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PACE Academy charter school could close because of noncompliance; parents upset

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Rebecca Sorensen knew something was wrong with her son, Raimee. A second grader diagnosed with autism and epilepsy, Raimee often returned from school in Wake County in a withdrawn mood. Teachers said he was failing music class, even though Raimee seemed to have a natural aptitude.

"I didn't even recognize my son," Sorensen said. "He was not only not learning, he was regressing."

After learning school teachers had not read Raimee's Individualized Education Program, a plan mandated by the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for children with special needs, Sorensen knew her son needed a different kind of school.

It took nine years before she found it in Carrboro charter school PACE Academy. Today, Raimee is thriving at the charter, which is known for its warm environment and personalized teaching curriculum.

But Raimee may soon be uprooted again. PACE Academy could close because of noncompliance issues, yet some parents say the school has been unfairly evaluated.

Last week, the state's Charter School Advisory Board unanimously recommended to the N.C. State Board of Education that it reject PACE's application for a renewal of its 10-year charter.

Advisory board members cited "a pattern of noncompliance issues, financial concerns, declining student enrollment and low academic performance" for their decision, said Joel Medley, director of the state's Office of Charter Schools, a division of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

The school opened in 2004 in Chapel Hill and moved to a larger Carrboro campus in 2010. It serves roughly 130 students in grades 9–12, many of them with special needs like Raimee or past disciplinary problems.

The State Board of Education, which has the final say on the charter renewal, is expected to act on the advisory board's recommendation in February.

In North Carolina, public charter schools are funded largely with tax dollars but can be selective about who is enrolled. There is an application process, and prospective students can be required to enter a lottery if the demand surpasses a school's available slots.

PACE Academy has several problems, according to a state report prepared for the advisory board. The school failed to adequately test 95 percent of its students in 2010 and 2011. Over four consecutive years, test results have failed to meet goals for subgroup growth —a somewhat controversial measure of educational progress in student populations laid out by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. At one point, the school claimed it had 169 students, but a state audit found just 89 present. The difference is important because a school's state funding is based on student enrollment. Spending in the school exceeded revenues by $245,000 last year, a sign of "serious cash flow issues," the report said.

PACE Academy test scores lagged far behind those of peers in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, although, as advocates have pointed out, approximately 58 percent of the school's population is classified as special needs. The report failed to disclose PACE students' testing performance prior to entering the charter school.

PACE administrators declined to discuss the matter publicly this week, saying they were consulting with an attorney. But in December 2012, PACE board of directors Chairwoman Sylvia Mason sent a letter to the Office of Charter Schools, asking state leaders to support the academy.

"No words can adequately describe the work the staff and students of PACE Academy do on a daily basis," Mason wrote. "The growth that has been achieved is not always quantifiable. However, evidenced by the hundreds of positive outcomes for adolescents in our community, PACE Academy is a success."

The state report did cite overwhelming parental support for the school. "You can feel the culture when you walk in that building," Sorensen said. "There's so much support and friendliness and kindness. There's just nothing like it that could possibly be so good for these kids."

Without PACE, Sorensen said, Raimee will have to move or return to home school.

"Last night, he was performing at a school concert," she said. "You should have seen him. He's a shining star, and he has friends. This is a kid with autism."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Pass or fail?"

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