Longleaf School of the Arts is less than four years old, but the charter school—housed in an old downtown Raleigh church, complete with stained-glass windows—has an air of antiquity about it.
Midterms are underway, and students pack the halls while Rachel Davis, head of school, ushers buzzing teens to their classrooms. Davis, an eminently cheerful woman, occupies a busy corner office crammed with boxed records.
“There are schools in this state that are cherry-picking,” Davis tells me. “Longleaf is not one of them. That’s not in our philosophy.”
Davis is defending her school’s accessibility because a Policy Watch investigation uncovered at least two instances in which leaders at the college prep charter, which offers an arts-based curriculum to more than 270 high schoolers in Wake County, may have pushed policies violating North Carolina statutes devised to ensure equity and inclusiveness in North Carolina’s exploding charter industry.
In one case, Policy Watch obtained a copy of an “academic success” policy included in the school’s student handbook (page 25 here) that mandates students either keep pace for a four-year graduation or face losing a seat in the charter.
That handbook was removed from the school’s website after school leaders met with Policy Watch in mid-December, but the copy once prominently displayed on the school’s website advised that lagging students will be assessed after each year to determine if students’ “grades, intent and work habits have not shifted sufficiently to support timely graduation.”
Students found lacking, according to the policy, would be at risk of losing a coveted spot in the Raleigh charter.
In another instance, Policy Watch received a copy of an April 2015 email in which Davis declared to all students and teachers at Longleaf that students may lose their seat in the charter if they do not serve out detentions.
Both, based on conversations with North Carolina school experts and leaders in the state’s Office of Charter Schools, may constitute violations of state statutes, which order that charters “shall not limit admission to students on the basis of intellectual ability, measures of achievement or aptitude, athletic ability or disability.”
Furthermore, charters, like traditional public schools, aren’t intended to dismiss students for relatively minor disciplinary violations such as failure to serve a detention, officials say.
Charter schools are tuition-free, public schools granted greater flexibility in curriculum and staffing than traditional schools. Despite their rapid rise in the last 20 years—their share of state funding has swollen from $16 million in 1997 to more than $444 million in 2015-2016—they’ve been a topic of major controversy in North Carolina in recent years.
Their ascent coincided with cuts and increasing financial straits for the state’s public schools under both Republican and Democratic leadership in the N.C. General Assembly. In the meantime, North Carolina schools plummeted in national rankings of per-pupil spending and teacher pay, prompting droves of teachers to exit the state for employment elsewhere.
Furthermore, charter critics say they believe some schools may be “cherrypicking” pupils; in other words, intentionally excluding low-income and minority students who, according to data, are more likely to trail their peers academically.
Charter backers point out their schools often out-perform competing traditional schools in their regions, although a draft state report released this month shows charter academics drift more to the extremes than traditional schools, either performing unusually well or unusually poorly.
Although Longleaf School’s actions have largely escaped public scrutiny until now, Dave Machado, director of the state’s charter office, told Policy Watch he learned of the charter’s academic policy last year and informed school leaders he believed it to be a violation of the law.
Additionally, Machado wrote that Davis’ emailed threat of removal over detentions was “not appropriate and the school is aware that it will need to be changed.”
Both Machado and Longleaf officials say neither policy has been “implemented” or used to remove students at the school; nor have they been approved by Machado’s office. Yet, until Policy Watch contacted the school, the academic policy remained a component of the school’s student handbook on their website.
And while Davis initially told Policy Watch in December that she does not recall ever issuing the 2015 email in question, Sabrina Francis, chair of the school’s governing board of directors, acknowledged weeks later that Davis erred in threatening to boot students over detentions.
“She owns that mistake,” said Francis. “A student will not be removed if they did not serve their service detention.”
Bill Cobey, chair of the State Board of Education, which oversees all public schools in North Carolina, declined to comment on Longleaf School, saying he would leave the issue to Machado’s office.
But in an interview last week, Becky Taylor, who chairs the charter committee for Cobey’s board, called the policies “very disturbing.”
“The purpose of charter schools is to be very innovative and to help students,” said Taylor. “They should exceed our objectives and ensure they’re working toward quality. That certainly doesn’t sound like something anyone would support.”
Since North Carolina lifted its 100-school cap on charters in 2011, some public school advocates say they believe state regulators failed to keep pace with the rapid growth of the industry, which now includes 167 schools with another eight approved to open this year.
Indeed, though the state’s charter office was apparently in contact with Longleaf about their policies prior to contact from Policy Watch, Taylor says Machado’s office, which, on its website, lists just eight full-time employees to monitor the entire state, is understaffed.
“There are going to be some things that slip by,” Taylor added. “That happens in a lot of schools. It shouldn’t happen. (And) the accountability piece is critical. We really do need additional staff that can get out there and talk to people and hold them accountable.”
And despite assurances that neither policy was used to exclude any students, Taylor said the state must review student attrition numbers at the school and consider whether the “implied” message affected accessibility.
Lee Teague, executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, which lobbies for charters across the state, says Longleaf’s story is a credit to Machado’s office, given state charter leaders had already reached out to school officials.
“This is an example of the charter accountability system working as it should,” said Teague.
Teague also rejected the notion that charters are not properly monitored in North Carolina, complimenting the “excellent” work of Machado’s office and the Charter Schools Advisory Board, a panel of state appointees that counsels the State Board of Education on charter policy.
Yet Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), Raleigh’s most powerful teacher lobbying organization, says Longleaf’s policies, whether or not they were fully implemented or used to remove any students, should be a troubling sign for North Carolina residents.
