A new charter school may open in Chapel Hill next year. If approved by the State Board of Education, The Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Academy would open in a new building and serve students in kindergarten through fifth grade with possible expansion into middle school down the road. Its stated mission is to close the achievement gap to help African-American students raise their performance on standardized tests. That will, in turn, improve graduation rates, and lead to greater college readiness.
The Lee Charter School proposal is causing educators and parents in Chapel Hill to pick sides, splitting a community that places a high value on public education.
As part of our American Graduate series, Dave DeWitt reports.
Dave DeWitt: By almost any measure, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools are the best in the state. The students there score the highest on tests, they earn awards and win academic contests. The district taxes more, and pays the most for their teachers. They offer Chinese immersion in elementary school and a wide array of AP courses in high school.
But one problem has been persistent, the achievement gap between white and black students. And that’s what Angela Lee wants to fix.
Angela Lee: We believe the students that we particularly want to see succeed really, really, really do their best and achieve their potential, may do better in the charter school environment.
Angela Lee is spearheading the effort to create the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Academy. It’s named after her parents. Howard was the first African-American mayor of Chapel Hill and is the former chair of the state school board – and why that’s important will be clear in a moment. Lillian spent three decades as an educator in the Chapel Hill public schools.
Angela Lee says parents in and around Chapel Hill are anxious for the charter school to open. But there are some in town who aren’t…
Rev. Robert Campbell: And I don’t see how taking that kind of money out of the school system would benefit the educational process here in Chapel Hill Carrboro.
Reverend Robert Campbell is with the Chapel Hill branch of the NAACP. He points out that the achievement gap has, in fact, narrowed in recent years in the district. African-American students in Chapel Hill also outperform African-American students throughout the state.
But Campbell’s concerns go beyond just test scores. He says if it opens with its goal of 400-plus students and most of them are African-American in the relatively small Chapel Hill-Carrboro School district it will create a two-tiered system along racial lines with white students in the public schools and Black students in the charter school.
Campbell: We are creating a free-standing institution that is creating a form of segregation.
When the Lee Charter School proposal first landed on Tom Forcella’s desk, he had a similar reaction. He’s been the superintendent in Chapel Hill for less than a year and worries what will happen if his budget loses 2-to-4 million dollars in per-pupil funding.
Tom Forcella: Will there be some savings because you’ll need less staff if that many students go? Some, but it doesn’t equate to the amount of money that we would probably lose.
The Chapel Hill schools may be forced to cut some longstanding and effective programs that serve minority and low-income students. And Forcella, who came here from Connecticut, also wonders why the system is designed to be so antagonistic.
Forcella: There’s never as part of the process, a preliminary conversation between the individuals who want to start a charter school and the public school.
Doing battle with the public schools and the NAACP is not what those behind the Lee Charter School say they want to be doing.
Danita Mason-Hogans is on the school’s Board of Directors. She says the school will not target just African-American children.
Danita Mason-Hogans: We don’t want African-American, white, students or anyone else to say in a public school system that isn’t working for them. For us, the larger issue and the bigger picture is offering an alternative for those students.
The topic of possible segregation didn’t come up when a State School Board committee discussed fast-track approval for the Lee Charter School last month. The members were more concerned with how the school would build a new building in just five months in Chapel Hill – a notoriously difficult place to build. And they also asked questions about the for-profit company that will manage the school – National Heritage Academies.
But even those concerns are unlikely to overcome politics.
Howard Lee once sat where they are now, on the State Board of Education and he still wields tremendous influence. Enough that a charter school bearing his name very likely will be approved when the full Board votes on March first.
How the school and the fight to get it started will affect Howard Lee’s legacy, is less certain.