Lee Scholars Charter School Moves Forward

I have "School Board 101" tomorrow and Friday, so if I were smart, I'd probably wait to write this after being trained in how to avoid saying something stupid.  But that's never quite been my style, so here goes.  As always, note that I speak here for myself only, not the CHCCS board in this.


A bit of history: On Sept 1, 2011 the state Board of Education approved a process for charter schools to open in NC in August, 2012 on a fast track basis.  27 schools applied by Nov 10th, including The Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School.   The application indicates that National Heritage Academies (NHA) was selected as the Charter Management Organization to run the school day to day.  NHA is a for-profit company based in Michigan.  The Lee Scholars application listed 3 reasons for the school to be approved:  1) close achievement gaps, 2) prepare students for a rigorous high school and college preparatory program, and 3) alleviate overcrowding in elementary schools. 

The CHCCS board asked Dr Forcella to write an impact statement on Dec 1st.  He noted a couple of errors in the application (incorrect achievement #s in the 1st point, no mention of Elementary #11 coming in the 3rd).  He also noted the impact a school with high percentage of African-American students would have on the racial makeup of our district (which has already seen significant decrease in African-American students over the past decade).

In mid-December, 11 of the 27 applications were approved to move on to interviews with the Charter School Advisory Committee, including Lee Scholars.  They had their interview on Jan 10th.  My notes from the interview indicate the most concerning items were questions on whether NHA will achieve better results than traditional public schools, the financial model where NHA receives almost all the funding regardless of what it costs to run the school, and whether August, 2012 is feasible to open a new school building in Chapel Hill/Carrboro.  It was noted that a strong board is needed to ensure money is spent correctly and great student achievement happens.  Howard Lee's involvement was viewed as ensuring that will continue.  With three recused advisory committee members (based on NHA connections or NHA competitors), the Lee Scholars application was one of 4 schools approved to move forward to the SBOE.

The SBOE will meet on Feb 1st and 2nd to vote on this.  This is the final approval step for fast track charter applications.  If Lee Scholars is approved on Feb 1st/2nd, they will immediately begin work on building a school, hiring teachers, and recruiting students to open in August, 2012.  The board indicated they have 3 sites in Chapel Hill/Carrboro area in mind that will work to build a new school building by August.


I have a couple of objections to this charter school.   1) I do not believe corporations should be making a profit on educating our children.  The incentive systems are simply not in place to be able to trust that student needs are put first. 

Here's a comparison of what a 480-student elementary school would look like in the Lee Scholars proposal and CHCCS:

Principal 1 1
Dean 2 1
Office Administrators 2.375 2.5
Classroom Teachers  18 21
Teachers assistant  .625 15
Music Teacher 1 1
PE Teacher 1 1
Art Teacher 1 1
Foreign Languge   1
English Language Learner Teacher* 1 1
Library Technology Specialist 1 3
Special Education Teacher* 2 2
Special Education Aides* 0.8 0.8
Social Worker 0.2 2
Nurse   1
Instructional Coaches   4.5
*English Language Learner and Special Education staffing is dependent on student need and will fluctuate as appropriate.
 Total 32 58.8

Also note that they project an average teacher salary of about $38k.  The state average is $41k and CHCCS pays a 12-25% local supplement on top of that (based on years of service).  

It should be noted that while charter schools get the same funding for operational expenses as district schools do,  they need to provide their own capital funds.  So Lee Scholars' budget does not call out a line for rent or building expenses, but NHA will own the building and a portion of the profit they get from running the school will essentially be used to recoup their capital expense they are fronting Lee Scholars.  Charter schools in NC operate at a disadvantage in this regard, although the #s above (for same operational funding) seem excessive to me.

 2) I don't see anything in NHA's track record or proposal to use test-driven teaching that gives me confidence they will run a school with great instruction.  This is such a contrast to the KIPP school we visited last week (I need to write up my impressions of that as well soon), where there was great, deep thinking-generating instruction going on in almost every class.  I know KIPP does its share of test prep as the year nears completion, but NHA goes out of their way to tout how test-driven they are.

