Education

Concrete Roses STEM Academy suddenly shutting down

Concrete Roses STEM Academy informed parents Thursday morning that the school will shut down at the end of the week, less than four weeks into the school year.

The decision was made at an emergency board meeting Wednesday night as the school showed signs of insolvency. The state agency overseeing charter schools had already placed Concrete Roses STEM on “financial disciplinary status” and frozen its access to cash, said Joel Medley, director of the state’s Office of Charter Schools.

Concrete Roses STEM CEO Cedric Stone did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. The school is in a small brick building at 8310 McAlpine Park Drive, just off Monroe Road in southeast Charlotte.

“Our message to parents is that we want our kids to receive the best education, even if it is not here, because they deserve it,” Principal Marvin Bradley said as he stood outside the school building Thursday morning. He said he could not provide details on why the school is closing, referring questions to Stone.

The impending closure marks the second shutdown of a new charter school in Charlotte this year. StudentFirst Academy closed in April after financial and academic troubles.

Both closures have raised questions about how the state handles charter schools. The General Assembly lifted a long-standing cap on charters in 2011, and dozens of new schools began opening across the state last school year.

At a January school choice rally in Charlotte, Gov. Pat McCrory vowed that as charter schools options expand, the state would crack down on those that weren’t meeting expectations.

“If any are falling behind and not meeting the standards, we will take action, because I don’t want that to be a reflection of the choice movement,” he said at the event.

Charter schools are public schools, operated with taxpayer money. Mecklenburg County started the school year with 23 charter schools, the most charters of any North Carolina county. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has projected that about 13,500 students in Mecklenburg County would attend charter schools this year.

Lofty projections

Concrete Roses STEM was one of 11 charter schools in the Charlotte area approved by the state a year ago for the 2014-15 school year. At the time of its application, the school’s anticipated enrollment would have made it one of the largest charter schools in the state, with 2,400 students in grades K-12 expected by its 10th year of operation.

The school initially said it projected to open in its first year with 560 students in grades K-9, according to state records. Later projections were reduced significantly. The school received funding from the state for 300 students. Only 126 students ultimately enrolled, Medley said.

The state charter school office sent a letter to Concrete Roses STEM dated Sept. 17 that said its funding was being frozen.

It stated that the school did not report its expenditures for the months of July and August, in violation of state law. The letter also said the school had already spent $285,170 of its allotment from the state.

The letter said the school would not be allowed to spend any more money until its enrollment was resubmitted and funding recalculated. Based on its current attendance, the school would have been eligible for significantly less money.

Stone was to receive a salary of $95,000, according to a budget presented to the state. It is unclear how much he received before the school closed.

Medley said there is no indication that Concrete Roses STEM did anything improper.

“Whenever you start something brand new, it’s a difficult enterprise. Sometimes things happen where schools close. Closing 17, 18 days into the school year is not ideal, but if you see that there are potential financial issues down the road, it is better to deal with that early,” Medley said.

The displaced students are eligible to enroll in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Students may also enroll in private schools or other charter schools that have openings.

CMS spokeswoman Renee McCoy directed parents to the district’s student placement website, which has information on how to enroll.

For ‘at-risk’ students

Concrete Roses STEM was conceived as a school with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math for “at-risk” children in Mecklenburg County, according to application documents filed with the state.

Its standing seemed on shaky ground from the beginning. The state charter school advisory board only narrowly agreed to send its application forward toward approval in June 2013.

According to meeting minutes, board members pointed out numerous flaws in its application, including not having a budget item for school bus maintenance and having an athletics director but no line item for athletics in the budget.

“My concerns were how realistic the enrollment projections were. I was concerned that they weren’t in any way realistic,” said Cheryl Turner, director of Sugar Creek Charter School and a member of the advisory board. The board ultimately voted 7-5 to approve it, an unusually tight vote.

In June 2014, a “ready to open” report given to a charter school advisory board showed that Concrete Roses STEM was one of eight Charlotte-area charters that still had to do more to show they would be prepared for students. They later received the all-clear to open.

Tiffany Esber, who had three children at Concrete Roses STEM, said she was drawn to the school because of the promised program and the academic degrees its leaders had. She said she especially loved the kindergarten classroom her daughter was in.

But she said parents began pulling children out of the school about two weeks into the year. She said her children came home with no books and no homework and with stories of the curriculum not being ready. She pulled her children out Monday. She said she went to the school Thursday afternoon to retrieve several hundred dollars’ worth of copy paper and school supplies the family had brought in but was told she wouldn’t be able to.

“We’re sitting in this mess, all because we tried to give our children a better education,” Esber said. “They’ve put me in a hole, money-wise and education-wise for my children.”

The Concrete Roses STEM board members met at 8 p.m. Wednesday for an emergency meeting. The Observer contacted all four, but none responded.

On Wednesday evening, Stone and Bradley sent an email to parents informing them the school would close.

“The faculty of Concrete Roses STEM Academy has been working diligently to ensure our students receive the best education possible,” it read, according to a copy obtained by the Observer.

“Unfortunately we have to close the doors at this early stage for educating the best life has to offer ... our children.”

‘An anomaly’

Concrete Roses STEM is only the second charter approved after 2006 to suddenly shut down. That year, the state began requiring charter schools to take a planning year between when its application is approved and when classes begin.

“It is an anomaly,” Medley said.

The first was StudentFirst Academy in Charlotte, which opened in August 2013 with about 340 K-8 students. Reports emerged of undocumented spending, staffing issues and weak academics. It closed in April.

The state Department of Public Instruction will soon begin a close-out audit on Concrete Roses STEM.

Turner said she’d also like more answers on why enrollment projections were so badly missed.

“It turns out what they were reporting didn’t match what happened,” Turner said.

The charter school advisory board convenes again in October. The sudden school closing will be a topic of discussion. Turner and Medley both said they believe the state has a good process for evaluating charter schools but will examine what more can be done.

“I really, really think that we have in place a process that works,” Turner said. “It’s worked for the overwhelming majority of schools. We do have to figure out how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

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