The color of choice: Local charter schools offer options, with trade-offs

SOAKING IN NATURE: Evergreen Community Charter School fourth-graders participate in citizen science by surveying and monitoring bird populations on their forested cam- pus. The school emphasizes the importance of interacting with the natural world for learning. Photo courtesy of Evergreen Community Charter School
SOAKING IN NATURE: Evergreen Community Charter School fourth-graders participate in citizen science by surveying and monitoring bird populations on their forested cam- pus. The school emphasizes the importance of interacting with the natural world for learning. Photo courtesy of Evergreen Community Charter School

Amid the continuing debate over school choice and whether North Carolina should even allow charter schools, people on both sides of the issue seem to agree that Buncombe County’s five charters stand apart from their counterparts across the state.

Asheville has about as long a history with charter schools as any Tar Heel city. Francine Delany New School for Children was among the first to open locally after state legislation allowing a limited number of them on a trial basis was passed in 1996, notes Buffy Fowler, operations coordinator. ArtSpace Charter School and Evergreen Community Charter School were also among the 100 the law allowed statewide. Both The Franklin School of Innovation and Invest Collegiate Imagine opened in August 2014, as part of a second wave of charters after the cap was lifted in 2011.

With more charters has come more more questions about management, since the state allows private companies to run the publicly funded schools while generating revenue for themselves.

But the collision of public money and private enterprise is only one of a number of concerns critics raise.

Governed by independent boards rather than public employees, charters siphon off students — and the tax dollars allocated for their education — from traditional public schools, though not necessarily as large a portion as some critics may believe (see sidebar, “The Elephant in the Living Room”). Charter school teachers don’t have to be certified or have any particular qualifications. They’re not required to adhere to state curriculum standards or class size limits, and they often wind up segregating students by race, class or ability level. And while they do have the same end-of-course tests, some charge that overall, the state’s existing charters simply aren’t producing adequate student outcomes.

Against that heated backdrop, Xpress decided to take an in-depth look at how Buncombe County’s charter schools stack up against the two local school districts.

Original vision

BUNDLES OF MONEY: Public schools are provided with funding based on the number of students enrolled. Because of strong local funding for public education, local schools are generally better funded than the state average. When students move from district schools to charters, the money goes with them. Graphic by Scott Southwick and Able Allen
BUNDLES OF MONEY: Public schools are provided with funding based on the number of students enrolled. Because of strong local funding for public education, local schools are generally better funded than the state average. When students move from district schools to charters, the money goes with them. Graphic by Scott Southwick and Able Allen

The 1996 law authorizing charter schools as independent public institutions cited six goals: improving student learning; increasing learning opportunities, particularly for at-risk and academically gifted students; encouraging innovative teaching methods; giving parents and students more choices; creating more professional opportunities for teachers; and holding charters accountable for student performance.

As of last fall, North Carolina had 167 active charter schools, and the state Board of Education had begun taking a decidedly more conservative approach to approvals for new charters, granting only eight of the 28 requests from schools wishing to open this year.

All of Buncombe County’s charter schools, though, are governed by small, independent boards, which makes for greater transparency and accountability. And unlike “many of the charter schools in the central and eastern part of the state,” says Susan Mertz, executive director of Evergreen, local charters “are fulfilling that original intent of being innovative and looking at different ways of educating kids.” That seemed to be the consensus at a recent information session with local lawmakers and representatives of all five local charters plus FernLeaf in Henderson County, she notes. In fact, continues Mertz, those elected officials encouraged this area’s charter schools to take a leadership role in the state and be vocal about their views and approaches.

Brian Turner, who represents western Buncombe County in the N.C. House, also sees significant differences. A large part of the problem, he maintains, is that “a lot of the other charter schools around the state have for-profit management companies, and in many cases those are the ones that we get the headlines about, in terms of didn’t graduate with the right credentials or have had some sort of financial troubles and things like that.”

But the local charters, stresses Turner, aren’t like that. “The Evergreens, Francine Delanys and ArtSpaces of the world are true, community-based charter schools run by nonprofits. … The charters we have in Buncombe County really meet, I think, the spirit of the charter school legislation.”

Turner, whose campaign called for “strengthening our schools” and who formerly served as assistant vice chancellor at UNC Asheville, seems as conflicted as anyone about the pros and cons of charter schools. He’d like to see all schools operate with greater transparency, and “if charters are meant to be these incubators for new best practices and innovative curriculum ideas, there needs to be a more formal conduit for getting those ideas back into the district schools.”