3) It is notable to me that there is no mention in employment or student admission or harassment criteria of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation.  While that's certainly legal in NC, it seems seriously out of touch with Chapel Hill/Carrboro.


I've been asked what people might do.  While I don't know that there is a formal process for public input, the next step in the approval process is the SBE Februrary 1st.  The only email address I quickly see is for the board chair, Bill Harrison: harrison-feedback@dpi.state.nc.us


I should note that if approved, I hope this school succeeds.  These students will still be our Chapel Hill and Carrboro kids and we all need them to be well educated and successful in life.  I also appreciate (and said this at my 2nd board meeting) that this discussion is useful in pointing out where CHCCS is failing a significant portion of our African-American and other subgroups today.  There would not be demand for this school if we were meeting all the needs on a consistent basis.  I believe Dr. Forcella is committed to improving instruction in our district schools in a way that will lead to greater achievement for everyone.  His focus on improving culture in the school building isn't an easy answer, but I believe it will deliver the results we expect.  Everyone who is interested in his vision for our schools should attend his "Greenhouse Project" on March 24th to hear and provide input on his plans.




Thanks for this post, James. I think you, and Kevin Hicks (he has a great post on this here: http://orangepolitics.org/2011/11/another-attempt-to-publicly-fu) and many others have articulated clear reasons why this school is not the best idea for our community. I'm not a fan charter schools in general, even though many are well-intentioned, so I couldn't agree with you more.I hope people will contact the state BOE chair (or suggest other pressure points to lean on) to express our concerns about this proposal.

James--you say that you "
do not believe corporations should be making a profit on educating our children." Does that mean that CHCCS is not contracting out any of its work to corporate entities?I have mixed feelings about charter schools. If CHCCS had done a good job of educating African American and Hispanic kids over the past 30 years, I would be determinedly against this proposal. But I suspect if they had done a good job, this new charter wouldn't be proposed. I believe in and support public education, but there is enough evidence that some kids in our system are being left out that I think everyone needs to keep an open mind.Research and practical experience tells us that there are a lot of kids who do better in smaller, less-bureaucratic schools. For those who are interested in seeing a good example, check out The Hawbridge School in Saxapahaw. CHCCS's own Phoenix Academy is another example I've heard good things about.I really hope the focus in this discussion is on what is best for the kids who are not making it in CHCCS. But in most charter school discussions the emphasis is on money--charters take away money from the primary system which is certainly a serious concern. But should groups of kids be penalized for a system problem?A group of economists from Harvard and Columbia just completed an economic analysis of the value of a good teacher (a teacher who motivates her/his students). http://obs.rc.fas.harvard.edu/chetty/value_added.html There's a huge impact. We shouldn't be hamstringing our minority kids, just because the school system isn't able to figure out the formula for bringing them along at the same pace as the white kids. This study quantifies what they are losing.

Should we contract services? Sure, where a private company has skills and resources that clearly makes them more efficient.  Like building new buildings, right?  But public education is a core mission of government (according to our NC Constitution) and I don't think that makes sense to contract out to someone whose primary motive is profit for shareholders.  That being said, clearly charters can have a place.  Hawbridge is a great example.  A district school is never going to be able to offer what they do.  More power to them for being able to offer a unique learning experience.  My discussion of money didn't reference what CHCCS will be losing.  It was simply to show that for your same tax dollars, those are the adult resources 480 students have available to them in a CHCCS district elementary school vs what Lee Scholars is proposing.  I'm having a real hard time seeing how students are better served when clearly many $s are being diverted elsewhere (not spent in the classroom).  I ran for the board because I want to change our results in several areas, especially African-American and Hispanic students.  I believe we have that opportunity, especially with a new superintendent who will almost by definition do things differently, to make that change.  NHA hasn't proven results as good as we get today -- I have a hard time seeing how they'll be better than I think we can be in the future.

