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Charting a new course: Haywood’s first charter school gets set to open in Waynesville

coverAnna Eason has nothing but good things to say about Haywood County Public Schools. It’s a “good school system,” doing “an amazing job with what the state gives.” Two of her three children are students there now, and she herself is a product of North Carolina public schools, going straight through the Wake County system. 

But Eason, together with a team of other parents around Haywood County — and one from Jackson — are on the board of a new school poised to set up shop in Waynesville. Shining Rock Classical Academy will welcome its inaugural classes in July, becoming the first charter school in Haywood County.

“It’s great to have options, especially public school options,” Eason said. “Charter schools give you a little more autonomy at the school level where you can choose your own curriculum. It’s not the curriculum that is provided by the state.”

Charter schools also allow the flexibility to prevent one of Eason’s pet peeves — keeping students shut in the classroom rather than allowing them to learn firsthand outside its walls. 

“Last year my daughter’s class wasn’t even going to go on a field trip until I stepped up and said, ‘Can you at least come to the farm?’ and the parents had to pay for it,” said Eason, who works as marketing and human resources director for Sunburst Trout Farms. 

“We have such a beautiful community, and I just want my kids and everybody else’s to be able to really get out and explore all it has to offer,” she added. 

Shining Rock, which will initially serve kindergarten through sixth grade, plans to add one grade per year until it’s a K-12 school. And it will teach its students using the Core Knowledge Curriculum, a content-based — meaning there’s an emphasis on learning subject matter as a gateway to increased language skills, rather than the other way around — curriculum originally developed by E.D. Hirsch, educational theorist and emeritus English professor at University of Virginia. 

Eason, vice president of the school’s founding board, is excited about the curriculum. It’s a lot of the reason she is planning to send her kids — two who are school-age and one who will have to wait — to Shining Rock. The same goes for Tara Keilberg, the board’s president and mother of two. 

“I love the idea of the common knowledge base, that if you send kids to Shining Rock Classical Academy, they’re all going to be exposed to the same content, the same terms, the same evidence-based curriculum, so for me it’s about consistency in the academics,” Keilberg said.

That’s an attribute that’s especially important now, Eason said. Last year, the state Legislature created a commission charged to “review and replace” the Common Core State Standards, which North Carolina had earlier adopted, but the future of the state standards in North Carolina is still uncertain. 

And there’s not much anyone in Haywood County Schools can do about it, as that’s a state-level decision. 

Of course, standards are different from curriculum — standards lay out what skills the student should learn, while curriculum is the outline of how those skills are taught — and local school districts do get to choose their own curriculum. But charter schools get to choose both, though their students do still have to take state tests. 

“You have a lot more flexibility,” Eason said of charter schools. “There’s a lot more parent involvement. There’s also one board to one school, so you have a lot more control at the school level, which is a very big benefit.”

 

Impact to the school system

But not everyone is applauding the opening of Haywood’s inaugural charter. Unlike in urban centers, where charter schools are often welcome because public school buildings are sometimes stuffed so full of kids it’s difficult to find places for them all, the equation is different in rural areas. 

Overcrowding isn’t so much of an issue, and when students leave the public school, they take their funding with them. That can be a blow to the existing school system, and some in Haywood are concerned about how the relationship will shake out. 

“If students leave our school, then their funding goes with them, but the size of the buildings don’t shrink,” said Chuck Francis, chairman of the Haywood County School Board. And if, for example, 30 kids from a given school enroll with the charter school, that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to shed teaching positions. “Instead of having maybe 20 kids in a classroom, you maybe have 19, but you still lost the position that went with those 30 kids.”

In its first year, Shining Rock is hoping to enroll 308 students, though it can make it financially with as few as 150 students to start — the budget is built based on revenue from 130 students. So far, the school has received 174 applications, about 94 percent of which came from Haywood County – 6 percent came from Jackson – but not all of those are public school students. Eason expects that 10 to 15 percent of the enrollment will come from the homeschool community and that the enrollment will include a greater proportion of students from Jackson and Buncombe counties as the lottery date — if more than 308 students apply, names will be drawn to decide who gets in — draws nearer, because Shining Rock is planning to start advertising more vigorously in those areas. 

The school’s director, Ben Butler, thinks about 70 percent of the students will ultimately come from Haywood, but that, he said “is just plain old assumption.”

Even using those assumptions — that the school reaches full enrollment, that 70 percent of its students come from Haywood County and 20 percent of those had been homeschooled or enrolled in another charter or private school — Shining Rock will take a bite out of Haywood’s per student funding. At full enrollment with the expected percentage of students coming from Haywood Public Schools, 172 students who had been going to Haywood schools would enroll with Shining Rock. That’s 2.3 percent of the system’s enrollment of 7,400 students. 

Those hypothetical 172 students would take with them about $928,000 in state funding — exact per pupil allocations vary as schools get more money for some types of students, such as those with disabilities or those who are academically gifted — and $334,000 in county funding. 

That would indeed be a chunk out of the school system’s budget, but Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte doesn’t begrudge the charter school the state dollars that go with the students they attract. 

