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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

Monroe Charter School's Struggle Illustrates Statewide Challenge

Students in Myeisha Little's kindergarten class at Monroe Charter Academy do a phonics lesson.

Now’s the time of year when thousands of families are being turned away in charter school admission lotteries. So you might think new charter schools could sail to success. But one charter school veteran learned that’s not necessarily so.  

Eddie Goodall observing a class at Monroe Charter Academy.

Twenty years ago, accountant Eddie Goodall helped launch Union Academy, a charter school that’s still thriving in western Union County. He went on to serve as a state senator, where he pushed legislation to promote charter schools. He led a state association of charter schools, worked as a charter school consultant and even self-published a book about North Carolina’s charter school movement.

In other words, he thought he knew a lot about charter schools. But he says his latest venture is an eye-opener.

"It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve had some challenges," Goodall says.

In 2017, Goodall won state approval to open Monroe Charter Academy. It was described as a back-to-basics school that – in a county that’s about 80% white – would be 75% nonwhite and offer alternatives to Union County schools with low test scores.

While the established Union Academy basically serves suburban Charlotte, the new Monroe Charter Academy would focus on what Goodall calls inner-city Monroe.

The school opened in August 2019, a year later than planned and with less than a third of the projected enrollment.

"We found out we couldn’t just open a charter school and people would run us over like they did at Union Academy," Goodall says.

The school is now on financial discipline status, because per-pupil funding means low enrollment can plunge a charter school into financial crisis.

Charter Growth Is Uneven

Across the state, charter school enrollment is growing while most school districts are leveling off or shrinking.

Advocates for expansion cite long waiting lists as a sign of pent-up demand. For instance, Lake Norman Charter School in Huntersville recently held a lottery with more than 6,200 applicants for 267 available seats.

But the reality is that many new charter schools open well below projections – and then struggle to pay the bills.

"Just because a particular charter school has a huge wait list, that’s not going to equate to a new start-up charter school filling that demand," says Dave Machado, director of the state office of charter schools and former head of Lincoln Charter School.

He says for a start-up to succeed, it needs a clear mission, a strong marketing plan and board members with ties to the community they hope to serve.

"Because there’s so many school options now, both in charters and traditional (public schools), you have got to prove to the parents that you’re going to be a high-quality school choice," Machado says.

Serving Students Of Poverty

Monroe Charter Academy’s struggles come as critics say charter schools aren’t serving enough disadvantaged kids — and as the state uses $37 million in federal money to try to change that.

One option is getting more low-income students into high-scoring, low-poverty schools. But schools that open in impoverished neighborhoods offer another option — if they can survive.

Monroe Charter Academy is housed at Bright Spot Baptist Church.

Goodall says the first setback came when the board couldn’t find a location in time to open in 2018. They eventually rented space at Bright Spot Baptist Church, on Monroe’s eastern edge, a site Goodall thought would appeal to black and Hispanic families.

The Monroe Charter board includes African American and Hispanic board members, but they aren’t local. Goodall says that left the new school as an unknown quantity to the families it hoped to attract.

"We had diversity on the board," he says, "but we didn’t know the minority community here."

Goodall, who lives in Union County, was the board chair who filed the application. But after winning approval he left the board to serve as a paid consultant – a potential relationship he disclosed in the application.

Goodall says the school also faced challenges recruiting – and keeping – white students.

"Four months before we opened we had 60 white families," he says. "When we opened we had 14. So 46 left after they enrolled."

Monroe Charter Academy Principal Camela Ford talks to a student who has retreated under a desk.

Goodall and Principal Camela Ford say they don’t know why. But it’s a common pattern. Unlike private schools, charter schools can’t charge application fees. So some families apply at several, then pick a favorite without notifying the others.

Monroe Charter Academy had budgeted for 288 students this year. It opened with 75 – below the minimum of 80, which the state considers financially viable.

The plan had called for four kindergarten classes. That was cut to two.

Ford says she shuffled teachers to avoid layoffs, but she’s had to skimp on supplies and negotiate lower payments with the church and creditors.

The school offers transportation, but its catered lunch program costs $5.50 a day – more than twice the price at Union County Public Schools, which offers free or discounted lunches based on family income.

Goodall’s consulting company takes 8% of Monroe Charter’s revenue, so low enrollment means a financial hit for him, too. Under the school’s budget for 288 students, the 8% cut would have been about $170,000 of $2.1 million – money that pays salaries for two people to handle the school’s business operations. The smaller enrollment means the consulting company's share comes to a little under $50,000 – and Goodall says his employees at the school took pay cuts.

District-Charter Tensions

In January, when Ford went to Raleigh to explain the school’s survival plans to the Charter School Advisory Board, she told the state board that Union County Public Schools had tried to sabotage enrollment.

"The local school district, parents were getting phone calls, um, in a non-nice manner, just letting them know that if they were to come to our school that they wouldn’t be able to go back to home school if they wanted to," Ford told the board.

Teacher Arianny Redd was reassigned to teach third grade when Monroe Charter Academy didn't have enough students for four kindergarten classes.

On the audiostream of the meeting, one member says "I don't think that's legal," while another says it happens all the time.

For the record, district schools have to take students who live in the attendance zone, regardless of when they enroll and where they were before. When WFAE asked about Ford’s comment, UCPS spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said she wasn’t aware of any such calls.

Tension between districts and charter schools is understandable. Districts have to pass along a per-pupil share of county education money to charter schools – and if a charter school closes or a family pulls out, those children may return in the middle of a school year.

Another Test Looming

Monroe Charter Academy has nine third-graders who will take state exams this spring. Ford says only one of them arrived reading on grade level. The state’s A-to-F school grading system relies heavily on the percentage of students earning grade-level scores.

"We literally can’t make an A or B," Goodall says. "I mean, there’s just no way we could take those kids from being probably a couple of grades behind to their grade level in a given year."

Goodall wants the state to revise its grading system to put more emphasis on growth – a measure that reflects student progress even if they land below grade level. Many educators, activists and lawmakers of both parties say the current system penalizes high-poverty schools, but so far the General Assembly has rejected change.

Credit CAMELA FORD / Monroe Charter Academy
Monroe Charter Academy
A billboard on U.S. 74 in Monroe is part of the school's recruiting strategy for 2020-21.

Ironically, Goodall’s application to open Monroe Charter Academy cited low reading scores at three nearby elementary schools as a reason those kids needed an alternative. All of those schools got above-average growth ratings last year.

Monroe Charter won’t actually get a letter grade in 2020. That requires at least 30 students taking exams. But eventually those grades will shape public perception and, if they’re too low, could force the school to close.

For now, Ford and Goodall are focused on recruiting for next year. Goodall recently paid for a billboard on the main thoroughfare nearby, and both say they're trying to meet with community leaders and families.

They say if they can enroll at least 120 students for 2020-21, they can make the numbers add up to a fighting chance.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.