"I've been asked what people might do.  While I don't know that there is a formal process for public input, the next step in the approval process is the SBE Februrary 1st.  The only email address I quickly see is for the board chair, Bill Harrison: harrison-feedback@dpi.state.nc.us"


For it what its worth, I sent an e-mail to share my thoughts.

I have never seen any research that links school success with adult resources other than student-to-student ratios. And even then excellent teachers can handle more students than the research determines as optimal. At the salary you posted though, the only way this new school is going to get excellent teachers is to use those who come to NC from out-of-state or out-of-country and aren't yet NC certified.I'm not saying that I support this new school. I just want people who may not understand the full scope of the issues to know that all charter schools are not bad and that we need to view this one from the perspective of the kids who have not previously been well servd in CHCCS. I supported your candidacy, James, because you wanted to make real change in minority achievement, but realistically, the new superintendent won't be able to achieve those changes by next year. And while we have no way of knowing whether this new school will do any better, we need to be discussing how we best serve current students so they won't be penalized while they wait for the new superintendent to institute changes.

We live in a time when privatization is rampant and profit driven enterprises are replacing public entities whose first function was to serve the wellbeing of real people.  The post office, correctional facilities, the military, local government, trash collection services, roads, health care and so much more is getting privatized.  Talking about privatizing the air, water, health and the moon are no longer surreal propositions.  Can we afford to remain oblivious to the facts that so many are awakening and reacting to  -- as movements such as Occupy is for example?  Lets contextualize the charter school trend.  Even charter school friendly industry cannot deny that, at best, charter schools on average are no better then public schools.  

Don't just study charter schools as an aggregate. It's as unhelpful as lumping all NC public schools into one group. Let's use a finer tooth comb and see what the successful ones are doing and how they're doing it.  Get over the funding stream. That's not the issue. Put kids first, especially the ones whose parents believe, with some evidence, I might add, that they have been historically underserved. I have no opinion about this particular charter school. I would love to see independent, peer-reviewable research conducted. Wouldn't it be nice to find out?I loved the ragin' grandmothers however I find the outrage about "teaching to the test and too much testing" rich given local public school practice and Chapel Hill's parental expectations and demands. Cheers.

Couldn't let this thread go by without including a link to the best public comment the CHCCS school board received last night about this proposal -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9Icew9f-50

Wow, that was great. I'm going to have to up my game before coming before the school board again.

James,It looks like you are very adept at pulling clips from local government meetings, which is a great tool in the "sunshine" toolbox.  Are you recording the video via VCR off of cable, etc, then moving to digital, or are you somehow able to go easily from streaming video websites that the town/county have directly to YouTube through some software approach?  If it's the latter approach and you could share how you do it, that would be great.  I don't have cable. Thanks!

It depends.Normally, I record in my DVR off cable, which gives me an MPG file that is easily manipulated (cut, uploaded to YouTube, etc). In this case, my DVR is on the fritz, so instead, I planned to download the MP4 file that the school board meetings post (about 24 hours after the meeting) here - http://www2.chccs.k12.nc.us/education/components/scrapbook/default.php?sectiondetailid=87667  (see the MP4 video link on the far right for each meeting).  However, the school district actually provided this file before the video was posted so I didn't have to do the edit myself. It looks like CH has the same capability (we use the same vendor for video, so not surprising) - http://www.townofchapelhill.org/index.aspx?page=958The MP4 file can also be edited and uploaded just like my DVR.  Orange County doesn't provide the MP4 file, but you can watch old meetings and jump to particular agenda items. The issue with capturing the streaming is that they use Silverlight, which is harder to rip from directly.

The Orange County Dems are encouraging people to speak out against this charter school because "For every 100 students that a local district loses to the charter school, the district will lose approximately $1 million in funding." In other words, to the Dems it's all about money rather than making the best choice for the kids who have been left behind.  

