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Why One Charter School Failed


This is the second in a two-part series that takes a closer look at the charter school movement.

North Carolina will soon see a rush of charter schools opening.  Last year, state lawmakers lifted the cap that only allowed 100 schools.  Twenty-five more charter schools are scheduled to open next year.  But this year, for the first time, the state closed a charter school for academic reasons.  

That school was Highland Charter, an elementary school in Gastonia.  Kids there failed to make the grade on end-of-year tests two years in a row. 

Just to get this straight, there are parents like Wanda Stephens who think Highland was a success.  Her daughter Amaya started there in kindergarten and this past year graduated from the fifth grade. 

"I mean, they helped me along the way with Amaya all the way," says Stephens.  "They was more than teachers.  They helped me with her attitude, with getting her when she was late for the bus."

She says one teacher even bought her daughter sneakers. 

But Highland Charter was academically inadequate per the Charter School Act.  Those are the words of the head of the state's Office of Charter Schools Joel Medley. 

Charter schools either have to show 60 percent of students performed at grade level on standardized tests or the schools have to make growth for two of three consecutive school years.  Highland failed on both counts.  Two years ago 61 percent of Highland kids were at grade-level, but that dropped to just 43 percent last year. 

"I've always believed the only reason for there to be a charter school is that it's providing an education that's as good as or better than what that child could have gotten some place else," says  Highland Charter's director, Sherida Stevens. 

The past few years, Highland scored well below Gaston County Schools.

The school was run by Gaston Community Action, a group that distributes federal community development grants and helps with weatherizing homes.  It also runs a pre-school program for needy families called Head Start. 

"The parents had become very comfortable with that and felt their children needed just the one more year to really get ready to go on to traditional public school," says Stevens.

So Highland opened as a kindergarten in 1997 and by 2009 it expanded to the fifth grade.  Stevens says that's when things got really difficult. 

It didn't help that Highland had no principal and that Stevens was in charge. 

"It really was not where I wanted to be.  I'm not a people person," says Stevens.

Her background is business.  She filled out the paperwork the state requires. Anything that had to do with the classroom went to the school manager who was also a part-time teacher.  Stevens, Highland's director, didn't even work at the school the last two years. 

"People who can see you have expectations and I found myself hiding a lot.  I preferred to deal with computers and paper and that sort of thing," says Stevens.

That sort of attitude did not win over the teachers.  Several of them showed up at Gaston Community Action's board meeting last month.  It was contentious.  One board member tried to explain why the school was closing.  

"I keep hearing this 'what really went down.'  What really went down was the test scores.  That's all," he said. 

Anastasia Ryskamp spoke up.  Highland was her first teaching job.  She's now a Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools teacher. 

"You know how many workshops I had the entire time at Highland Charter? One.  You want to know how many I've had since I've been back to school in Charlotte?  Three.  That's a week's time," said an upset Ryskamp.    

And then she pointed at Sherida Stevens. 

"The direction that we did not receive is unacceptable." 

"But your direction came from on site," replied Stevens.

"It came from you and you are welcome to publish the emails that you sent from us that were rude, inappropriate and unhelpful to anyone," continued Ryskamp.     

There were a lot of allegations that night.  The picture that emerged of Highland was a school with a whole lot of dysfunction. 

The board's chairman Louis Brown apologized to the group of teachers and parents, but said high-poverty schools like Highland have a lot working against them. 

"It's tougher than anything you know to do a charter school in this type of area," Brown said. "Let's be honest here, we didn't do a good job of understanding our challenges as it got harder along the years."