That may be more of a problem statewide than locally, though: Both ArtSpace and Evergreen for instance do work with district schools on educational approaches. And two city magnet schools set to open in August are designed to offer many of the things that attract families to charters (see sidebar, “Honoring Families’ Needs”).

Thematic learning

Each local charter is built around a particular approach or set of teaching methods. And through that they strive for strong student outcomes, each exceeding district outcomes on end-of-grade testing for science and reading, although ICI, Franklin School and ArtSpace are a little behind compared to the districts on math scores.

Evergreen, in particular, sees itself as an innovator “in either developing or adopting or adapting best practices,” notes Mertz. Jennifer Townley of Invest Collegiate Imagine, which is temporarily operating out of a repurposed strip mall on Brevard Road, shares that vision. “The whole point of a charter,” she maintains, is “being an incubator, developing an educational philosophy and carrying through with it.”

CONTRACTING AND EXPANDING: Despite population growth for Buncombe County, over the past five years, the Buncombe County Schools system has shed nearly 900 stu- dents. The number of white students in particular is getting smaller, although it remains the overwhelming majority of the whole student body. Meanwhile, Hispanic students are rapidly becoming a much more significant portion of the BCS student population, increasing from 13 to 16.3 percent. Graphic by Scott Southwick and Able Allen
CONTRACTING AND EXPANDING: Despite population growth for Buncombe County, over the past five years, the Buncombe County Schools system has shed nearly 900 stu- dents. The number of white students in particular is getting smaller, although it remains the overwhelming majority of the whole student body. Meanwhile, Hispanic students are rapidly becoming a much more significant portion of the BCS student population, increasing from 13 to 16.3 percent. Graphic by Scott Southwick and Able Allen

Francine Delany’s website, meanwhile, calls the school “an inclusive community that is committed to promoting social justice and preserving the inherent worth and human dignity of every person.”

ArtSpace is what’s known as an A+ School. “We believe art is more than just a tool for education,” the website explains. “In all its forms, art inspires individuals to think critically about their own culture and environment. It encourages the thoughtful expression of an individual’s principles and ideas.” A+, a program of the N.C. Arts Council, calls for integrating the arts throughout the curriculum and places a high value on hands-on creative work.

Evergreen is an EL Education school (formerly known as Expeditionary Learning). The methodology, developed jointly by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Outward Bound, emphasizes active participation. Every student and teacher is part of the “crew” that collectively determines outcomes. Evergreen’s version focuses on fieldwork, with many field trips for students. As the name suggests, the school also encourages learning about the natural world and environmental stewardship.

Franklin School was founded on the idea “that students also need a different set of skills to succeed. These include qualities such as persistence, curiosity, ethics and leadership — sometimes referred to as soft skills or noncognitive skills, and often referred to as ‘character,’” says the school’s website. “While parents and family play a central role in helping students develop character, schools also have an important role.” Like Evergreen, Franklin follows the EL Education model, involving students in outdoor adventures and expeditions as well as community service and team-building exercises.

Invest Collegiate has some fairly obvious differences: a year-round school calendar, uniforms and the inclusion of Spanish and the fine arts at all grade levels. But the vision, says Townley, is still being fine-tuned. “We’ve been trying to think a lot about the answer to that question: What’s our story?” she says, adding that the school has homed in on what she calls holistic education. Like some district schools, Invest Collegiate follows The Leader in Me model, which she says implements the principles laid out in Steven R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.

 

Racial breakdown

Innovation aside, though, local charters have at least one thing in common with the Asheville City and Buncombe County schools: racial issues. Like most of their counterparts across the state, four of the five local charters are predominantly white. The exception is Francine Delany, the only one that’s within the boundaries of the Asheville City Schools district (see “Forced Choices” below).

Evergreen, for example, is 87.9 percent white. Its 437 students include just four African-Americans (down from six the last two years), 21 Hispanics and 26 bi- or multiracial students. The percentage of black students is much lower than in the city and county schools.

ArtSpace tells a similar story, with only 15 percent nonwhite students. “Our demographics are similar to the other schools in this valley,” notes Executive Director Lori Cozzi. “If you look at W.D. Williams, Black Mountain Elementary and Black Mountain Primary, they’re very similar. … We are drawing most of our students from Black Mountain/Swannanoa — a pretty white area.” For practical reasons, parents often prefer to have their kids attend a school that’s near where they live; thus, local neighborhood makeup can sometimes be at odds with attempts to boost racial diversity. The Buncombe County schools face a similar situation, particularly with regard to African-American students.

Invest Collegiate’s 753 students are also 85 percent white, though the school plans to expand to 1,320 students after it moves to a new space on McIntosh Road for the 2018-19 school year.

