Wilmington Urban Prep at Virgo: The Case for a Local Magnet or Charter

First, let me say that the ideas and thoughts here are mine and are not intended to be a reflection of the School Board or the district. With that said, I have given the idea of what should happen to Virgo a tremendous amount of thought. I have spoken to many people in and out of the school system about what is working and what is not. One take away from all of this is that the downtown community wants our schools to succeed, but there is a level of distrust with the school system. There are a lot of reasons for this, such as history, politics and personal experiences with school that feed this mistrust. A new school in which the downtown leadership has a vested stake offers the best hope of transforming this community.

If this new school partnered with the Youth Enrichment Zone, then the dream of a Harlem Children’s Zone could really take off. Using the principles we have learned over the last several years from programs such as AVID, we could create a school that makes students life ready. They could enter the workforce, go to community college or enter a four-year institution.

Below is broad outline of the concept along with some information about charter schools.

Wilmington Downtown Prep Academy

Concept: Create an academically focused high school for students in grades 6-12, with a strong focus on core curriculum and career education opportunities.

Why: Many downtown parents are dissatisfied with the current educational opportunities for students in the downtown area. There are a large number of high needs students. This is evidenced by several recent events including:

• Excessive opt outs from Virgo Middle School. The school was scheduled to open with 400 students. When the school opened, there were 180 students. 220 had accessed several opt-out options to attend different schools.
• Drop-out rates for downtown students are higher than anywhere in the district.
• Academic performance at downtown schools lags behind other schools.
• Recent redistricting efforts have highlighted some strong dissention with the current assignment policies.

Benefits: If public schools are struggling downtown why would a charter or magnet school work any better? There are a number of reasons to believe a downtown charter could work. These include:

• There is a strong community push to do something to improve the downtown environment. This is evidenced by groups such as the Blue Ribbon Commission’s Youth Enrichment Zone and efforts by the Chamber of Commerce.
• A charter school board made up of local leaders would create strong buy-in and support.
• A charter or magnet school would be a new start for many students in the downtown area.
• The flexibility for a school would allow for some creative solutions such as gender-based education.
• Flexibility around salaries would allow some experimentation with performance pay.
• A charter that is partnered with the school system offers a greater chance for success and a certain amount of input into the structure of the school.

Additional Considerations:

There are a number of other issues to be considered. These include pending legislative changes to the charter school law and the impending fiscal crisis. The state legislators will most likely lift the cap and remove many of the restrictions on these schools. If public schools do nothing, then there are strong possibilities that other entities will step in and create schools that are contrary to best of interest of all students. Given the impending cuts in education and the limited resources for capital expansion, charters give districts some flexibility in this area.

Background on Charters

What are charters? Charter schools are public schools that are funded on a per-pupil basis. Local, state and federal funds follow the student to the charter school. The schools have open enrollment and no tuition requirements.

How are they different? Charters are governed by a private, non-profit board of directors. This board is autonomous and separate from the local board of education. Charter schools have several flexible parameters that traditional schools do not. These include being allowed to:

• Purchase off of state contracts
• Hire non-certified teachers
• Hire teachers on an at-will basis
• Negotiate personnel salaries
• They do not have to provide transportation.
• They do not have to provide meals.

Charter Schools in North Carolina:

Charter Act of 1996: On June 26, 1996, the Charter School Act was ratified by the General Assembly. The law has been amended several times, but some of the key components include a cap on the number of charter schools. The current cap is 106 schools. There is a limit of five new charter schools per county per year. Charter schools are overseen by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and their Office of Charter Schools. The current law has certain requirements for charter schools. These include but are not limited to:

• Charters must follow the Standard Course of Study.
• Charter Schools must take applicable state exams.
• Charters must have a comprehensive education plan.
• Charters cannot discriminate and must have a plan for educating special needs students.

Who runs a charter school? There are certain requirements for a charter school board. There must be a board of at least five members of varied backgrounds. There must be a process for selection and rotation of board members. The board of directors operates much like a regular school board and is legally responsible for all transactions at the school. A private, non-profit corporation must be formed prior to final approval.

How are they funded? Charter schools are funded using state and local money allocated on a per-pupil basis. They are also eligible for certain federal funds. (See the attached list for a complete list.)

Facilities: One limitation charters face is the issue of facilities. There is little or no money for school buildings. Charter schools must meet all building codes related to educational facilities.

Regional Charter Schools: There are currently two charter schools in New Hanover County. They are the Cape Fear Center for Inquiry and Wilmington Preparatory Academy. In Brunswick County, there is Charter Day and in Pender County, there are no charter schools. Two of the schools serve students in a K-8 environment and one serves K-4 students. There is an obvious gap at the high school level.

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