Carrboro Charter School Battles to Stay Open

PACE Academy will fight in court Tuesday to keep its doors open.

Teachers, students, parents and alumni of PACE Academy gathered at the State Board of Education building Monday morning. They were there to protest the Board’s decision to revoke PACE’s charter.

The state’s Charter School Advisory Board recommended PACE be closed due to concerns about low attendance, financial problems and compliance issues. But protest organizer Stephanie Perry says she believes those concerns are unfounded.

“Over the past two years, PACE Academy has been aggressively targeted by the Charter School Advisory Board in a very unfair way,” she said.

Perry says the advisory board did not take into account the school’s unique population when making its assessment. PACE serves students in grades nine through twelve. The school says half of its students have mental health problems or learning disabilities and that many of its students are teenage parents and former drop-outs. Perry says that means many PACE students take classes on a nontraditional schedule and weren’t there when advisory board members came out to check the school’s attendance

“Because of the vocational curriculum, a lot of the students have on-the-job training and internships,” Perry said.

PACE has appealed a May decision by a State Board of Education review panel that revoked the school’s charter. Senate President Phil Berger’s son, Judge Phil Berger Jr., will hear arguments beginning Tuesday.

This is the second time PACE has had its charter on the line. The school’s charter was nearly revoked in 2013 over similar concerns.

Thousands of NC Teacher Assistants in Limbo

The General Assembly passed a stop-gap spending measure Tuesday. The bill keeps the government funded until mid-August while the chambers grapple over the final budget. But the measure does nothing to ease the concerns of  8,500 teacher assistants whose jobs are now in limbo.

North Carolina teacher assistant Melinda Zarate has spent the last several summers on edge.

“It’s just very nerve-wracking,” Zarate told reporters. “Imagine not knowing whether you were going to have a job in a couple months. And yeah, that happens in business too. But for teacher assistants, this happens every single year.”

The Legislature has made frequent cuts to teacher assistant positions since the 2008 recession. This year, despite a budget surplus, the Senate’s budget proposes axing another 8,500 teacher assistants. That would leave schools with less than a third of the teacher assistants they had before the recession. Those cuts don’t sit well with Lisa Caley, a parent of a child with special learning needs.

“Our public schools today are focused on educating every student, and TAs are working to provide the individualized instruction to make that happen,” Caley said. “That means they’re assisting with kids who need remediation, with students who are on grade level and students who are above grade level, to make sure that lessons are differentiated to meet all students’ needs.”

Teacher assistants and their advocates argue their instruction is needed in today’s classrooms.

“Things have become so individualized in our schools, that we don’t do a lot of whole-class instruction—teachers standing in front of a group of kids just delivering trying to fill their heads,” Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Tom Forcella said. “It’s more about breaking kids up into small collaborative groups.”

Senators who support the cuts say reducing the number of teacher assistants will allow the state to hire more teachers and raise teachers’ starting salaries. The House’s budget also proposes raising teacher salaries, but it does not cut assistants. Todd LoFrese, Assistant Superintendent for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, says his district is eagerly awaiting a final budget.

“We’re going to have to take a good look as we develop our budgets if teacher assistants are reduced at the state level again: What are our options? Do we have any options, because those are really big numbers that they’re talking about making in the Senate budget,” LoFrese said.

The two chambers have until August 14 before stop-gap funding expires. In the meantime, thousands of teacher assistants can only guess whether they’ll return to the classroom in the fall.

Large Disparities Exist Even in State’s Healthiest County

Orange County children may be the healthiest in North Carolina, according to child-advocacy nonprofit NC Child. But a closer look at Orange County shows that the block you grow up on may matter more than your county.

Orange County is the wealthiest and most educated county in the state, and overall its children are the healthiest. Orange County Health Director Colleen Bridger says that’s not a coincidence.

“The more highly educated you are, the more likely you are to have a professional job that provides you with health insurance, time off to go to the doctor, time off to take your kids to the doctor and a living wage,” Bridger said.

