Editor’s note: This article is the second part of a look at how the state of North Carolina holds charter schools accountable, especially in the 18 westernmost counties, which are far-removed from the seat of government in Raleigh. While this report stands on its own, the first part can be read here.
Each year, North Carolina’s State Office of Charter Schools publishes a list no charter school wants to see its name on — the list of schools at risk of poor performance.
In recent years, two Western North Carolina schools have found their names on that list. But there’s good news for these schools as well — landing on that list isn’t necessarily a death knell. As these two WNC charters have shown, recovery is quite possible and can even happen quickly.
Financial challenges for new charters
This year, Shining Rock Classical Academy in Lake Junaluska was one of 24 schools designated “at risk of poor performance” by the state office of charter schools.
“There are a variety of factors that can elevate a school’s compliance issues,” said Deanna Townsend-Smith, lead education consultant with the state office of charter schools. “Most frequently it is due to finances, enrollment and academics.”
While Shining Rock was on-track academically, the state’s report cited concerns with enrollment numbers and facilities.
Shining Rock received its charter from the state with plans to open for the 2015-16 school year. Leaders at the Haywood County school had planned for 308 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, but the school opened its doors to 226 students. North Carolina allots funding to charter schools on a per pupil basis, so less students meant less funding for the school year.
Facilities challenges for Shining Rock contributed to the lower-than-expected enrollment. When initial plans for a facility fell through, they ended up opening in a temporary facility. Some parents who had planned to send their children to Shining Rock had second thoughts because their location was uncertain in the months leading up to the school’s opening, said Ben Butler, the school’s director.
“We had the goal of being a small school with only two sections per grade,” he said. “This means a small budget, but more personal service.”
“When you’re small, you essentially hope for waitlists for each of your classes.”
Charter schools hold lotteries for admissions based on the number of seats they have available in each grade. If all of those seats are filled in the lottery, then a waitlist is created.
“226 is enough to open the doors and be successful, but not ideal,” Butler said.
The types of problems Shining Rock experienced in its first year don’t occur at every charter school, but are also not uncommon, according to Townsend-Smith.
“Some of these issues are typical for a first-year school,” she said.
As a first-year school, Townsend-Smith said the state has a monitoring protocol it uses to ensure that these problems don’t develop into larger concerns.
“With this monitoring protocol we consistently check for compliance in all divisions, review board meeting minutes, follow up with the school should new developments happen, and provide additional guidance if needed,” she said.
In many cases, a school can tighten its belt financially and rectify the situation quickly, as evidenced at Shining Rock. State policy will keep the school on the “at risk” list this fiscal year, but Shining Rock has already proven it is back in good standing.
“Our records indicate that your school has no non-compliance at this time, and if your school remains in good standing in operations, finance, and academics, your school will be removed from the list,” Cande Honeycutt, education consultant with the state office of charter schools, wrote in a March 23 email to Butler.
Shining Rock will remain in its temporary location through the end of this school year. Leaders plan to build three large modular units on property owned by the Lake Junaluska Assembly retreat center, where the school will open its doors to students next school year, Butler said.
What’s more, enrollment is on track for next year. Butler said all seats look to be filled with the exception of a few spots in seventh grade — the school is adding one grade per year until it serves kindergarten through eighth grade — and 100 students are on the waitlist in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Problems can come at any time
While the majority of charter schools experience problems within their first five years of operation, the nature of charter-school funding can make for problems at any time.
Take The Learning Center in Murphy, for example. The Cherokee County school has operated under the state’s charter program since 1997, and remained in good standing until 2014 when it found itself on the state’s “at risk” list due to financial troubles.
Cecilia Crawford, chair of The Learning Center’s board of directors, said the trouble came after years of trying to minimize facilities spending until the need for repairs and upgrades became too great.
Charter schools do not receive facilities funding from the state. This means they have to get creative with the funding they do have to lease or buy facilities, as well as perform repairs and upgrades when needed.
Crawford, who has served on the board for nearly a decade, said academics are always the first priority and the school’s leaders have tried to put as much as possible toward academics, rather than facilities.
“We still have those (facilities) needs,” Crawford said. “They only get worse. We tried to put Band-Aids on it, but eventually you’ve got to suck it up and fix it.”
According to the state office of charter school’s annual report, that need for repairs depleted the school’s funds in 2014 and 2015, however, in this year’s report the school was back on track. Townsend-Smith said The Learning Center is currently back in full compliance with state requirements.
A learning process for schools
Crawford said the school’s board of directors, most of whom are business leaders in the community, took the issue very seriously and put new measures in place to avoid future problems.
“The board’s finance committee analyzed every penny and looked at ways to eliminate expenses,” she said.
They learned to do more with less, and asked parents and community members to help. Most school supplies are now donated each year through a fundraiser organized by parents, and many of the needed facilities upgrades were done through volunteer work.
“We’re looking at small numbers that really saved us a lot of money,” Crawford said.
School officials have rearranged their budget so that they are putting a percentage away each month as a cushion for any future issues that arise, she added.
“We want to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Crawford said.
At Shining Rock, Butler said if he had it to do over again, he would start the school with fewer grades — kindergarten through second or third, and add a grade each year from there. Opening with more than 200 students made it challenging to find a facility to where they could all fit, he said.
Currently, he and a business manager are the only administrators for the school – something they intend to maintain in order to keep their budget lean and the majority of their funding focused on academics.
In both instances, the schools did communicate their troubles with parents, but said they found families to be supportive.
“We knew when we began this process that it would be tremendously challenging, and those challenges will never end – they’ll just change as the school grows,” Butler said. “To be successful, we’ll continue to work hard and learn, just like our students.”