Struggling NC charter school on ‘life support’; state officials could soon pull the plug

Struggling NC charter school on ‘life support’; state officials could soon pull the plug

- in Education, Top Story

A troubled North Carolina charter school is essentially on “life support’ and its leaders should pull the plug, or face the prospect of state officials doing so, if it can’t remedy acute academic, financial and management ills, the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) advised this week. 

That assessment was directed at leaders of Essie Mae Foxx Charter School in the Rowan County town of East Spencer. The school has struggled on all fronts since it opened in August 2018.  

“Ultimately, it’s about the kids and we don’t see the job getting done,” said CSAB member Joe Maimone. “If you can’t manage the adult business that you need to do to make the school successful, how can we have faith that you’re managing what’s essential for these scholars.” 

Maimone noted that roughly 42 charter schools have closed since lawmakers authorized them in 1996. 

Some schools were forced to close and others surrendered charters because they weren’t getting the job done, Maimone said.    

“I think that’s a serious discussion we need to have with your board as soon as possible to say, ‘Is this school in the best interest of the kids that we’re serving?’ he said. 

CSAB chairman Alex Quigley said it will take a Herculean effort to turn around Essie Mae because the school is struggling in three key areas – academic, financial and operational.

CSAB chairman Alex Quigley

“My general theory on turnaround is, if you have one area that’s a problem, you have a shot at being successful,” Quigley said. “If you have two, it’s going to be really, really difficult. If you have all three, the school is better off shutting down.” 

Tough talk from CSAB 

Such tough talk coming from CSAB isn’t unheard of, but is certainly rare. The group is an unabashed cheerleader for charters and often bends over backward to ensure their success. 

But increasingly, quality has become a CSAB focus as the number of charters in North Carolina grows. That number is expected to expand beyond 200 next school year. 

Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools, said the focus on quality is critical.  

“We want to be sure that when we’re given the opportunity by the state to have school choice options for parents that what we’re providing is quality and that we’re getting the job done,” Dillingham said. “In the case of this school [Essie Mae], I think they have really struggled since the beginning with the issues they had with their former Education Management Organization {EMO] and it seems they are struggling still.”     

Indeed, Essie Mae’s troubles have intensified since school leaders parted ways with the school’s management firm, Raleigh-based Torchlight Academy Charter School Management. 

Last year, the school was granted permission to end the relationship after leaders charged Torchlight failed to account for expenditures, pay operating costs, follow polices, rules and regulations and adhere to the curriculum adopted by the board.    

“Our board determined that it would be in the best interest of the school to move forward without TAS [Torchlight] as our management company,” Board Chairman Tina Foxx Wallace told Policy Watch last August. 

Essie Mae’s complaints against Torchlight offered a rare glimpse into the sometime strained relationship between charter schools and education management organizations (EMO’s).  

And the school’s struggles have shown how well-intentioned charter school operators can find themselves in over their heads wading through the complexities of opening and operating a school. 

Essie Mae’s leaders assured CSAB that they could handle duties relinquished by Torchlight. 

But their responses this week to basic operational and policy questions revealed a lack of understanding about North Carolina charter school law. 

School hasn’t used Istation 

While being questioned by CSAB members, Essie Mae Principal James Fisher revealed the school has neither used Istation nor the mClass diagnostic tool to measure student K-3 reading levels this year.  

CSAB member Cherly Turner responded: “It’s not optional. You’ve got to use one of the two.” 

Schools are required to use a diagnostic tool (currently it’s Istation) under the state’s Read to Achieve law enacted by lawmakers in 2013 to ensure students are reading on grade level by the end of third grade.  

Fisher explained that Essie Mae has not used computerbased Istation because the school doesn’t have the technological capabilities to do so.  

“I’m operating with what it is I have,” Fisher said.

Essie Mae Principal James Fisher (Photo via Facebook)

Quigley responded: “Do you not have computers?” 

Fisher answered that the school does have computers but not the level of “technology needed to support the scholars [students].” 

Turner weighed in: “Is it the internet you don’t have because the state provided the devices.” 

Fisher said the school does have internet access. He said Essie Mae did not receive electronic devices from the state to support Istation. 

When asked if he received a survey from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction over the summer inquiring whether the school needed electronic devices in preparation for the switch to Istation, Fisher said he did not. 

Fisher said the school has conducted “NC Check-Ins,” which are mid-year assessments to measure student performance before end-of-the year tests. 

“In going through the Check-In data, it did not please me,” said Fisher, who could not provide CSAB with Check-In data when asked.    

More performance concerns 

CSAB members noted other concerns. 

Since it opened, Essie Mae students have scored below their counterparts in the Rowan-Salisbury school district on state exams.  

The school has been placed on financial and governance noncompliance.  

Charter school audits were due in October, but Essie Mae has yet to turn its audit into the Office of Charter Schools. 

Wallace said the audit would be ready within the next 30 days. 

Essie Mae was placed on “allotment restrictions” last September after its leaders were unable to competently discuss the details of its more than $1 million budget.  

Under the restrictions, Essie Mae can only draw down portions of its state allotment each month. 

CSAB vice chairman Steven Walker said Essie Mae has committed a lot of “unforced errors” that could force the school to close.   

He said school leaders must make better decisions. 

“You can choose to get your audit in on time. You can choose to make sure you’re complying with the Istation requirement that’s there. You can do everything to get you off governance non-compliance and you can do what you need to do to get off of financial non-compliance. Those are all unforced errors you brought on yourselves.” 

CSAB member Joel Ford said he’s wants Essie Mae to succeed but acknowledged the situation is dire. 

“You’re on life support and ultimately it’s about the kids,” Ford said. “I’m rooting for you, but I want to be clear and transparent; at the end of the day, if you guys cannot hit those benchmarks and meet those measurements, I’m sure this board, if you don’t make the call [to close the school], the board will make it for you.