But Orange County’s wealth and college degrees aren’t divided equally among all its residents. Census estimates show wide socioeconomic gaps between adjacent blocks.

“Even though Orange County in the aggregate is doing well, there are pockets of poverty and places where people are struggling that rivals any other place in the state,” Bridger  warned.

Bridger says the greatest health disparities within Orange County often come down to disparities in education. There are areas in the county where two-thirds of third-graders are reading below grade level. The county says it’s working to improve health outcomes by closing the education gap through a project called the Family Success Alliance. The program replicates an initiative out of Harlem in New York City.

“They’ve basically said ‘anything a child needs from before she or he is born to the time he or she has a job after they’ve graduated from college, we want to provide it.’ And so we want to replicate that here so that we are able to ensure that every child in Orange County can succeed, regardless of where they live,” Bridger said.

Local Schools Explore Solution to Sedentary School Day

Public schools across North Carolina are entering their final weeks of the year, and that means it’s testing time for students. But with childhood obesity on the rise, schools face pressure to balance test preparation with the need for physical activity throughout the school day.

You can listen to the story below:


At Perry Harrison Elementary School in Pittsboro, several fifth-grade girls are playing foursquare on the basketball court, and Brynn Dodge is on a winning streak.

State policy stipulates public elementary and middle school students are guaranteed at least 30 minutes a day of physical activity, and the state encourages schools to provide several hours a week of physical education. Researchers cite recess and P.E. as important tools in the fight against childhood obesity.

According to the CDC, childhood obesity rates doubled during the past 30 years and quadrupled in teenagers. As U.S. kids’ waistlines grew, teacher Laura Fenn watched as their time for school recess and P.E. shrank.

“I was a fifth-grade teacher for a long time, and over the course of 10 or 15 years, time for P.E. and recess was continually cut or eliminated,” Fenn said. “And the kids are just so miserable sitting inside all day long. But with all the focus on testing and achievement, a lot of times, time for P.E. or recess gets replaced with classroom instruction.”

Several years ago, Fenn came up with a solution to the increasingly sedentary school day. She started recording her lessons so her students could listen to them while they walked outside.

“The kids loved it because they got to go outside. They thought they were getting out of something,” she said. “It really tapped into a learning style that many students didn’t know that they had. And so students who were not successful in a traditional setting, all of a sudden, their kinesthetic, auditory learning style was really tapped into, and they were able to participate more and really feel like a successful learner.”

In 2011 Fenn launched a podcast of pre-recorded lessons called “The Walking Classroom.” It’s being used in 700 schools across the U.S. One of those schools is Perry Harrison Elementary. The school received “The Walking Classroom” as a donation from Briar Chapel, local real-estate development company. Brynn Dodge tried it out in her class this year.

“It was a cool way to get out because we were exercising while we were learning things,” Dodge said.

The students each created their own podcasts as part of a class project inspired by "The Walking Classroom."

The students each created their own podcasts as part of a class project inspired by “The Walking Classroom.”

Zion Verinder is a sixth-grader at Margaret B. Pollard Middle School, which also received a “Walking Classroom” donation. He said he liked the podcasts.

“It’s a nice addition to everything,” he said.

But, Verinder says, he’s not a fan of being outdoors, for the walking classroom or for recess, especially when it’s hot.

“They make us walk around the soccer field,” Verinder complained. But his mother, Julie Wagner, sees things differently.

“See I love that, as a parent,” Wagner said. “They really have the kids get up, and they have to walk around and do laps. And I live close to the school, so I see all of them, even eighth-graders, seventh-graders and sixth-graders, walking around the school and going out to the fields.”

Verinder thinks he’s getting enough P.E. He said he has the class twice a week for the rest of the year.

“That’s wonderful,” Wagner responded. “I’m so glad you have P.E., but I wish you had P.E. every day.”

Like most parents in North Carolina, and the U.S., Wagner has to settle for a few hours a week.

Marble Maze Inspires Kindergarten Class

Many teachers will say their most important, and sometimes most difficult, job is keeping students engaged. That challenge has prompted one local kindergarten teacher to come up with an out-of-the box idea.

