3 NC charter high schools back off promise to hire only licensed teachers

Stewart Creek High on Freedom Drive is one of the charter schools asking to revise its promise of licensed teachers.
Stewart Creek High on Freedom Drive is one of the charter schools asking to revise its promise of licensed teachers.

When a Florida-based charter chain asked North Carolina for money to open three dropout prevention schools, the chain said having licensed teachers in all classes was vital to the mission.

When it applied for North Carolina money, Accelerated Learning Solutions said all teachers would be licensed. Now ALS, a for-profit company that specializes in dropout prevention and recovery, is asking North Carolina to revise the agreement and allow up to half the teachers to be unlicensed. The schools in question – Stewart Creek and Commonwealth high schools in Charlotte and Central Wake High in Raleigh – all offer flexible schedules for 16- to 21-year-olds who are trying to finish high school.

The change, if approved by the Board of Education next month, would put the ALS schools on the same footing as other charter schools in North Carolina, which requires only that 50 percent be licensed.

“Obviously this is a difficult population to serve, so finding teachers is a little difficult,” Dave Machado, director of North Carolina’s Office of Charter Schools, told the state Board of Education this week. He said the chain has brought in some teachers from Florida who aren’t yet licensed in North Carolina.

Machado said the two Charlotte schools, which opened in 2014 and 2015, have been able to get licensed teachers for 60 to 80 percent of their jobs. Central Wake just opened this school year, and Machado said he didn’t have numbers for that school.

But in an email response to an Observer query Thursday evening, ALS Executive Principal Thomas Hanley said the information Machado provided is inaccurate.

“100 percent of the teachers employed by Commonwealth, Stewart Creek and Central Wake are licensed and highly qualified,” Hanley wrote. “The request is being made to the State Board to adjust our charter to comply with teacher licensure requirements for charter schools.”

ALS applied to enter the Charlotte market in 2013. “All (100%) of the classroom teachers at the School will hold a valid North Carolina teaching license,” the charter application said, saying that was a key strategy for meeting the needs of potential and returning dropouts.

That promise became part of the charter, or legal agreement, between the state and ALS. Machado told the board that the schools haven’t been able to find enough licensed teachers, so they’re now out of compliance with their charter even though they’re in compliance with charter-school law.

But Hanley said the charter revision is on the table only because “if there is a vacancy for a period of time” the schools would fall out of compliance with the charter, which “was the unintended consequence of our current status.”

Salvaging the academic career of struggling teens has proven challenging for charter schools, as it is for traditional public schools.

In January 2015, a startup Charlotte charter school catering to that population closed midyear, unable to meet enrollment projections and running out of money. In 2016 the state cut off money for two long-established Charlotte charter schools – one a high school for at-risk students, one a K-12 school serving disadvantaged students – with persistently low graduation rates and test scores.

The Charlotte schools face challenges on other fronts as well. Stewart Creek earned an F from the state in 2016, based on student performance on state exams. But Hanley said it should have been classified as an alternative school and rated on a different system.

In their applications, the two Charlotte schools projected enrollment of 600 students at each school by 2016-17. They actually have a combined enrollment of about 360, according to state reports. Central Wake had 72 students in October, up from 48 the month before.

Hanley said it typically takes four to five years for dropout prevention schools to get enough referrals to be self-sustaining. Until then, he said, ALS subsidizes operation.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms