Politics & Government

With ‘grave concerns,’ board backs letting NC virtual charter leave national company

A state board is reluctantly backing efforts by leaders of a North Carolina virtual charter school to break away from a for-profit company that’s paid millions of dollars a year to educate more than 2,400 students.

The state Charter Schools Advisory Board voted Monday to recommend that N.C. Connections Academy be allowed to become a locally run independent school instead of being managed by Pearson Online and Blended Learning. But advisory board members repeatedly expressed concerns whether Connections’ board of directors could successfully operate one of the state’s two virtual charter schools.

“You’re on your own,” Alex Quigley, chairman of the advisory board, told the virtual school’s leaders. “If you can do it, do it. We’re giving you that opportunity, but we’re going to be very much closely watching how it’s executed. You’re under a microscope.”

Jill Hammergren, a member of Connections’ board, said the school is willing to work with the advisory board and the Office of Charter Schools to ease their concerns.

“Ultimately we’re trying to do this for the benefit of our students, staff, teachers and families,” Hammergren said in an interview Monday. “We’ve got 2,400 students and their families. We want this to succeed.”

Connections Academy and N.C. Virtual Academy, which is managed by K12 Inc., both opened in 2015 in what was originally supposed to be a four-year pilot program ordered by state lawmakers.

Both online schools have received D grades for their academic performance for the past three years and are on the state’s list of “continually low-performing schools.”

Despite the poor academic results, state lawmakers showed their support for the two schools last summer by extending the pilot program to 2023. Hammergren said that Connections’ board decided to break ties with Pearson after the state extended the pilot program.

The board of Connections Academy wants to hire several different vendors to provide the services now offered by Pearson, which publishes textbooks and sells a wide range of education products, including managing online schools. Connections’ board also wants to change the school’s name to N.C. Cyber Academy.

The board of Connections says it can save money on the $10 million a year it now pays to Pearson to invest in things such as higher teacher salaries and more computers for students. But time is running short now that families are making decisions about next school year.

Hammergren said it was a sign of support how more than 2,200 students say they want to attend in the fall despite the uncertainty.

“We know that our students and our families choose to be part of this virtual online educational opportunity,” Hammergren said. “They choose it for a variety of reasons that fit their family. We know that they want it to continue.”

The fight to break ties has gotten ugly, leading to a lawsuit and advisory board members likening the situation to a divorce.

The final decision about whether to allow Connections to break off ties with Pearson is up to the State Board of Education, which could vote in June or even sooner. The state board asked the advisory board to make a recommendation. The advisory board had declined in April to make a recommendation.

Quigley and advisory board member Lindalyn Kakadelis both said Monday that if it had been a new application they likely would have not approved the request. But they said that since it was an existing school they didn’t feel they could force Connections to stay with Pearson.

Steven Walker, vice chairman of the advisory board, said they could either approve the request or not, which he said would force the school to close.

“Although I’ve got some concerns about the plan moving forward and do have some concerns about the board’s experience in virtual schools, I think that the best course of action from my perspective at least would be to recommend approving with some stipulations,” he said.

One of the stipulations is that someone from Connections would be required to give an update at every advisory board meeting until further notice.

The vote to allow Connections was unanimous. But it wasn’t a ringing endorsement. Advisory board member Bruce Friend said he wished he could make it a conditional yes vote.

“I am voting yes, but I have grave concerns,” added Kakadelis.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.