“If a child leaves Haywood County Schools and goes to the charter, we may or may not like it, but it makes sense that money would go with that child,” Nolte said. “We understand that.”

How it works in the first year, said Alexis Schauss, director of the Division of School Business in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, is that Shining Rock, when it opens, would report to the DPI how many students it has and which counties those students are from. Funding for the students who have transferred from Haywood County Public Schools to Shining Rock would in turn be transferred from Haywood’s allotment to Shining Rock’s allotment. But funding for students who had been enrolled in homeschool or private school would come from DPI’s reserves, not Haywood’s allotment. 

But charter schools are also entitled to receive whatever per-pupil local funding the traditional public school system receives, and that’s where things can get dicey. 

“If they have [for example] 50 students coming from homeschool that go to that charter school, they [the county] wouldn’t have ever been funding those students, and they would now from their local funds be required to provide funding for those students,” Schauss said. 

Which would mean the county would have to choose: cut per-pupil funding so the total local amount paid to the schools stays the same, or find the money elsewhere to keep it steady.

For Haywood County, that choice would come at a time when the discrepancy between cash requested and cash given is already wide. Statewide, school districts are seeing shortfalls between allotment and need, and in last year’s budget, Haywood schools asked commissioners for $1.1 million more than the previous year but received an increase of only $280,000 in funding. 

It’s a common story where charters in rural districts are concerned, said Yevonne Brannon, chair of Public Schools First N.C. A charter school comes in and siphons away tax dollars that had gone to the existing public school system, and in a school system that already serves fewer students, that reallocation can have significant consequences. 

“We just need to be very careful, because they [charters] do have impact, and for rural communities they can have tremendous impact,” Brannon said. 

 

A school of choice

All those concerns can frame charters as nefarious schemes to squirrel away tax dollars from their rightful destination and destroy the existing framework of education. 

They’re anything but, said Butler, the school’s director and a former high school English teacher at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Rutherford County. Thomas Jefferson is also a charter, part of the same group of charters that Shining Rock has joined. 

“It’s a school of choice,” said Butler. 

Shining Rock is a school for kids who want a smaller, more personalized environment and a different kind of academic challenge than what they might find in Haywood schools, Butler said. 

The curriculum at Shining Rock will push both the fact-based and experiential side of learning. Middle and high school students will learn Latin — “I think it’s the best way to develop vocabulary, because 50 percent of English is Latinate in its origin,” Butler said, “but it’s also a good way to teach the mind to be disciplined” — and students will get music, art and physical education at least once — and hopefully twice — per week, more often than what Haywood schools are able to offer. 

“We’ve been tracking this school pretty well,” said Darrell Allison, executive director of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “They’ve been getting good marks from the Department of Public Instruction.” 

Students will wear uniforms, and the school will operate on a year-round calendar after the first year, which will start the same day as Haywood County. Each subsequent school year will still include 180 days of instruction, but it will be broken up differently than at a traditional public school. The year will begin in mid-July and include two-week breaks in October and for Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring break. Summer will last six or seven weeks. 

“Everybody trumpets the advantage, especially to kids who are underprivileged, for year-round, but as a teacher I think the real advantage to a year-round [calendar] is it keeps teachers from getting burned out,” Butler said.

Butler is actively interviewing teachers now — last week he drove all the way to Raleigh to meet up with a candidate — and he’s doing so armed with yet another flexibility that traditional public schools don’t have. Only half his teachers have to be certified. 

That’s cause for concern, Brannon said. It’s all well and good for a person to be brilliant in their field, but the real question is, can they teach? 

“We kind of, sort of believe as community and as a country that it’s really important that we know that teachers have the training and the background that makes them the best of their craft,” Brannon said. The fact that charter school teachers aren’t required to have that training “should really worry a community.”

Butler would beg to differ. He agrees with Brannon that certification is important, and he expects that “the vast majority” of Shining Rock’s teachers will be certified, especially in K-5. What he’s happy about is the flexibility in hiring for the higher-level subjects. 

“As we grow into a high [grade]-level school, I’ll be looking for good teachers primarily, and the certification will be second,” he said. 

 

TeamCFA

Shining Rock is still a long way off from all that, though. In fact, it doesn’t even have a physical location yet — though Butler said he expects to be able to announce a land purchase by the end of the month. For now, he’s working out of a one-room office in downtown Waynesville. 

“The big problem for charters is ‘build a school, fill it with kids, here’s your money’ —and that’s the order,” Butler said. “It’s a really ridiculous system.”

Shining Rock is getting some help with that order. In December 2012, the Shining Rock board voted to become part of TeamCFA, a national network of charter schools, mostly located in North Carolina. 

The affiliation comes with connections, advice, $100,000 of funding each year for the first three years and the promise of help with eventually building a permanent facility — for now, Shining Rock will operate out of modular’s, which it will purchase with a low-interest loan from TeamCFA.

