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00000177-6edd-df44-a377-6fff43070000WUNC's American Graduate Project is part of a nationwide public media conversation about the dropout crisis. We'll explore the issue through news reports, call-in programs and a forum produced with UNC-TV. Also as a part of this project we've partnered with the Durham Nativity School and YO: Durham to found the WUNC Youth Radio Club. These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and these generous funders: Project Funders:GlaxoSmithKlineThe Goodnight Educational FoundationJoseph M. Bryan Foundation State FarmThe Grable FoundationFarrington FoundationMore education stories from WUNC

NC Closer To Opening Its First-Ever Virtual Charter Schools

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The state is closer to opening two virtual charter schools. A special committee on Wednesday cleared two applications of proposed charter schools that would be operated by for-profit companies.

North Carolina Virtual Academy would be managed by K12 Inc., which has had student performance problems in other states, while N.C. Connections Academy would be affiliated with Connections Education.

On Wednesday, the state committee took turns firing off questions to the two eager applicants.

There was the biggest and most obvious question:

What does a virtual charter school even look like?

Mary Gifford, a senior vice president for K12, said students would take most of their classwork online and on their own schedule. Younger grades would spend about half of their time with books and materials. In any case, all students are required to have a responsible adult around who can coach them.

“This is indeed a lifestyle choice, this is not for everyone,” she said.

Earlier this year, lawmakers mandated that the state approve two virtual charter school pilots to open next fall. During Wednesday’s interviews, education officials, like Paul Davis, remained cautious.

'Not too sound argumentative but elementary virtual school sounds almost like public-funded homeschooling.'

  “Not too sound argumentative but elementary virtual school sounds almost like public-funded homeschooling,” he remarked.

Quality of education

And then there were bigger concerns about the quality of education they would provide.

Becky Taylor, a member of the state board of education,  had a pointed question for K12.

“Can you tell me if you’ve been terminated by states?” she asked. “We hear rumors… And that’s concerning.”

Some virtual academics working with K12 have a history of low graduation rates and poor test scores. Tennessee’s online school will close next year if students don’t show dramatic gains. The company has also run into trouble in states like Florida, Colorado and New Mexico. But Gifford said no contracts have been terminated, some just haven’t been renewed.

Over the years, nonprofits affiliated with K12 have tried to open online charters in North Carolina, but have been rejected.

Different perspectives

After the interviews, Mark Jewell with the North Carolina Association of Educators argued that big for-profit companies like K12 waste taxpayer dollars.

“They’re looking at making money and I think the transparency issue is always going to be on the table there,” he said.

A few seats behind Jewell sat a group of parents with a very different perspective.

“I just thought it was a really good idea,” said Chandra Reed, who’s with the group “I Trust Parents.”

Reed has a son who is out of school now, but said she would strongly consider sending him to a virtual charter school if he were younger.

“Because he was very shy and school didn’t really benefit him,” she said.

Her son is the kind of demographic that virtual charter schools are after. They cater to kids who haven’t been thriving in traditional settings, whether it’s because of academic, mental or social reasons.

After the hour-long interviews, state committee members, like Becky Taylor, seemed torn. She said if the state commits, they have to do it right.

“And not just doing a willy-nilly, ‘Okay North Carolina is in the virtual business now,’” she said. “I think if we do that, we’re going to be in TVs and newspapers across the nation, and I don’t want to go there.”

A few of the members hesitated when they said yes, but all of them agreed to clear the applications for the two virtual charter schools. The State board of Education will make a final decision in February and students could be logging on next fall. 

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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