Popularity high for two charter schools in Vance County

Jan. 26, 2013 @ 02:24 PM

Equal access to high quality educational opportunities is becoming more attainable in the state of North Carolina since the enactment of a bill signed into law by former Gov. Bev Perdue in 2011, lifting the 100-school cap on charter schools.

According to the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in 2012 there were 90 applications for charter schools submitted, some of which are scheduled to open for the 2013-14 school year.

Oxford Preparatory High School, the proposed charter school for Granville County, was among 25 other charter schools receiving proposal for accelerated approval by the Public Charter School Advisory Council.

Currently in Vance County there are two active charter schools: Vance Charter on Dabney Drive and Henderson Collegiate on Health Center Road.

Vance Charter preceded Henderson Collegiate in establishment, opening in 1999 with about 130 students.
This year at Vance Charter there are 545 students spread between kindergarten and eighth grade. Class size remains low, and the learning environment more personable.

“I think that’s what appeals to people,” said Sean Connolly, principal at Vance Charter since 2010. “They believe it’s a more nurturing environment. Because of the small classes, their kids get more individualized attention.

“Once you get to 25 or 30 kids in a room, it’s not that the kids don’t learn, it just becomes more challenging for anybody.”

Unlike public schools, not every child is automatically admitted into the school because it’s located in the district they live in.

“Last year there were 146 applicants for kindergarten,” Connelly said. “We had 48 openings.”

With more applicants than slots available for students, charter schools throughout the state turn to a lottery process to determine who gets in.

“It’s mandated by the charter school law,” said Kashi Nelson, eighth-grade teacher at Henderson Middle. “The idea is that charter schools are open to any student.
Unfortunately in North Carolina, we often end up with more people wanting to attend then we have seats available.”

Prior to working at Henderson Middle, Nelson worked for Knowledge Is Power Program, the largest national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools.

Nelson also plans to open her own charter school in Bertie County, about an hour and 20 minutes east of Henderson, in the fall of 2014. She will submit an application prior to March 1 to be included in this year’s cycle of applicants.

At Vance Charter, applications for enrollment will be made available Monday.

“They’ll fill out an application, and the application is mailed to the board of directors,” Connelly said. “I actually have nothing to do with the lottery in most respects.

“It’s completely board driven.”

Charter schools operate through their own board of directors, elected by votes from the parents and other board members.

“I believe typically there are four positions open every year,” Connolly said. “Parents elect two and the board elects two.

“The most you can serve are two three-year terms.”

According to Connolly, after the board of directors receive all the applicants, they are put into a random number generator through a computer system. State law requires preference be given to children of teachers, teacher assistants and the principal at any given charter school, therefore those given applicants are entered into a separate pool of names.

“Even the assistant principal if he had a child, he or she wouldn’t get preference to come in because the law only mentions the principal, teacher assistants and teachers,” Connolly said. “That’s just the way it’s written so that’s what we do.”
Applicants that are siblings of students already enrolled in the school also receive preference and are drawn from a separate pool of names.

“The lottery actually has 27 different pieces to it, because there’s a lottery for every grade,” Connolly said. “There are preferences. That’s why there’s actually 27 lotteries.”

Henderson Collegiate opened in the summer of 2010 with 100 students in the fourth grade.

Since then the school has gained one grade and 100 students each year. Today grades in the school range from fourth to sixth, and there are 295 students that attend.

By adding a new fourth grade class each year, the school has not had the need for a lottery, which is only used when the number of applicants exceeds the number of open seats.

“We have not been above capacity in years past,” said Eric Sanchez, co-founder of the school. “We have not used the lottery process, but we’re confident this year we will.

“When we look at it, we only had one grade to enroll in the first year, two in the second, three in the third.”

Given the implementation of a lottery, Sanchez hopes to use a weighted lottery that would allow the demographics of his school to parallel the demographics in Vance County.

“One of the things I’ve encouraged within North Carolina, is to make sure that charter schools are able to resemble the population of the community they serve,” Sanchez said. “Schools in other states are allowed to weight certain demographics in order to make sure they’re meeting the mission of the school.”

Henderson Collegiate is currently accepting applications for the 2013-14 school year.

Given an increased interest in charter schools, it’s likely the Tri-County could see more in the coming years.

Programs like Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, in its first year of operation, are pushing for support from local school leaders to bring charter schools to rural communities like Warren County, which currently has no charter schools.

Nelson is a participant of the program, and says similar programs are receiving some major financial backing.

“I’m really excited that you’ve got major funders like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and The Walton Family Foundation, behind Walmart,” Nelson said.

“They are some of the big funders of these initiatives to bring more college preparatory programs into communities where there are none.”

Contact the writer at amauser@hendersondispatch.com.