It also comes with some surrender of local control. All TeamCFA schools use the Core Knowledge Curriculum — though Keilberg and Eason both said they chose the curriculum before choosing CFA — and two of the 10 school board members are CFA representatives. One, Larry Wilkerson, directs New Dimensions, a TeamCFA school in Morganton, and the other, Tim Foley, is an attorney in New Jersey who also serves on the New Dimensions board. Their expertise is invaluable in navigating the challenges of starting a new school, Butler said.

CFA, which stands for Challenge Foundation Academy, was started by John and Martha Bryan, conservatives who have provided ample funding to the school choice movement. Critics have decried CFA schools as questionable conduits of conservative propaganda, but the Shining Rock folks say politics was not part of the choice to affiliate, pointing out that Hirsh — the author of the curriculum — is himself quite liberal and that the political persuasions of the board members are all over the map. And unlike some charter operators, CFA does not take any cut of the revenues.

“We have teachers [on the board] and we have homeschoolers and we have people who take pedagogy seriously and we have people who take curriculum seriously, and we determined that there is no political slant to the Core Knowledge Curriculum,” said Keilberg, herself a registered Democrat.

“Education is not about politics,” said Eason, who is registered as unaffiliated. 

 

The numbers game

But charter schools are about economics. They run much more like a business than do traditional public schools. A charter school can go broke, and it can close its doors. 

That’s what happened to Kinston Charter Academy in Lenoir County in Eastern North Carolina. Just weeks after starting the 2013-14 school year, the school ran into financial problems and suddenly shut its doors, leaving the public school system with no other choice but to accept the students who were suddenly without a school. 

“That may be an invalid concern, but it is something that’s on our radar right now,” Nolte said. 

And even barring a disastrous outcome like that in Lenoir County, the first couple years of operation for a charter school — just like that of any start-up business — can be tough. Charter schools don’t get separate capital improvement funding like traditional public schools do, and generally their facilities are less than stellar to start with. They have to worry about whether or not they’ll get enough enrollment to keep all the services going, and while they’re required to provide services for students with special needs like learning disabilities or instruction in English as a Second Language, coming up with the staff to meet those needs can be tough. 

Butler doesn’t expect under-enrollment to be a problem. In the three weeks since the application process opened, he’s received 174 applications, and the school hasn’t even announced a location yet. 

“I’m not worried about numbers,” he said. 

But it’s probably fair to note that just because someone submits an application doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to go to the charter school. There’s no deposit required, no payment demanded, so parents can easily go ahead and fill out an online application to ensure their child will be included in the lottery that determines who the available slots are offered to. Then if, once the lottery is complete, that parent decides that the charter option isn’t best after all, she can turn around and enroll her child elsewhere, no strings attached. 

“That’s a very tricky thing for them because you can put in an application for a private school, a charter school and the school district, and you don’t have to tell each one of them, and then you just kind of don’t show up because there’s no financial obligation to the charter school,” Schauss said.

 

Becoming a full-service school 

It’s also hard for charter schools to provide all the wraparound services you find at a traditional public school. Things like afterschool day care, bus routes, sports teams and school lunches. Shining Rock will offer busing, but only from central pickup points and only if the demand is there, not from individual homes, and while it plans to have food available at lunchtime, it won’t be part of the Free and Reduced Lunch Program, as the administrative cost is too high for a small start-up. It also won’t offer after- or before-school daycare. 

Those parameters can be hard for some parents to navigate, Brannon said, resulting in the creation of “have” and “have-not” schools. 

“They do tend to be segregated by income and race, and that is something I think we have to be thoughtful about and concerned about,” she said. 

Butler said that’s a conclusion that unnecessarily vilifies schools that are just trying to offer their community a service. 

“It’s a school of choice. I think a lot gets made that schools of choice are just that, and it often gets twisted into something that it’s not,” he said. “Each charter school in each community serves its community, and that’s something that it needs to do.”

 And that’s something, he said, that the school will continue to do for many years and in many places beyond Haywood County, through the students who graduate from it. 

“Those kids who are walking across the stage in 2022,” Butler said, “I hope that they have a better sense of themselves and we can send them out into the world in whatever way they want to further their education.”

 

What is a charter school?

A charter school is a public school. But it’s a different kind of public school. 

Unlike a county school system, a charter school doesn’t have a territory defined by lines on a map, and it gets to cap its enrollment at a certain number. It doesn’t have to follow state curriculum or learning standards, and its teachers don’t all have to be state-certified. 

But charter schools are held accountable. Its students still have to take state end-of-grade and end-of-course tests, and while they don’t answer to a county board of education, they are directly accountable to the state board of education. Their scores and financials are public record, just like any other public school.

Charter schools were originally intended to be a forum for people to try out their creative ideas about how to do school better, hopefully leading to innovation in mainstream public schools. Critics say that charter schools have gotten away from that original purpose and mostly serve as a mechanism to siphon middle-class families away from the traditional school system, while supporters say they offer an alternative for children who, for whatever reason, are not best served by traditional public schools. 

Before 2011, charter schools in North Carolina had been capped at 100, but in 2011 the cap was lifted. Currently, 148 charter schools operate in the state.

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