The covered-outdoor walkway outside Claire Ross’ kindergarten classroom at Estes Hills Elementary was the place to be on Friday afternoon as the group of young builders tried out their marble maze.

What started out as a project during the class’ fun-center activity, evolved into a massive structure of toilet paper rolls, duct tape, and masking tape – 318 toilet paper rolls to be exact.

Listen to the full story below:


Three months of work from enthusiastic five-year-olds resulted in a colossal zig-zag of four levels of the taped-together rolls.

Then came time for the trial run.

After a deafening countdown from 10, the marbles were off, barreling down the cardboard slope, dropping from level to level, accompanied with an enthusiastic “WOO” with each drop, and after a roughly 20-second trip….success! The marbles erupted from the other end of the tube, dinging a bell that had been set up as a finish marker, leading to celebratory screams from the group of youngsters.

After several runs, it was no longer just Ross’ “Rockets” in the breezeway, class after class came down to check out the kindergartner’s project.

Marble Maze_2

Ross says the best part of all of the hard work was all the children were engaged and learning without realizing they were doing schoolwork.

“That all of the children are working toward the same goal, and they’re all excited, and they’re all involved, and everybody is into it,” she points out as rewarding moments. “They’re all working, they’re all engaged, they’re all wanting to be part of the team that’s working on it at that time.

“They’re totally buying into it. They want to learn more.”

Ross says her class was able to accomplish a lot of their academic goals by putting them into this hands-on project.

“We’re working on addition, and we added together all of the smaller numbers,” she says. “Then they used writing because they’re writing about what they were doing and explaining their ideas.”

Ross adds Estes Hills is working toward more STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) projects, and the marble maze incorporates many of those aspects.

For all of their hard work collaborating, all of the classmates got teamwork awards.

And the group of five-year old builders who learned what it means to be an engineer may have a new career aspiration.

Ross videoed the students throughout the project and created this documentary:

Fundraiser Will Support Kids “Learning Outside”

You’re invited to come out to a private nature preserve on Sunday, April 12, to help support a local program that connects kids to the natural world.

The program is called Learning Outside, and the event is called “Meadow Lark”: it runs from 3-6 pm at Triangle Land Conservancy‘s Irvin Nature Preserve, with guided hikes, nature activities, food and drinks from local establishments, and bluegrass music by Big Fat Gap.

It’s all to benefit Learning Outside, a non-profit that provides children with “time spent outdoors learning, exploring and discovering in the natural world” (according to its website). All of its programs take place at the Irvin Nature Preserve, located on 269 acres just west of Carrboro.

Last year, Learning Outside provided full scholarships to 20 percent of the children who attended its programs; they’re hoping to meet or exceed that number this year. Meadow Lark is its first fundraising event.

WCHL’s Aaron Keck spoke with Susan Reda of Learning Outside.

The Irvin Nature Preserve is located at 2912-B Jones Ferry Road. Tickets are $40 for adults, $12 for kids 18 and under. You can buy tickets online at – or just donate to the cause, if you can’t make it to the event itself. (100 percent of ticket proceeds from Meadow Lark will go to scholarship programs.)

CHCCS Teams with Verizon to Provide At-Risk Students with Internet Access

Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools and Verizon are teaming up in an effort to bridge the achievement gap.

120 students throughout the four high schools in the Chapel Hill – Carrboro School District will receive a Google Chromebook laptop. To open up access to the internet with that device, the students will also receive a MiFi Jetpack from Verizon that will work as a mobile hotspot for internet service over Verizon’s 4G LTE network.

School Superintendent Dr. Tom Forcella says, to be able to find a solution, the school system first had to recognize there was a problem.

“One gap that became apparent was the fast-growing technology gap,” he says. “We had become a school district with two distinct groups of children; those who are digitally connected, and those who are not.”

So to bridge that gap, the school system has partnered with Verizon through the school’s Community Connection Program.

