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Will PACE Academy Make The Grade? Charter Serving Special Needs Kids Could Shut Down

When founders Jane Miller and Rhonda Franklin got the news that their charter school may not be around next year, they were overcome with the same feeling.

“Just utter shock,” says Franklin:

We were shocked because we know what has happened within these walls in the last 10 years. We know the growth of our students.

The state’s Charter School Advisory Board unanimously recommended to the State Board of Education that it reject PACE Academy's application for a renewal of its 10-year charter.

Like many other charter schools facing renewal decisions, PACE Academy was found to have financial and compliance problems. State officials also cited low academic performance.

Serving At-Risk Students 

While principal Franklin admits there have been hiccups in the high school’s last 10 years, she says it’s unfair for the state to hold her students to the same standards of charters aimed at high-performing students.

PACE serves a large population of at-risk students, including those with disabilities, mental illnesses and learning and physical disabilities. More than half of the 169 students are considered exceptional children with individualized education plans.

Franklin says the mission of the school is to help prepare students to go out in the world, to support their emotional development and professional readiness. 

I don't have students with aspirations to go to Harvard here. I have students with a surface, bottom-level aspiration of just graduating, going to military, and that should be okay.

“I don’t have students with aspirations to go to Harvard here,” Franklin says. “I have students with a surface, bottom-level aspiration of just graduating, going to military, and that should be okay. We’re being compared…it’s just apples to oranges.” 

But Joel Medley, director of the state’s Office of Charter Schools, argues the school simply did not meet the mission of the advisory board, which is working to ensure the existence of high quality charter schools in North Carolina. 

“Every charter school that is closed, not only in North Carolina, but across the country, has closed because of decisions that the adults that run those schools did or did not make, it is not because of the children,” he said.

Since the charter school movement began in 1997, 36 charter schools have shut down either through relinquishment, revocation or non-renewal. Most common reasons involve financial or compliance issues.

“I would look at it this way: closing a charter school is part of the idea of the charter school movement. If school cannot perform, it should close its doors,” he said.

Redefining ‘High-Quality’

But what does it mean to “perform?” That’s what Eddie Goodall, director of the state’s Public Charter Schools Association, wants to know:

We don’t want to discourage these charter school founders. We want to encourage them, and we might be doing the opposite right now.

The state deems a charter school inadequate if it demonstrates no growth in student performance and has an annual performance below 60% in any two years in a three-year period.

Goodall argues those benchmarks can be a tough to meet for schools serving large populations of students with disabilities, and that a greater focus should be placed on growth.

We need to really change the mold a little bit, not have a one size fits all charter model. We need more nuance in the law, more regulations that define the challenges of those schools and maybe create a different set of expectations.”

Of the 26 new charter schools to open this fall, one in Wake County will serve students with intellectual and developmental disabilities exclusively. 

The number of charter schools has grown sharply since lawmakers lifted the 100-cap in 2011. This year, the state will have 154 charter schools - or 153 if PACE doesn’t make it.

Supporters of the PACE Academy, however, are determined to keep it open. Parent Annmarie Fassler says the school provides strong moral and personal support for her two sons in a way that standardized tests don't capture:

For the good of our youth in our area, we have to keep it in intact. There’s just no other school like it and to celebrate it is really the right thing to do, than terminate it.

The State Board of Education will make its decision next month.

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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