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Low-scoring Gastonia charter school moves a step closer to closing

Ridgeview Charter School's website urged families and supporters to tune in for Tuesday's appeal to keep the school open.
Ridgeview Charter School's website urged families and supporters to tune in for Tuesday's appeal to keep the school open.

Gastonia’s Ridgeview Charter School lost another round Tuesday in its quest to stay open despite high failure rates on state exams.

A state Board of Education committee unanimously upheld the North Carolina Charter Schools Review Board’s vote to stop public funding at the end of this school year. State officials say reading, math and science scores have been so low in the school’s first five years that they can’t justify keeping the K-8 school open.

School leaders say they took on the task of working with students already hobbled by poverty, homelessness and academic challenges. And the school, which opened in August 2019, faced the disruption of the pandemic during its first year.

Colleen Samuels
Ridgeview Charter School
Colleen Samuels

They’re asking the Board of Education to give them a second chance.

“We are doing what we need to do. We have the building blocks. We have our academic curriculum. We are ready to go,” Ridgeview Board Chair Colleen Samuels told a three-member Board of Education committee Tuesday afternoon. “We just need time. Give us three years to turn this around. If at the end of those three years we can’t do it, take it. Take our charter. At that point we will have deserved it.”

But Board of Education member John Blackburn, who chaired the appeal committee, told the full board Wednesday that those plans “came too late, and only after many opportunities passed without action.”

State charter school officials have been reviewing Ridgeview’s status since November, and they say Ridgeview’s board members either didn’t show up or didn’t respond effectively to earlier chances to fight for the school’s survival. The full Board of Education will vote Thursday on Ridgeview’s appeal. If the appeal fails, the state will begin the closure process. That includes preparing to transfer records for about 270 students who will have to find a new school in August.

Academic turnaround plan

Samuels and Reshall Williams, the school’s founder and principal, outlined a series of steps Ridgeview hopes to take to improve performance:

  • The school is working with a new team of consultants who specialize in academic turnarounds.
  • Leaders say they adopted new reading and math curricula this year after 2023 scores were low, and plan to keep improving lessons.
  • Teachers who aren’t getting results will get coaching and support to improve.
  • The school is switching the assessments it uses during the school year after realizing its initial system didn’t accurately indicate how many students would fail year-end exams.
  • Williams says she’s stepping down as principal so the board can hire someone with expertise in turning around struggling schools.

Because school closings disrupted state testing in 2020 and 2021, Williams and Samuels said Ridgeview’s first five years didn’t provide enough data to justify closing the school.
“Once COVID hit, the population shifted,” Samuels said. “Folks left. They came back. They left again. Right now, today, as we speak, we have 35 students who are leaving (because) their parents are relocating. This is the population we serve. We come in with students who are a year or two behind. We have educational issues. We have behavioral issues. We have people who are simply moving.”

Ridgeview leaders said those children were already failing in other schools.

But state Charter School Director Ashley Baquero and Bruce Friend, a Raleigh-area charter school director who chairs the review board, said none of the 16 other schools that were up for review this year performed as poorly as Ridgeview, even though many faced similar challenges. Ridgeview’s overall proficiency was 36 percentage points below Gaston County Schools’ average last year, Baquero said. And Ridgeview did not meet growth targets in 2022 or 2023.

Financially stable

Charter schools, which are run by independent nonprofit boards, face renewal reviews every three to 10 years, depending on their academic, financial and compliance records. The state has reported no sign of financial or other compliance records, though officials said board minutes didn’t show signs that they were actively reviewing finances.

Mikel Brown
Ridgeview Charter School
Mikel Brown

“We are guilty of terrible record-keeping,” Samuels said Tuesday. But, she said, “this is not a board that has been asleep at the wheel. Otherwise I’m sure we would have had financial issues.”

“We’re actually under budget by $214,000 this year,” added Ridgeview Treasurer Mikel Brown. “I do this for a living. I volunteered for this role because I know sometimes schools can take advantage of funding. My goal was to make sure that didn’t happen.”

Samuels said the board has added new members and is going through training to be more effective.

Blackburn, the appeal committee chairman, commended the school on its financial record.

“I would be very remiss if I didn’t say how proud I am of you for not having any financial issues,” he said. “That is very often one of the things that we see.”

But after hearing from the state and the school for about an hour, Blackburn’s committee voted 3-0, without discussion, to uphold the review board’s decision to terminate the charter. If the full Board of Education agrees, that would stop Ridgeview’s eligibility for state and local money when this school year ends.

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Updated: April 3, 2024 at 10:41 AM EDT
Updated April 3 to reflect a report to the full Board of Education.
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.