Charting a new course: Upstart schools face animosity that usually softens over time

coverA small group of parents had been working quietly for about three years to get the first charter school established in Haywood County, and they were beginning to think they would make it through the process without experiencing the backlash everyone told them was sure to come.  

“Everyone warned us it’s going to be hard, but we thought everything was going great until August,” said Anna Eason, a Shining Rock Classical Academy board member. “We bragged about our community being so wonderful and accepting, but then it came out with vengeance.”

Shining Rock leaders have been shocked by the community outcry since opening last August, but their school isn’t the only charter school that has gone through that difficult transition. A number of factors have played into the turmoil between charters, the community at large and local school boards. Charter schools have become a politically charged issue as the state legislature continues to tighten funding for traditional public schools while opening the door for more money to flow into charters and private school vouchers. 

While supporters of charters say they simply want more choices for their children’s education, opponents argue that the alternative public schools take funding and resources away from the traditional public schools without holding charters to the same accountability levels. 

“There are times I look at how the state is embracing choices and not creating an even playing field — we should all be under the same accountability standards,” said Michael Murray, superintendent of Jackson County Schools. “Legislators are doing everything they can against public education. They act like public schools are broken, but just because there are now choices doesn’t mean we’re a bad choice.”

Even though it’s become a frustrating issue for people on both sides, the reality is that charter schools aren’t going anywhere and local school systems will have to find a way to work amicably with their charter school counterparts for the benefit of all students. 

Charter schools that have been around a while have already forged a path toward mutual respect and cooperation with their local school districts, but Haywood County still has a ways to go before reaching that point. 

Nancy East, Shining Rock board chairwoman, said she understands it’s difficult for Haywood County Schools to lose students to another school, but she hopes one day the “us against them” attitude will subside and the two entities can find ways to work in tandem to improve education in the county. The public school system lost more than 150 students to Shining Rock during the charter’s first year of operation. Shining Rock enrolled more than 230 students this year and anticipates more than 300 next school year as it adds seventh-grade classrooms. 

“When our enrollment caps out I think things will smooth over and bring positive change — I feel like we’ve seen some positive already,” she said. “Hopefully it will be more visible in the future because we should celebrate each other’s successes.”

 

In the beginning

The North Carolina Legislature had a cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state until Republicans took over in 2012. A majority of the 100 permitted charters were found in the big cities, but it didn’t take long for them to move westward once the cap was lifted. As of 2015, 160 charter schools were operating in North Carolina, and 40 more applied to open in 2016. 

Yet there are still only three charters located in the seven westernmost counties — Summit Charter School in Cashiers has been in operation for almost 20 years, Mountain Discovery Charter School in Bryson City has been operating for 14 years, and Shining Rock Classical Academy in Waynesville is about to wrap up its first year. 

With so many mixed feelings about charter schools, all of these schools’ founders knew it would be an uphill battle. Dismantling the way things have always been often meets opposition and resistance. After all, they would be pulling students, and therefore funding, away from the traditional school systems.

 

Summit’s story

Summit was the first to open in the west and now has a permanent campus location serving kindergarten through eighth-grade students in Jackson and Macon counties. Kim Coward, a founding board member of Summit, said charter schools were almost unheard of when a small focus group of parents began meeting in 1995 to discuss the future of education options in their community. At the time, Blue Ridge Community School was the only education option in the isolated area of Jackson County. 

“It’s not that anything was bad with the school, but there was no alternative,” Coward said. “Capitalism thrives on choice, and we thought having another school would be beneficial for the entire community.”

About that same time, the N.C. Legislature was considering a bill to allow charter schools and being the lawyer on the board, Coward followed the legislation. Once it was passed, the focus group decided to start the process of opening a charter school. 

“Our goal was not to take over — we didn’t even know if we’d have the minimum of 64 (students) needed to start a school,” she said. “But we all rolled up our sleeves and divided up projects … and we ended up having 110 kids when the school first opened.”

The number of initial students and the support from parents told Coward and other founding members that the community did want more school choice and that Summit would thrive. That doesn’t mean everyone was on board. Of course there were people who didn’t understand that charter schools were also tuition-free public schools. 

“There was a small contingent that said, ‘you guys are going to kill Blue Ridge School’ but the opposite has happened,” Coward said. “A little competition between the schools has benefitted everyone.”

Some people thought the charter school should operate under the current Jackson County school system. 

“We liked it because it’s not run by the board of education — not that there’s anything wrong with them, but there’s only so much a countywide school board can do,” Coward said. “They don’t have the freedom in non-charter schools to be as creative as charters.”

Coward understands why the relationship between charters and the traditional school systems has been strained. Charters are given more leeway with teacher credentials, classroom size, curriculum and the school calendar, while other school systems are held to stricter state regulations. On the other hand, charters school students still have to take the same required testing and the schools receive only per-pupil funding from the state, not the capital improvement money that typically comes from the county. They have to fend for themselves when it comes to funding for facilities and operations. 

