With the intention of bringing a choice to parents and improving the educational opportunities, a North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board has given its blessing to an application for a charter school in Bladen County.
The Emereau Foundation announced in February that its application to open a charter school in Bladen County had been approved by the NCSAB and is hoping for a Fall 2017 opening date — if the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction also gives its OK.
If the NCDPI does approve the charter school, it would mark a milestone in a long journey.
The opening of a charter school takes years of preparation, planning and activity. Applicants must prove that they have considered and planned for every detail in operating a school. The mission, possible locations, curriculum, discipline policy, target population, projected enrollment and numerous other details were included in Emereau’s 58-page application.
After approval by the advisory board, the application moves to the state board, which reviews the advisory board’s recommendation. If approval is granted, the applicants move into a one-year planning phase.
Kate Alice Dunaway, a consultant with the Emereau Foundation and advisor to its board, revealed how important the approval from the advisory board was.
“We like to think it’s a done deal at this point,” she said. “There are many requirements — we have ongoing benchmarks that we must meet every month as part of the planning — but we’re confident in moving forward.”
Dunaway reported that approximately 27 applications were submitted to the advisory board for approval, including five from Emereau, and about half are moving forward. Among those moving forward are two from Emereau — one in Bladen County and one in Halifax County.
The application for Bladen County states that it was chosen because of the “low performance of Bladen County Schools” and the “lack of public school choice.”
“We looked carefully at report cards for all the school systems in North Carolina,” Dunaway said. “We looked at EOG scores for grades three through eight and at high school scores. We understand that test results may not be the total picture, but we also understand that it is an important indicator.
“If you look at the scores of Bladen County — and others, as well, particularly in eastern North Carolina — they’re falling significantly behind some other areas of the state,” she added. “And when you think about ‘significantly behind’ in North Carolina and think about the rank of North Carolina among the 50 states, you begin to see the concern that we have for children to have a good educational opportunity.”
For the Emereau board, this is where choice comes in. For the affluent, a good education, as they see it, may mean forking over thousands of dollars every year to send their children to private schools. For those in poverty, public education that falls “significantly behind” most school systems is the only option.
“The charter school’s design is to eliminate barriers to access,” said Dunaway.
Eddie Madden, an Emereau Foundation trustee, agreed.
“Our parents should have a choice of where to send their children,” he said. “Up to this point, most have not had a choice.”
He added, “Students from Bladen County deserve the same opportunity for a great education as students from Durham, Wake, and Mecklenburg counties. Emereau will give them that opportunity.”
Emereau’s application states that they, like the public schools, will utilize North Carolina Common Core Standards in English, language arts and math, as well as North Carolina Essential State Standards in all areas. Additionally, they will utilize Core Knowledge Curriculum which, Dunaway said, was a curriculum utilizing the Inquiry Model.
“(The Inquiry Model) is a methodology in the way we structure teaching opportunities and the learning environment that uses higher level thinking skills and questions. Staff will spend quite a bit of time in professional development to learn (the technique),” explained Dunaway.
In addition to differing with regard to the Inquiry Model, Emereau will set graduation standards that vary from the public school system. Graduates of the Bladen site will be required to have four years of Spanish, four years of a healthy living program, four years of fine arts, and service learning hours. Classes in high school will have a college preparatory focus. In addition, students will, for five years, study selected works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, from whom the foundation and school derive their name.
“When we include (Emerson and Thoreau) in our mission statement, we’re not talking about philosophy as much as their insights as writers. They were prolific writers and had what many people know as quotes, but they also had insights regarding individuals, success, and nature,” said Dunaway.
“Charter schools are public entities like public schools, and we cannot espouse a particular faith or religion or philosophy for that matter,” she added. “We are utilizing some of the insights they had that are not religious insights — they are insights about the world that they shared through their writing.”
Classes of 20 to 22 students will, according to the application, “meet or exceed the academic results of the Bladen County Schools as measured by the READY EOG results.” Students will participate in weekly conversational walks and daily journals, and the school aims to have 90 percent daily attendance.
Valerie Newton, public information officer for Bladen County Schools, sees several other differences as well.
