Board of Education Chair ‘Distressed’ by Expedition School

With the opening of the new charter school, The Expedition School, in Hillsborough, one particular member of the Board of Education is voicing his concern.

Stephen H. Halkiotis, currently serving as the Chair for the Board of Education, says that though he wishes The Expedition School well as it begins its first days, he is certainly unsettled by the growing number of charter schools in North Carolina and the issues that it creates.

“I am deeply distressed,” says Halkiotis, “that the State of North Carolina and the State Legislature have chosen to continually expand charter schools in this state, but not hold them accountable to the same standards and responsibilities that our public schools have been held accountable for a long, long time.”

Halkiotis says that there are a number of necessary items that are not being addressed properly in charter schools, including transportation, food, and handicap accessibility. By ignoring these regulations, he feels that charter schools are demonstrating dishonesty.

“I think they put a twist on that to pretend that they’re really public, but they’re really not,” says Halkiotis. “Unless I’ve seen the eligibility criteria and fully understand them, I’m not convinced that charter schools are allowing an open door to each and every segment of our society, and that’s the thing that troubles me the most about them.”

When speaking on his position as Chair and how it relates to the functioning of schools like The Expedition School, Halkiotis says that the situation is about much more than himself, but about how North Carolina education is meant to be.

“It’s not about any individual, it’s about the organization,” says Halkiotis. “It’s about the institution of being a school. It’s not about me as Chair, or anybody else on that Board. We’re just seven people elected by the citizenry at large to give the best possible direction to the school system and moving our public school systems forward. That’s what I’m committed to.”

The Expedition School opened its doors yesterday at 10 a.m.

For information on The Expedition School, click here.

The Expedition School Opens Its Doors

A new charter school, known as The Expedition School, is opening its doors in Hillsborough this Saturday, July 19th.

Director of Education and Curriculum at The Expedition School, Tammy Finch, describes the basics of what the school is all about and their mission statement, which is “to embrace the natural curiosity of children and empower them to become innovative problem solvers and community builders,” and “to provide excellent education through an experiential, project based, and STEM focused curriculum.”

“The Expedition School is a public charter school,” says Finch. “The focus of our school is hands-on, project-based learning. We also have a STEM focus, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.”

The school offers classes for Kindergarten through sixth grade, but plans to expand up to eighth grade within next two years. Any student in North Carolina is allowed to enroll, and all students will attend without charge.

In addition to the progressive curriculum, Finch says that they are pleased with the location of the school, as well as how it is set up to allow for effective learning for the young students.

“We are very fortunate to be working with Hedgehog Holdings, who has helped to renovate a portion of the old Eno River Mill in Hillsborough for our school,” says Finch. “It has been beautifully renovated into classrooms, and a multi-purpose room, and a music room, and beautiful spaces for children to learn with large windows and natural lighting.”

Those interested are encouraged to attend the grand-opening ribbon cutting ceremony from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the opening Saturday. Following the ceremony, the facility will open for tours.

For more information on The Expedition School, click here.

Local Leaders Rally To Keep PACE Academy Open

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.

Charter School Changes Approved By NC Legislature

Photo by Brian J. Matis

RALEIGH – Legislation heading to Gov. Pat McCrory allows North Carolina charter schools to follow the lead of local traditional schools on criminal history checks for employees.

A negotiated final version of the bill passed the House and Senate on Tuesday. The measure creates more rules to govern a growing number of public charter schools, but drops plans to create a separate panel to oversee them. The legislation would essentially retain an advisory commission already in place to make recommendations to the State Board of Education.

The proposal retains the current requirement that at least half the teachers at charter schools meet state certification requirements. Earlier versions of the bill would have allowed charter school directors to decide whether to check job applicants for any criminal history.