Between classes at Dynamic Community Charter School in Northwest Raleigh, the hallway teems with students—some chatting, some running, some drifting reluctantly to the next class.
Dustin Britt, the school's lead exceptional children teacher, stands in the center of the hallway, doling out high-fives as students pass. "This is what they were left out of," he says.
It looks like a normal school experience for an abnormal school population. Dynamic, housed in a former nursing home off Glenwood Avenue, is one of a few public schools in North Carolina that specializes in students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Today, Dynamic—which opened only last September—is at odds with the N.C. State Board of Education, the state's regulatory Charter School Advisory Board, modern teaching practices, and essentially anyone who does not believe in Dynamic's mission of educating children who've struggled to fit into the traditional public school model.
"One kid told me, if they keep poking the dragon, the dragon's going to fight back," says Britt, referring to the school's mascot, Blackbeard, a bearded dragon lizard half the length of a child's arm.
School leaders will soon make their case to the CSAB. Despite parents' support, Dynamic may have to answer more than just financial questions. The school may also have to defend its very reason for existing.
Prior to the federal Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975, most children with disabilities were shunted to isolated, state-run schools or institutions, rather than local school systems. Disability advocates argue that these children benefit from a "normalized" school experience, integrated as much as possible in classrooms with students without disabilities. But at Dynamic, all of the school's 70 students—which hail from across the state, but primarily Wake County—have been diagnosed with some form of developmental or intellectual disability.
"One state inspector told us that we were setting back exceptional children education by 40 years," Britt says.
Dynamic's fight has just begun. Last month, the State Board of Education voted to begin the process of revoking the school's charter, prompted by financial holes and a particularly damning assessment from N.C. Department of Public Instruction staff last October that, among other things, criticized the school for lacking classroom structure, proper teacher certification and "inappropriate," overly familiar interactions with students (although there was nothing of a sexual nature).
"I would close a school that sounded like that. That sounds awful," says the school's lead administrator, Terri Zobel. The school's prior administrator quit shortly after the DPI report, which described Dynamic as "noncompliant in the provision of a free, appropriate, public education for students with disability."
Three months later, state staff reported "serious concerns" about the school's finances, citing a $280,000 budget deficit in December. DPI ordered school staff to take a 10 percent cut in salary and benefits to close the deficit.
Throughout the process, Dynamic administrators claimed the state's reports were unfair. Chiefly, 22 of the school's 70 students were not eligible for state funding because they were home-schooled in the previous academic year.
Additionally, school leaders said the CSAB, which makes recommendations to the state Board of Education, did not give Dynamic enough time to prepare a defense before voting to recommend closing the school in February. Britt says Dynamic was told one business day before the advisory board's meeting that it would be on the agenda.
Bill Cobey, chairman of the state Board of Education, acknowledges issues with the state's handling of Dynamic's case. "But I would rather look forward than backward," he says. "See if there's some way they can show us the needs of these children are being addressed in accordance with law and that their financial house is in order."
If the Board of Education follows through on the revocation, Dynamic will be one of 11 charter schools shuttered by North Carolina since it began accepting charters in 1997, most due to financial and management concerns.
Students and parents have rallied to the school's cause, packing state board meetings and lobbying state legislators. Dynamic leaders won a small victory late last month, following a private meeting with DPI staff in which they presented new, less shaky budget numbers. Board of Education members made no public pronouncements, but quietly agreed to delay the revocation process, says Britt, with some staff members citing the school's progress since the October report. And last week a pair of Wake County Republicans introduced a bill to provide funding for charters that cater almost exclusively to students with special needs—Dynamic being the only one in the state.
Not everyone thinks this is a good idea, however. Parents and school leaders asked the nonprofit watchdog Disability Rights NC to intervene on Dynamic's behalf. But Vicki Smith, its executive director, declined.
"Disability Rights on principle does not support any segregated placement in education or anywhere else," Smith says. "Our mission is to get people out of segregation."
Though Smith says she understands the pull for parents whose children struggled in traditional schools, "pulling them out of the mainstream may not fix anything in the long run. Isolation, which is what any segregated services are, makes bullying more likely and creates a very divisive situation."
While some may be unconvinced, Glen Steers, whose 17-year-old son, Caleb, attends Dynamic, says separating his son is best for all students. Caleb, who has been diagnosed with a mild intellectual disorder and oppositional defiant disorder, was bullied in a traditional classroom and slowed instruction for other students.
"The public schools have a one-size-fits-all approach," Steers says. "It wasn't an approach that works for him."
Three years ago, Caleb's parents began home-schooling him, but they say he needed interaction with other children. He's getting that from Dynamic, Steers says. "This is a place where he's not only accepted but embraced. We have seen him grow by leaps and bounds."
Cobey, the state Board of Education chair, says he supports giving parents a choice between traditional and charter schools, but those schools must follow the law.
"It's easy to point the fingers at the government or the bureaucracy," Cobey says. "We are human beings that care for these children. We're not their parents, but we want the best for these children."
Now, after months of negotiations and reforms, the school's finances are in order, Zobel says, aided by a much-needed $86,000 grant from the state, fundraisers and salary cuts. Its teachers are certified or in the process of obtaining certification to work with exceptional children. School officials are adopting all curriculum recommendations from last year's report.
And, most importantly, Zobel says, parents are seeing results. Now they just need to prove it.
"Let us swim," Zobel says. "They keep trying to sink our boat."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The dragon fights back."