“You’re your own educational entity. You have to fund everything public schools do but you don’t get the funds for it,” Coward said. “You have to figure out a way to get a building, which is a huge disadvantage.”

Charters are not required to offer bus service or provide lunch for students like the public schools, though many try to provide some sort of transportation and options for students who can’t bring their lunch to school. Even with a demanding full-time career, Coward said she made the choice to pack her children’s lunches and take them to school in order to go to Summit. While it’s been years since she’s involved with the school, she is happy with her decision and takes great pride in the school she helped create.  

 

Mountain Discovery’s story

With 16 years in the rearview, Mary Ellen Hammond, a founding board member of Mountain Discovery Charter School in Bryson City, said that getting the school started was an amazing experience. 

“We had an amazing group of really motivated people — mostly parents — willing to put a lot of time into writing the charter application,” she said. “It was a huge undertaking.”

The process was not without conflict though. Hammond said people in the community were uncomfortable with the new concept of charter schools and Mountain Discovery was met with public opposition. The cap on charter schools was still in place when the school opened in 2001 and people had a hard time understanding that Mountain Discovery was also a free, public school. 

“You can look at old letters to the editor in the newspaper and get a sense of how concerned people were about it,” Hammond said. “And there were concerns about the (traditional) school system feeling like, ‘are we not good enough?’”

Hammond said a little competition is a good thing to ensure all schools are operating and educating students to the best of their abilities. Looking at the big picture, she said having more school options is a good thing for Swain County because educational opportunities can be a deciding factor for families looking to relocate to another area.

“In some ways that’s happened in Swain County,” Hammond said. “In general there are some things happening in the traditional public schools that weren’t happening then.”

School Director Carter Petty, who has been involved in Mountain Discovery since the beginning, said the Bryson City charter school met more resistance from the local school board and central office than from the community at large. 

“I’ve been working to cultivate that relationship ever since,” he said. “And we’ve had a lot of success — they (Swain County Schools) service our buses when they can, they send the fuel truck over and I’ve got a key to the middle school gym because it’s our shelter in case of emergencies.”

Petty said part of the good relationship it now has with Swain and Jackson counties can be attributed to the natural progression of time — new school leadership has taken over and the community has gotten used to it. But part of it can also be attributed to a decision Mountain Discovery made several years ago. In 2008, Sugar Creek Charter School sued Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for a portion of the school system’s operational funding and the courts ruled in favor of the charter school. A similar ruling was made in 2011, and Rutherford County had to dole out more than $700,000 to Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy. 

While Mountain Discovery could have gone after that same funding from Swain, Petty said they board decided not to pursue legal action against the school system. Even though Mountain Discovery had legal rights to that funding, Carter said he didn’t believe it was the right thing to do. That decision had to garner some good will from the local school system. 

“We had legal recourse to sue them for the funds… but the board decided not to pursue it, and I think that was huge,” Petty said. “Ethically it just wasn’t the right thing to do.”

 

Shining Rock’s story

All was going well. Shining Rock received its charter from the state to operate a K-6 school and signed a contract in June to purchase a 32-acre tract in the Francis Cove community to begin building its permanent campus. 

When it came time for Shining Rock to apply for a special permit from the town that would allow the school to place modular classrooms on the property, the surrounding farming community made it clear the charter school was not welcome. Their request for a special permit was denied after more than 100 people packed a Waynesville planning board meeting to oppose Shining Rock moving into their neighborhood. Some neighbors said they didn’t want the additional traffic and wanted to preserve their cultural heritage, but others were just outright opposed to charter schools in general. They saw the charter school as an affront to the Haywood County school system. The opposition was political, and Shining Rock folks couldn’t help but take it personally. 

Nancy East, Shining Rock’s board chairwoman, said she was taken aback with the resistance that seemed to come out of nowhere. She said the founding board did everything it could to inform the school system and the Francis Cove community of the its plans, but nothing seemed to make a difference.

It looks like Shining Rock has worked out its facility problems for now, but the charter school was hit with another public relations nightmare earlier this year when Haywood County Schools decided to close down Central Elementary School. Between budget shortfalls and several years of diminishing enrollment numbers, the HCS board made the tough decision to close Central and divvy up more than 200 students between Junaluska and Hazelwood elementary schools. Only 20 students relocated from Central to Shining Rock when it opened, but the charter school became the scapegoat. Political candidates used Central’s closing to exemplify why charter schools are killing public education. 

Shining Rock’s board had spent almost three years learning about how to open and operate a charter school, but no one taught them how to deal with angry residents who didn’t want them in their community. 

“I reached out to others (charter schools) to see what they went through, but I never imagined we’d have to deal with this much pushback,” East said. “It wasn’t on my radar — I didn’t know how to react.”

