the gap by teaching virtues and tailoring lessons based on the test results.

Natasha Bowen, an associate professor at the UNC School of Social Work and a former board member of KIPP Gaston College Preparatory, said the data doesn't back up NHA's claims.

"It's true that Chapel Hill has had a gap and that's a big problem," she said. "I'm all for schools that actually address the gap, but the school that's proposing to come to Chapel Hill, according to publicly available data from (the N.C. Department of Public Instruction), isn't the answer to the problem."

If NHA schools are closing the gap it's by lowering test scores for white, middle-class or affluent students—not raising scores dramatically for minority or low-income students.

Bowen's data shows that among the five current NHA charters in North Carolina, two of them serve predominantly white and middle-class/ affluent students.

Only 3 percent–4 percent of students in those schools are Latino; 6 percent–13 percent are low-income. Both populations perform slightly above CHCCS levels, but Bowen said the sample size is too small to validate the success rates.

Meanwhile, white and non-economically disadvantaged students do worse in NHA schools than the state and CHCCS averages. Black students on the whole perform about the same in NHA schools as the state average, but worse than their black counterparts in CHCCS, Bowen found.

"They are right that they are closing the gap a little bit, but that's not the way we want to do it," Bowen said."It's hard for me to see how they can argue that they are bringing some great solution for African-American kids," Bowen added. "I came in hoping it was a great thing. ... They have had plenty of time to establish a track record, and it's not a good one."

The Lee school application also contends it will alleviate overcrowding at CHCCS schools. However, according to state data, NHA's schools in North Carolina have on average four more students per K–8 classroom—23.8—than presently at CHCCS.

Any overcrowding in the CHCCS district could be alleviated by its 11th elementary school, projected to open in August 2013. The Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, an agreement between the schools and Orange County municipalities, ensures that no new housing developments can be built until new schools are in place to accommodate additional students.

J.C. Huizenga, a powerful Republican donor, founded NHA in 1995. His cousin is Wayne Huizenga, who owns Waste Management Inc. and is a former owner of the Miami Dolphins, Florida Panthers and Florida Marlins.

NHA can generate revenue by taking all or part of the per-pupil funding from the charter school. It also can earn money by building a school and then leasing it back to the nonprofit board.

That's what is planned for Chapel Hill. Under the terms of their agreement, NHA would build a 45,000-square-foot school and the board would then rent it from the company.

However, NHA spokesman DiBenedetto said the company does not expect to profit from the Lee school for at least five years. "For our average school, it will take up to 10 years to recoup that investment. If we eventually do make money, it's because we have succeeded at doing what we've been hired to do, which is educate children."

"NHA takes a lot of the upfront risk regarding constructing a school," said Pastor Fields, who will serve on the board of directors at the Lee School if it is approved.

NHA and the board are supposed to jointly hire teachers and administrators, meaning the company can influence those hiring practices. Yet, Fields said, "We still affect policy and governance of that school. We own the charter and we could pull away from NHA if we want."

However, former board members from Detroit Enterprise Academy, one of 43 NHA-managed schools in Michigan, said that's not how their arrangement worked.

"Basically it was a horror story," said the Rev. Sandra Clark-Hinton, who served four and a half years on the board of the Enterprise Academy before she resigned as president.

"I jumped in feeling like I was going to make a difference. The bottom line is you are just a rubber stamp," she said. "You show up at the board meetings. You sign up on things. You ask questions. You get very little answers. You take on all these fiduciary responsibilities, but yet they take them all from you. You ask for itemized things in the budget, but you never get that."

Clark-Hinton and Dr. Gary Sands, a retired urban planning professor, say they left the Enterprise board because NHA wouldn't renegotiate the terms of its lease. According to the contract, the charter pays $960,480 annually to NHA for rent in a former Catholic school with a two-story addition, including a gym. That fee does not include insurance, taxes and maintenance.

"National Heritage put together the application, put together the board and it was very clearly their school," said Sands.

"If the folks who have set up the board in your community have gone out and interviewed people and decided that National Heritage is the best bet and they've got a contractual agreement that's fair and reasonable to everybody, then I think that's OK," Sands said. "National Heritage can do a fine job. The problem that I saw was that they had started the process and provided terms that were very favorable to them and were unwilling to change them."

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