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East Charlotte charter school appeals state decision to cut off funding

Representatives of Eastside STREAM Academy, including board chair Walter Bowers (right), speak during an online appeal session to keep their school open.
NC DPI YouTube screen shot
Representatives of Eastside STREAM Academy, including board chair Walter Bowers (right), speak during an online appeal session to keep their school open.

Eastside STREAM Academy made an appeal Thursday for the state to keep the charter school open despite academic struggles and staff churn. The school serves more than 300 students in grades K-8.

Earlier this year North Carolina’s Charter School Advisory Board and the state Board of Education both voted unanimously not to renew the charter. That means public funding would end in June.

State Charter School Director Ashley Baquero said test scores have been low since the school opened in 2013. She also cited turnover in the principal’s office and among teachers, as well as past financial problems that have been resolved.

School officials took their case Thursday to two independent lawyers, Dickson Phillips and Ken Soo, who will review the information and make a recommendation to the Board of Education.

Board Chair Walter Bowers, a lawyer, said Baquero and her staff made errors in evaluating the school — including relying on reports from unidentified people who talked about a toxic environment and who may have been “disgruntled employees.”

“They received these secret witnesses, if you will, and because we didn’t have an opportunity to provide a statement, we didn’t have an opportunity to cross-examine them, to this date we have no idea what information they received,” Bowers said.

The charter school office takes complaints from employees, parents and others who contact the office. Baquero said that is not the same as a court proceeding with witnesses and cross-examination.

Eastside STREAM Academy
Eastside STREAM Academy

Bowers also took issue with the state’s report that Eastside has had 11 principals in 10 years. He said that number includes four interim leaders. Responding to a question from one of the lawyers, Bowers said the school also lost its most recent principal after the state voted to end Eastside’s charter, and another interim is running the school now.

“In comparison to the local schools here in CMS, having that many leaders in a short period of time, we’re really on par with everyone else,” he said. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has had four superintendents and two interim superintendents since 2013; the board hopes to hire a new leader next month.

Linda Cruz founded the school 10 years ago as Charlotte Choice Charter. She remains on the board after the name change, and she was among several Eastside STREAM representatives who said the school needs more time to rebuild staff and help students who often arrive performing well below grade level. Material presented with the appeal says Eastside serves primarily minority males from low-income homes “with low self-esteem, challenging behaviors and prior poor academic school performance.”

Cruz said the state’s nonrenewal process has been humiliating and hurtful to employees and families who are still trying to help students.

“It’s important that our families are given a fair chance, that our scholars are given an opportunity to excel,” she said. She said the work continues “despite the fact that there is this ax hanging over their heads that you’re going to be shut down and you’re going to have to send your students to some other school, that all these relationships are going to end.”

The process of deciding Eastside’s fate has been going on since December, as its 10-year charter renewal approached. The state can renew charters for three to 10 years, depending on the school’s performance — or, in the most extreme cases, deny renewal.

Baquero told the judges that the state staff recommended a three-year renewal for Eastside. But the Charter School Advisory Board, made up of appointees who have often run charter schools, voted not to renew the charter and the Board of Education agreed. The board will make a final decision after getting a report from the appeal lawyers.

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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.