“To me, it’s very concerning to hear of schools trying to push students out that are struggling academically,” said Jewell. “That is where we in traditional public schools would obviously do all we could.”
There’s a bitter chill to the December air this morning. Red-cheeked students, bundled in thick coats, trundle toward the classroom. Meanwhile, Sabrina Francis points out dozens of Longleaf students disembarking city buses across Moore Square in downtown Raleigh.
“Thirty percent of our students take the bus to school,” she says. It’s a sign, Francis notes, that Longleaf School is fair and accessible to all.
Indeed, leaders at Longleaf say accessibility is a lynchpin for them, pointing out the school was established in 2013 to afford more students the opportunity to have an experience similar to N.C. Governor’s School, a state-funded, residential program that offers five weeks of in-depth coursework for selected, “intellectually gifted” high school students over the summer.
“I feel we’re a very inclusive school,” adds Davis, the head of Longleaf School. And, despite the controversy over the school’s academic success policy, Davis says board members and school leaders authored and approved the tentative rules last year, with the consultation of an attorney, as a boon for struggling students.
As a college prep school, Davis points out, Longleaf requires more credits for graduation than a traditional school. Students could not afford to fall behind, she said.
“We were trying to come up with a motivation or support system,” she said, although she acknowledged they were later told by state officials that the policy may break the law.
“I’m really passionate about this school,” Davis confesses. “And my passion sometimes doesn’t support every single detail.”
Francis, like Davis, says the school’s board of directors had the best intentions when they crafted the policy last year.
“Longleaf is 100 percent fair,” says Francis. To that end, she tells Policy Watch the school’s leaders will sit with staff in Machado’s office this month to discuss their process.
For his part, Machado—although he declined an in-person or phone interview—indicated over email that he was not concerned about Longleaf, which he described as a “very good school.”
And, based on most accounts, parents are generally pleased with the school, although members of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Organization declined to talk to Policy Watch about Longleaf.
Based on state records, the charter school’s academic performance is solid, earning a letter grade of “B” and meeting state growth standards.
Yet, this would not be the school’s first run-in with state officials since opening in July 2013. Longleaf’s former head reportedly stepped down in late 2014 after school officials experienced lower-than-expected enrollment and a $77,000 budget shortfall.
But the latest news at Longleaf School comes at a particularly tense time for North Carolina charters, after Durham’s Kestrel Heights School, a charter, reportedly handed out 160 unearned high school diplomas over the last eight years. The controversy spurred renewed calls for greater accountability and oversight of the state’s charters.
It also surfaces after a state-mandated annual report on North Carolina charters highlighted growing disparities in the percentage of low-income students served by traditional schools and charters, a report that prompted Machado last week to urge the state’s charters to seek greater diversity.
According to that draft report, more than 50 percent of students attending traditional schools in 2015-2016 would be characterized as “economically disadvantaged,” compared to less than 30 percent of students enrolled in charters, although charter leaders say they believe that number underestimates their share of low-income pupils.
It’s a finding sure to bolster criticism that North Carolina charters and traditional schools are serving altogether different populations.
State laws direct charters to make efforts to emulate the racial and ethnic makeup of the regions they serve, although the statutes neither offer a mechanism for ensuring compliance nor do they provide for any consequences should a charter fail to do so.
Jewell, with the NCAE, says policies like the ones pushed at Longleaf School only feed advocates’ misgivings.
“Clearly, it does give the impression that students not up to their academic standards were not being allowed in,” says Jewell.
Jewell says it’s “critical” that public leaders monitor charters to ensure equal access and bar any policies that might disproportionately enroll students.
“The whole purpose of charters was to be laboratories of innovation,” he said. “But we’re hearing more and more about certain disciplinary practices or academic practices that public schools would never condone.”
Yevonne Brannon, a former Wake County commissioner and public schools advocate who now leads the nonprofit Public Schools First N.C., says she believes cases like Longleaf’s occur because charters are led by unelected boards of directors that, despite being subject to state public records and open meetings laws, often operate with little public scrutiny and scant public training.
“When you have that lack of public oversight, these kinds of things can occur, not necessarily maliciously but because one might misunderstand the law,” said Brannon.
Francis counters that her board members are receiving training on charter laws. The Office of Charter Schools recommends training for charter boards, she points out, but it is not mandated in state law.
Still, State Board of Education Chair Cobey, a Republican appointee of former Gov. Pat McCrory, said he does not buy into allegations that there is a dearth of oversight in the North Carolina charter sector.
“In general, there’s enough, but I’m always open to new ideas,” said Cobey.
Cobey added that he is not overly concerned with “isolated incidents” like those reported at Longleaf School and Kestrel Heights, although Policy Watch has reported multiple times on irregularities at troubled North Carolina charters in recent years.
“We, as a society, think we can regulate everything and rely on government,” Cobey said. “We have to rely on the good honesty of our citizens.”
But advocates such as Brannon say it’s cases like these that should provide impetus for state leaders to consider major changes in charter oversight.
“If we’re going to give the moniker of public schools to these charters and they receive public dollars, they should have to absolutely follow the law and they should also be transparent and accountable,” said Brannon.
After all, notes State Board of Education member Taylor, it’s in all parties’ best interests to create and maintain top-notch schools, whether they are charter or traditional schools.
“I believe in quality schools, period, whether they’re charter or traditional,” says Taylor. “We just need quality schools. We need schools that are following the policies and the laws and treating students fairly.”