Terri this may be as a result of the philosphy that any ill in the public school system can be cured by more money and is always effective...untill it is time for more money.cw  Weakness is provocative.
"One of the most noble things you can do is kill the enemy."-Maj. Douglas Zembiec

By the way, I recently discovered this petition by PACE against the Lee Charter School. I signed it.https://www.change.org/petitions/mr-william-harrison-and-the-north-carol...  

If you read the Indy article that the Orange Dems email links to (at http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/in-chapel-hill-opposition-builds-agains...), then you see that the charter schools run by NHA do quite a bit worse than CHCCS schools (% of black students passing both Reading and Math EOCs: 48% for NHA vs. 58% for CHCCS).The problem of charter schools taking money away from public schools is magnified when you think about selection effects. Since this school will not provide transportation, free & reduced lunch, special ed services, etc., many families will not be able to send their kids. Charter schools pull out uncomplicated kids with motivated parents. Then, essentially, the public schools will have to do more with less.I highly recommend the book Exit, Voice and Loyalty to better understand these dynamics.

if the school offered transportation and free lunch as does KIPP Gaston, for instance. No transportation and navigating the charter application process is a huge impediment to some stressed families. As for the contention regarding special ed serices, many parents send their special needs children to charter schools precisely because they want a smaller environment or different kind of attention for them; they are unhappy with their child's experience in the public schools. I would like to see numbers regarding this.As for EOGs, are we talking about Michigan, Illinois or NC EOGs? The Chapel Hill Public Schools are lucky enough to operate in the larger RTP area, a place that boasts one of the highest per capita PhDs in the United States. It's not surprising that CH public students as a whole do better than most everyone else in NC on EOGs. I wonder what would happen with the NHA EOG percentages when they open a school in this area. I honestly don't know, but I'm curious. I can't help but wonder if they will also go up. A rising tide lifts all boats.Like the Indy article, I also believe that charter schools have not been adequately studied. I would like to see independent, peer reviewable studies that control for things like parental income, education, race, etc. The article bemoans the fact that charter schools cherry pick students, but frankly, aside from not offering transportation or free/reduced lunches, they can't. They have to choose students by lottery. The Indy article notes that a lot of charter schools are predominately white. I'm definitely not for segregation. However, again, are not most, if not all, of the schools in the Chapel Hill system are predominately white? The article also notes that there seems to be a lack of criteria for picking charter schools. I'm for evidenced based decisions, not knee-jerk reactions. I think this area could be improved. Still, I don't believe the charter school system of approval is any more or less fickle than the oversight provided by many, many elected school boards. Believe me, I have a lot of sympathy and respect for public school administration officials. They put up with a lot. I appreciate your book recommendation.  

This is an interesting question, because perceptions of race are often different than what some of the #s show.  The latest data is located here on page 4 of the report (http://chccs.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=54&meta_id=4549)*.  The technical answer to the question is that just over half CHCCS schools are majority white, with the most white being 59%. *Sorry for how hard it is to read; the district web guy who normally processes this report to make it easy to read on the web is swamped with work to get the district on a new platform in June.

Thank you for the link to the very interesting chart. As I read it , basically, "minority" is defined as American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, Black or AA, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and multi racial. All of those groups combined are compared to "white". If you look at African Americans, the only predominantly African American school is Phoenix at almost 77% and that with a total enrollment of about 25 students. All other schools hover between 6% and 15%. Asians vary between 5 and 25% and Hispanics between 5% and 27%. I would say this argues against any notion of charter school white flight in this area. I can see why an African American parent might possibly wish their child to go to a school where their child would not be such a minority. Not all would wish this perhaps, but some might. In some cities (Seattle, for instance), magnate schools are created for just this very reason. 

Dr Harrison (chair of NC State Board of Education):  "Lee Scholars has generated a lot of public feedback.  I'd like to look more closely at that." 


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