“They are not required to teach the state curriculum and they don’t have to consider alternative educational opportunities,” she said. “Students can be asked to leave. In public schools, we take them as they are, where they are, to work with them.”
Where will it go?
Sources say that a site for the school has not yet been chosen and that several Bladen County sites are being considered.
However, a document titled “Emereau: Bladen Response to Clarification Questions” states: “A Bladen County church currently has a private school that the operators are looking to close and wish to have a replacement. They are wanting to provide their facility for 3 to 5 years until Emereau completes construction of their permanent facility on adjoining property.”
There are only two such schools in Bladen County, and neither are considering closure.
“We’re celebrating 40 years and still going strong. God is blessing us,” said Jim Appel, principal at Community Baptist Academy in Bladenboro.
Ronald Montgomery, headmaster at Elizabethtown Christian Academy, affirmed his school’s future as well.
“I can tell you that our board of directors just established a new set of bylaws and guidelines for the coming years, and we are adding the eighth and ninth grades next year — and we are full steam ahead for what is before us,” he said. “We are expecting to be a K-12 school in next four years. We have the full support of our pastor, deacon, church and parent population.”
The impact …
Emereau’s application states that they plan to open the 2017-2018 school year with grades K-6, adding a grade each year to become a K-12 school by 2023-2024. Projections include 308 students the first year and a gradual increase to 1,100 students in 2023-2024. The final number, according to the application, reflects 20 percent of the average daily membership of Bladen County Schools in 2015-2016. The application states that they also plan to draw many students from area private schools.
When asked how an exodus of 1,100 students would affect the local public school system, Newton said: “That would certainly impact our ability to efficiently and effectively operate 13 schools. It would significantly impact us.
“Realistically, looking at 1,100 being the maximum enrollment and, depending on how that would play out over grade levels, you could be looking at as many as three schools, and definitely two schools, closing, based on an average student enrollment of 350 to 500 students,” she added.
Not only would the facilities be impacted, the budget of the school system would take a hit as well.
“The state gives us funding based on the number of students K-12 in the county, and if (students) choose to go somewhere else, money has to be given to the charter school.” Newton said. “So, in essence, the public school is paying for students to attend charter schools.”
Not all impacts on the school system would be negative, however. Madden sees an up side, using his hometown of Cashiers to illustrate the point.
“The education there was lacking until a charter school came in, and all of a sudden there was competition. The public schools improved because they had something to compete with,” he said. “I’ve seen it work in other places and think it will have the same positive impact here.”
The impact II ..
At a recent Elizabethtown Town Council budget planning retreat, the council invited several Bladen County residents who had recently opened businesses in Elizabethtown to help them brainstorm ways to attract business and commerce to the town. As reported earlier by the Bladen Journal, panel member Hope Campbell raised a concern about the town’s ability to attract industry, saying that people will not want to move to the area until the quality of education is improved.
Madden, who, in addition to being an Emereau trustee, serves as Elizabethtown city manager, agrees.
“My job as city manager is recruiting businesses and families,” he said. “That job is made more difficult by the fact that we do not have choices for families. If we have a top-performing school — which I believe Emereau will be — we’ll increase the chances of attracting businesses and families.”
Madden made note of the numerous plants that border the county line, a location decision influenced by the quality of education here.
“I don’t want people who work in Bladen County industries commuting in from their home in another county. I want them to live smack dab right here,” said Madden. “I’ve seen the transformation for under-served and underfunded communities into dynamic, thriving communities people are moving into.”
Madden said he’s hoping for the same thing in Bladen County.
Dunaway added: “When given a choice, it’s important to examine what we will offer and what we will not offer. We are school that is year-round and will require uniforms. We are a school that will offer K-12 music, Spanish, digital arts, health and P.E. It’s important for families to look at what we are offering and know it’s a choice any child who lives in North Carolina can make.”
Emereau’s application can be viewed online by going to ncpublicschools.org and searching for “Emereau: Bladen.”
The Bladen County Board of Education will be holding its annual planning retreat for the 2016-2017 school year on Tuesday at 4 p.m. in the administrative building.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.