Darren Bell, the Coordinator of that program, says this will allow the students to have access to their learning materials at any time.

“We are actually tearing down the physical walls that are the schools,” he says. “Through the usage of our technology, students can now access their digital learning environment 24/7, access communication with teachers, and also other resources all the time.”

Chapel Hill High School Assistant Principal Al Donaldson says it is important that the student assistance does not end simply by providing the technology.

“[We need to have] check-ins with the student, and check-ins with the family,” he says. “In terms of: how often are they using their materials? What kinds of roadblocks students are running into?”

Sarahi Gamboa Ramirez is a senior at Chapel Hill High School and is also taking classes at Durham Tech. She is doing all of this work with help from the Community Connection Program.

She says her success in high school, and her collegiate classes at Durham Tech, is due to the help she has received from the program. Gamboa Ramirez is working toward becoming a nurse.

Program Coordinator Darren Bell says the rollout of the second phase of the pilot program is underway to 120 students. He adds, at the end of next year, they hope to expand the program to middle schools and eventually to elementary schools in the system.

The cost incurred for the current rollout is an estimated $80,000. Bell says that number is expected double as the expansions continue. That funding is coming from the local and state levels.

Superintendent Forcella says these measures will help level the playing field for all of the students in the Chapel Hill – Carrboro School System.

Letter Grades Given to NC Public Schools

Schools across North Carolina received letter grades from the Department of Public Instruction on Thursday.

Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools, as a whole, outperformed their counterparts across the state under the new guidelines gauging school performance.

The new standards, pushed for by the General Assembly, weighted 80 percent of a school’s grade based on their achievement score, in the form of end-of-year testing, and 20 percent on student growth.

Chapel Hill – Carrboro Schools Superintendent Dr. Thomas Forcella says he would like to see the weight of the score adjusted.

“The one detriment of the grading system is that it’s 80 percent focused on strictly test score,” he says. “The Superintendent’s Association – and I believe our school board – and what we’re looking for in Chapel Hill is to have a higher percentage of the grade to consider student growth.”

The term “growth” here is referring to student development over the course of an academic year.

Forcella says he believes momentum is building for adjustments to be made to the grading scale.

“In the first year of anything it’s always a little bit more difficult,” he says. “The more they can include a variety of variables, besides just the test score, it’ll give you, I think, a truer picture of how schools are doing.”

Wake County Democratic Senator Josh Stein filed a bill, on Wednesday, to alter the evaluation of a school’s performance. Under the newly proposed legislation, growth would account for 60 percent of a school’s grade and achievement would make up the remaining 40 percent.

Forcella adds it is important to help disadvantaged students be on level ground with their peers in a learning environment.

“It’s only equitable to have the same opportunities for all kids, especially with technology,” he says. “They can check online at home for their assignments. And many teachers have blogs and share information and provide information online.”

To help bridge that technology gap, Chapel Hill – Carrboro Schools have teamed with Verizon to offer laptops and internet service to some of those students that do not have access to the technology at home.

You can see the full breakdown of Chapel Hill – Carrboro and Orange County Schools’ performances below:

School                                               Grade                  Score                 Growth Expectations

Carrboro Elem B 74 Met
Carrboro High A 85 Exceeded
Chapel Hill High A 87 Exceeded
Culbreth Middle B 79 Exceeded
E Chapel Hill High A 87 Exceeded
Ephesus Elem B 77 Met
Estes Hills Elem B 74 Met
FPG Elem C 55 Did Not Meet
Glenwood Elem B 81 Met
McDougle Elem B 75 Met
McDougle Middle B 81 Exceeded
Morris Grove Elem B 84 Exceeded
Northside Elem C 69 Met
Phillips Middle B 82 Exceeded
Rashkis Elem B 78 Met
Scroggs Elem B 79 Met
Seawell Elem A 85 Exceeded
Smith Middle B 82 Exceeded
A L Stanback Elem C 55 Did Not Meet
Cameron Park Elem B 76 Exceeded
Cedar Ridge High B 70 Did Not Meet
Central Elem D 48 Did Not Meet
CW Stanford Middle C 65 Did Not Meet
Efland Cheeks Elem C 56 Met
Grady Brown Elem C 69 Met
Gravelly Hill Middle C 58 Met
Hillsborough Elem B 73 Met
New Hope Elem C 64 Exceeded
Orange High C 67 Did Not Meet
Pathways Elem C 68 Did Not Meet

You can view the full report here.

