CARRBORO- Lisa Gangarosa is the mother of a ninth grader at PACE Academy. She says her family was shocked to hear the Carrboro-based charter school might have to close its doors this summer.
“Of course it is creating a lot of anxiety,” says Gangarosa. “Since my daughter’s only in the ninth grade, she’s very worried about where she would go next year if PACE is not open.”
PACE Academy opened in 2004 to serve high school students with learning disabilities or behavioral problems who have not succeeded at traditional schools. More than half the 169 enrolled have been identified as special needs students.
This December, the state’s Charter School Advisory Board recommended to the North Carolina Board of Education that PACE not have its charter renewed, which would force the school to close at the end of this school year. The CSAB report cited testing noncompliance, fiscal irregularities and low academic performance.
Joel Medley directs the state’s Office of Charter Schools. In a letter regarding the advisory board’s recommendation, he writes:
“These members heard the concerns and thoroughly interviewed representatives from PACE Academy. Based upon the responses provided by the PACE representatives, they unanimously recommended that this school not receive a renewal; and a unanimous recommendation is a rather strong statement.”
Medley says representatives from his office met with PACE administrators four times in 2012, but school officials were not responsive to the department’s concerns.
However PACE Principal Rhonda Franklin, in a letter to the State Board of Education, calls the renewal process “fundamentally unfair.”
She argues the school should not be faulted for its 51% graduation rate because many students struggle with autism, mental health issues and learning disabilities. She said it s not uncommon for students to attend PACE for five or six years to master basic life skills.
“By looking only at PACE’s graduation rate, without considering its mission, the concentration of special needs students and their practice of keeping students in school until they are prepared to leave, transforms one of PACE’s strengths into a weakness. It is tantamount to measuring a square peg with a round hole.”
In response to questions about student enrollment and the school’s financial stability, Franklin writes:
“Once PACE was notified of problems in any area, the school worked diligently to correct the deficiencies. There is no evidence of a “history of non-compliance.'”
Since the advisory board’s recommendation was made public, local leaders have been rallying in support of PACE Academy.
Last month, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Tom Forcella agreed to write a letter to the state Board of Education in support of PACE Academy.
In his letter, Forcella praised PACE for working with students facing learning and behavioral challenges, and promised greater collaboration between the public school system and the charter in the future.
Board Chair Jamezetta Bedford noted PACE has had problems in the past, but nonetheless, she agreed the board should support a school offering some an alternative path to graduation.
“These are kids who really need a different program and who need support,” said Bedford. “These are kids who have already failed in our high schools; they have already chosen to go to another school. Not all have failed, but many of them have, so anything we can do to help kids graduate, let’s do it.”
Carrboro Aldermen voted unanimously last week to support PACE Academy in its bid to stay open beyond this school year. Randee Haven O’Donnell stressed this support only extends to PACE, not to the recent push to expand charter schools statewide.
“It’s really important for folks in the community to know we’re not supporting charter schools in general, we’re supporting PACE Academy in its continuance,” said Haven-O’Donnell.
State House Representative Graig Meyer also added his name to the list of local leaders who support PACE. He says in his work with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School system he’s seen that PACE offers a good fit for students who don’t always thrive in the public school environment.
The State Board of Education will vote in February to decide if PACE Academy stays open.
In the meantime, the Gangarosa family and others are left pondering their options.
“My daughter really enjoys going there and I feel like staff really does go the extra mile to help struggling students,” says Gangarosa. “We’re just taking one step at a time. We haven’t really thought about what our alternatives for next year are.”
You can find more about the renewal process for PACE Academy here.