The difference between tolerance and acceptance is a sense of understanding and a willingness to cooperate. Eason and other charter school leaders have chalked all the contempt up to a lack of understanding. 

 

What the future holds

Jim Dunn knows for a fact that the adversarial relationships between charters and traditional school systems can be mended. As a founding board member at Summit and the school director there for five years during the early years, he worked hard to create a bond between Summit and Blue Ridge.

“It was always my desire to have them work together,” he said. 

At one point, neither Blue Ridge nor Summit had enough students to form a middle-school baseball team. The simple solution was to have students from both schools merge together to form one team — the Blue Ridge Bears. Playing sports together and having parents from both schools interacting together eventually led to a more united school community. 

“They grew to appreciate one another,” Dunn said. “And it created a friendly competition as both schools grew into their own.”

Eason and East have a number of ideas about how the two school systems could work together to benefit both sides. They could share the cost of a grant writer to go after education funding or share the cost of a specialty teacher that isn’t needed full-time at either school. 

Shining Rock and Haywood County Schools might be playing sports against each other one day, and perhaps that could help bridge the gap being felt in the community right now. 

“All we need is a starting point,” Eason said. “The first step is mutual respect, and from there you can grow.”

For Haywood County school leaders, it’s going to take more than friendly sports competitions for them to feel comfortable sharing resources with a charter school. The current relationship between Shining Rock and Haywood County Schools is fairly non-existent, according to HCS board chairman Chuck Francis. 

“I don’t know if there’s a relationship whatsoever,” he said. “I guess it’s one of just trying to get along.”

It’s nothing personal, but it’s hard to want to be friendly with folks who are funneling money away from your school system. It’s even worse when you feel like the General Assembly is making it harder and harder for a public school system to survive. It’s bad enough public schools are losing per-pupil funding, but Francis says the legislature is also looking at making school districts share other pots of funding with charters. 

“There’s a growing divide between charters and traditional schools because of the fact charters are coming after monies we feel they’re not entitled to,” Francis said. “It’s my opinion they shouldn’t have access to that, but it’s taxpayer money — we want it for our traditional public schools, but if the state says they’re entitled to it, we’re going to hand it over.”

From the very beginning, Francis said the school board would have been open to allowing the Shining Rock group to open a charter or magnet school under the public school umbrella. That would have allowed the charter a lot of flexibility, but ultimately  the county school board would still have controlled the charter school. 

But that isn’t want Shining Rock wanted — its founders wanted independence from the school board. East and Eason said they are sympathetic to Haywood’s position, though. They agree that it is unfair charters get the flexibility from the state not afforded to traditional schools. 

“Charters were created to be a breeding ground for new ideas, and it’s turned into an ‘us against them’ situation,” East said. “It’s unfortunate they don’t have the options — I think local schools should have more control over what they do.”

Jackson County has about 150 students attending Summit and another 100 going to Mountain Discovery. When Murray became superintendent of Jackson County Schools five years ago, he decided to work with the charter schools instead of against them. The reality is that his school system loses money when it loses students to charter schools, but he said the blame should not be placed on the students or the parents choosing to send their child to a charter school.

“ I don’t think it’s productive when people in education badmouth each other,” he said. “A lot of these kids will end up coming to us in high school anyway, so it’s not wise to say anything derogatory about either of them.”

If there has been a positive out of more charter school competition, Murray said it’s that the public school systems now have to focus more on educating the public about why Jackson County Schools is the best choice for their child. Now that parents have more school choice, Murray said his staff has been trained to be more customer service oriented.

“It’s given us the opportunity to say why ours is the best choice with the resources we have, and our strength is our highly qualified teachers — they are the best in the state and the best in the world in my opinion,” Murray said. 

Swain County School Board Chairman Gerald McKinney said Swain County has a great working relationship with Mountain Discovery Charter despite his personal feelings about charter schools in general. They are in communication on a regular basis and are open to any opportunities to partner together and share resources. 

For example, Mountain Discovery is going after a large grant to help fund a new gymnasium, and it partnered with Swain County commissioners on the project. Mountain Discovery agreed to make the future gym open to the community, and commissioners agreed to sell the charter school an acre of county land on which to build the gym. 

Only time will tell how the relationship between Haywood County Schools and Shining Rock will develop, but school leaders remain hopeful. 

“Over time things will probably improve just as we’ve seen with the other charters,” Francis said. 

East said Shining Rock is actively working to be good members of the community by participating in community events like Haywood Waterways Association’s Polar Plunge, and several Shining Rock families participated in Waynesville Middle’s two-miler fundraiser earlier this month. 

“I want us to support each other’s mission,” East said. “The diversity we’re creating will only help our county thrive in the future, so it’s a win-win for all schools.”

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