NC education board stands by decision to close Kennedy Charter School

Kennedy Charter School moved to its new home at the edge of the Johnson C. Smith University campus this school year.
Kennedy Charter School moved to its new home at the edge of the Johnson C. Smith University campus this school year.

Kennedy Charter School, which has been educating some of Charlotte’s most disadvantaged students since 1998, lost another round Thursday in its quest to stay open past this summer.

The state Board of Education voted unanimously to stand by its February decision to cut off public money for the school, based on persistently low scores on state exams.

Kennedy’s board said Thursday it will sue “to seek remedy for this injustice.”

Kennedy, which was created by Elon Homes and Schools for Children, originally served children who had been removed from their families because of abuse and neglect. In recent years it became a K-12 school and moved from south Charlotte to the campus of Johnson C. Smith University, where it’s attempting to become part of the university’s revival of the historically black Beatties Ford Road corridor.

The school has been fighting for survival since December, when the state’s Charter School Advisory Board recommended that the state not continue funding for Kennedy when its charter expires in June. The Board of Education, which has final authority over charter schools, agreed.

Kennedy appealed to a three-person panel made up of one Board of Education member and two Advisory Board members. School officials argued that low percentages of students on grade level reflect the challenges of the population served. Students in several nearby Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools also perform poorly on state exams. Kennedy officials urged the state to look instead at year-to-year progress for individual students.

While (Kennedy) serves a population that tends to be of low socioeconomic backgrounds, the purpose of all schools, including charter schools, is to ensure the academic growth of all children.

Review panel ruling against Kennedy Charter School

After a lengthy presentation March 31, Kennedy Superintendent Fred Grosse and board Chairman Brad Gilliam said they believed they had made their case. But Grosse said panel members did not disclose their ruling until Thursday’s state board meeting – in fact, the board delayed the Kennedy vote because copies of the six-page ruling were not ready on time.

Kennedy “has had a charter for 18 years, but for most of those years has had various difficulties, both financial and academic. Eighteen years is more than sufficient time to establish a successful charter school,” said the report, signed by Board of Education member Becky Taylor, who chaired the review panel.

The report cited other North Carolina charter schools getting better results with disadvantaged students, and cited “concerns about the tendency of the school’s representatives to constantly blame the students for the school’s failures.”

We are extremely proud of our students and faculty, we met the stated criteria for renewal, we have strong philanthropic supporters and we have a great working relationship with a major urban university. Something in this decision does not add up.

Kennedy Charter School Superintendent Fred Grosse

After an emergency meeting Thursday, the Kennedy board voted to sue.

“We find this decision to be utterly without merit, based upon inaccurate information, and without any regard to the academic and financial performance of the school,” Grosse said in a statement afterward. “The (state board) has affirmed, without investigation, a very flawed recommendation passed along to them.”

The decision to pull the plug on Kennedy and Crossroads Charter High, another Charlotte charter school with a history of low test scores, is part of a broader discussion in North Carolina about where to set standards for the independently run public schools.

The state lifted its 100-school limit on charter schools in 2011. Since then the state, and especially the Charlotte region, has seen a surge in the number of charter schools and students choosing them. Some have built a strong record of popularity and performance, while three were forced to close in their first year because of academic and financial struggles.

Crossroads, which state officials also criticized for financial and management weaknesses, has already filed a legal appeal to stay open past this summer.

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