Franklin School’s 411 students are 83 percent white, says Executive Director Michelle Vruwink. The nearby county schools average 76.4 percent white, but little Pisgah Elementary, with only 174 students, is more than 90 percent white, so the southwest Buncombe charters aren’t completely out of step with their surroundings in terms of demographics.

Like Invest Collegiate, Franklin is still growing, with an eventual target of about 700 students. It’s hard to say what effect those expansions might have on the overall racial breakdown of schools in the county.

RACE MATTERS: Local charter schools, with the exception of Francine Delany, are mostly white. And while the charters are much whiter than the Asheville and Buncombe systems as a whole, there are some Buncombe County schools that are even less racially diverse than the charters. Graphic by Scott Southwick and Able Allen
RACE MATTERS: Local charter schools, with the exception of Francine Delany, are mostly white. And while the charters are much whiter than the Asheville and Buncombe systems as a whole, there are some Buncombe County schools that are even less racially diverse than the charters. Graphic by Scott Southwick and Able Allen

Forced choices

Desegregation is the law of the land, but inside the lines of the Asheville City Schools district, there are stricter requirements, and for that reason, Francine Delany has a vastly different racial makeup than the other local charters.

Like hundreds of other school districts across the nation, Asheville’s was slow to respond to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision banning segregated schools. In response to a federal court order, the district adopted a magnet-themed school choice model in 1990. Parents can request which school they’d like their child to attend, but school assignments also reflect the fact that the district is legally bound to maintain roughly the same racial balance in every school in the system. Over the last four years, clearer enrollment policies have enabled the system to achieve better racial balance, says Melissa Hedt, the city schools’ K-12 teaching and learning coordinator.

The federal court order applies to Francine Delany as well. Accordingly, notes Fowler, the school’s advertising and outreach efforts target African-American families, to encourage more of them to apply. Periodic community meetings, she says, are held in the public housing communities.

But while the city schools are struggling with a massive disparity in academic performance between white and black students, Francine Delany, which has a single classroom for each grade level, has achieved far better results.

For all levels through eighth grade in which grade-level performance is measured, only 30 percent of the city schools’ black students were performing at or above grade level as of the 2015-16 academic year; at Francine Delany, 63 percent of black students met that benchmark. According to state statistics, the city schools were 61 percent white and 23 percent black; Francine Delany was 54 percent white and 28 percent black. During that same period, 40 percent of black students statewide were performing at grade level. White students in both the district schools and at Francine Delany performed well above the state averages.

‘Blind’ lotteries

A key factor in Francine Delany’s ability to attract a more diverse student body is its ability to maintain a separate lottery and waitlist for African-American students.

“We are not legally allowed to hold a lottery by demographic,” notes Cozzi of ArtSpace. “I’m not allowed in any way to go in and say, ‘Wow, look: three African-American families. Let’s bring them in.’ I can’t do that. They’re just a part of the big pot, so it’s really difficult.”

Having a “blind” lottery, she says, means school officials can’t be accused of preferential treatment, but it makes it hard to increase the school’s diversity numbers. And since all charter schools use lotteries to assign the available slots, and applicants self-select, schools seeking to increase student diversity have to start by encouraging more families of color to apply. But that’s turned out to be easier said than done.

Evergreen staff members, says Mertz, believe a big part of the problem traces back to a history of white flight to private schools in the 1960s, when desegregation first kicked in. And when charter schools were approved in the late ’90s, she continues, many of the early applicants were white.

“Some of the people I’ve spoken with in the African-American community have said that could be a reason why: There’s still that perception that Evergreen is a ‘white flight’ school. I don’t believe we are, but that’s a perception, and perception is real.” And once the student body is mostly white, notes Mertz, “A family of color [might] look at a school and say, ‘If my kid went to that school there’s not going to be very many other people who look like him.’”

Furthermore, says Mertz, it doesn’t help that day-to-day life in Asheville remains fairly segregated. “There are different communities who don’t interact very often. And there’s also a very clear delineation around people of color also being people of low wealth, which isn’t the case when you look in Raleigh, Durham and other larger cities.” She sees achieving greater racial diversity as a huge challenge that her school has already put a lot of energy and work into; nonetheless, “We’re up for it.”

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About Able Allen
Able studied political science and history at Warren Wilson College. He enjoys travel, dance, games, theater, blacksmithing and the great outdoors. Follow me @AbleLAllen

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One thought on “The color of choice: Local charter schools offer options, with trade-offs

  1. Bill Gray

    My son went to Issac Dixon Elementary for only one year, a truly rewarding educational experience. My only regret is it was not K-12.

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