MBA@UNC Ranked #1 Online MBA Program

The Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC has brought in another number one ranking.

For the first time ever, U.S. News & World Report ranked online MBA programs. And MBA@UNC is checking in at the top spot.

Doug Shackelford, Dean of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, says they were excited to be at the top of the list

“We started the program in 2011,” he says. “Our mindset, from the very beginning, was there are a lot of great MBA prospective students for whom coming to Chapel Hill might not be very easy. But they would love to get an education from us.”

The program has grown to more than 630 students, who represent 47 states and 35 countries.

Shackelford says that the program is ideal for those who travel on a regular basis, those who are working overseas – including a large military contingency – and those who do not have access to a higher-quality education, wherever they may be.

He adds that it was important to structure the program in a way that would not compromise the education being offered, the faculty teaching the course, or the students enrolled.

Shackelford says we are spoiled in the Triangle with so many high-quality options for a higher education.

“There are a lot of places, in this country and around the world, where you can’t find a top-quality education for hundreds of miles,” he says. “We’re able to bring a top-tier MBA education to those people.”

Shackelford says the program affords students virtual classrooms to meet and correspond with each other and the teacher, adding students all around the world may be taking part in the class together during completely different portions of their day.

He says this model allows classes to be taught in the same way they are on campus.

To build camaraderie among students in the classes, quarterly meetings are held; students are not required to attend every meeting, but they must attend a certain number to graduate. Shackelford adds two of these meetings are held outside of the U.S., one at a location in the country, and every December the students are brought to Chapel Hill.

“We’re building Tar Heels all around the world,” he says. “When we bring them here [Chapel Hill] in December, they raid the student store and buy up everything blue they can find.

“Last year we had [more than] two hundred students able to attend a basketball game.”

He adds he is excited to see what the future holds for this form of education.

“We feel we’re on the verge of where the future’s going,” Shackelford says. “I feel this program is a little bit like the first time you ever saw a cell phone.”

UNC Ranked Best Value Education in Country

UNC is checking in atop a national ranking for the 14th year in a row.

Carolina offers the best value of any public school in the country, according to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine, which publishes the annual list.

“UNC ranks number one for both in-state and out-of-state [students],” says editor Sandra Block. “UNC is just a bargain for what you get.”

Block says that UNC’s ability to provide financial aid to students is paramount to maintaining their positioning on the top of the list, but there are other factors – including “[the] student-faculty ratio, [the] admission rate – which is 27%, very competitive – [and] undergraduate debt, [which] is lower than average.”

Block mentions that UNC is the top ranking public university on the combined public-private value list, checking in at number 22. She says the list is dominated by private universities because of the amount of financial aid at the disposal of the schools – including one just down the road from UNC.

“Duke is number 10 on our combined list,” she says.

Both UNC and Duke excelled at graduating their students in four years. Duke has a four-year graduation rate of 87%, while Carolina’s is 81%.

Block adds that public universities face some obstacles that private institutions don’t – including state budget cuts.

The recent revelations of academic irregularities at UNC involving student athletes have dominated headlines in the academic world. Block says that they did factor that into their study by removing those students and rerunning the numbers to recalculate the graduation rate.

“Not to downplay the seriousness of the scandal,” she warns, “(but) statistically it wasn’t significant.”

Block says that, overall, the state of North Carolina, in particularly the Triangle, is very well represented on the list. UNC tops the list for in-state and out-of-state students at public universities. Duke checked in at number 10 on the combined public-private list, and North Carolina State University ranked 12th on the public university list for in-state students.