Policy Watch Investigates

Charlotte charter founders accused of plagiarizing, school may not open

A Charlotte charter school slated to open this fall may have its approval yanked, after state education officials discovered the school may have plagiarized large chunks of its application.

The Cameron Creek Charter School was one of 25 charter schools that received provisional approval from the N.C. State Board of Education in September and scheduled to open its doors this August.

But large sections of the school’s 155-page application appear to have been copied verbatim from an application submitted by Charlotte Learning Academy, a group that applied in 2011 and was not granted fast-track approval from the state education agency.

All of the charter school application are public documents and made available on N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s website, making it easy for others to examine and access the applications.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction didn’t notice the similarities, including eight references to the other school that were left in the Cameron Creek application, until Jan. 29. That’s when Joel Medley, the Office of Charter Schools director, was contacted by Stacey Rose of Charlotte Learning Academy about the resemblances between the two applications.

The State Board of Education will decide at its March meeting whether to withdraw its approval of the charter school. The N.C. Charter School Advisory Council, which assists the board in policy recommendations for the publicly-funded, privately-run schools, recommended at its Monday meeting that the state rescind the school’s charter.

(W)riting an application is the least of the hard work from opening a school,” said Rebecca Shore, a UNC-Charlotte professor and member of the advisory council, in comments attributed to her in a draft version of the committee’s minutes. “Their actions show a lack of seriousness for putting in the necessary effort to open and operate a successful charter school.”

N.C. Policy Watch obtained the minutes through a public records request.

The similarities, and the inclusion of the Charlotte Learning Academy name in the Cameron Creek application in multiple instances, were not detected by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Charter Schools, the N.C. Charter School Advisory Council, nor the State Board of Education, all of which were tasked with reviewing the application before granting the school approval.

DPI’s charter school office has six staff member tasked with overseeing the existing 107 public charter schools as well as assisting the advisory council and counseling a spike in interest in charter school that followed the N.C. State Legislature’s decision in 2010 to lift a 100-school cap on charter schools.

In the next round of approvals later this spring, the state received 161 letters of intent from groups wanting to open up schools for the 2014-15 school year, 156 of which will be considered.

The heavy workload has left the state agency stretched thin in its oversight of schools. N.C. Policy Watch recently published an investigation, “A factory of excellence?” that found the state agency was aware of, but failed to follow through, on concerns about a Winston-Salem charter school that recruits Division 1-bound basketball players from around the country and nation. The elite basketball team at Quality Education Academy draws largely from outside the state, and though the school claims out-of-state students now pay $2,000 a year in tuition, their educations are largely subsidized by North Carolina taxpayers.

The Cameron Creek application’s copying is evident, with eight instances where “Charlotte Learning Academy” appeared in sections describing how Cameron Creek planned on running its school.

Under a section about academic expectations, the Cameron Creek application reads, “ Charlotte Learning Academy’s academic focus is based on student and community needs, grounded in our mission, and guest the focus for our staff development, instructional delivery, assessment, and community participation.”

The exact same phrase appears in the Charlotte Learning Academy application.

The 155-page Cameron Creek application can be viewed here and the application the school is accused of copying from can be viewed here.

School leaders denied that they copied their application in a letter sent to the N.C. Department of Instruction.

Cameron Creek Charter School unequivocally denies that its initial application was a ‘copy and paste’ of the fast-track application application,” wrote Sylvia Cole, the school’s founder, in a Feb. 2 letter to DPI. “These allegations, as reviewed, include similarities in some area regarding “generic’ information.”

In a phone interview, Cole said they were encouraged to look at other applications by the charter school office.

They advised us that we could look at other people’s information,” Cole said. “We’re taking our necessary action and we’re taking everything under advisement.”

Cole has already filed a letter of intent in early January with the state for what she hoped would be a second location for Cameron Creek Charter School in Rowan County. If the state board decides to rescind its approval of the Charlotte location, she can still continue with the next round of applications, Medley wrote in a letter to Cole.

Cameron Creek’s application also says it will contract with a Philadelphia-based non-profit, the Strawberry Mansion Area Renaissance Trust Corporation, for help in managing the school. The non-profit last filed an I-990, the publicly available tax form for non-profits, in 1999 when it reported having $42,000 in income.

Melvin Sharpe, a disbarred Philadelphia attorney that serves on the board of the proposed Charlotte charter school, said he thought the copying was inadvertent, and not intentional. Sharpe said he works with charter schools in Georgia, Pennsylvania and now North Carolina. Sharpe lost his law license last September for using client’s funds for his personal and business expenses, according to documents filed the the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

The N.C. State Board of Education’s next meeting is March 6 and 7, and is expected to make a decision about the school then.

 

Note: This article has changed from its original form to include additional information about Melvin Sharpe’s disbarment from practicing law in Pennsylvania.

Questions? Comments? You can reach reporter Sarah Ovaska at (919) 861-1463 or sarah@ncpolicywatch.com.

 

(Above image: http://cameroncreekcharter.com/)