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Baker Mitchell’s charter school, Douglass Academy, receives warning for low enrollment

The state’s Office of Charter Schools issued a warning letter to Douglass Academy in Wilmington, whose enrollment numbers fall far short of the state’s minimum requirement of 65 — and if numbers don’t go up, the school’s charter could be revoked.

Founder of Douglass Academy, charter school operator Baker Mitchell, manages a total of three three charter schools in North Carolina through his ‘Roger Bacon Academy’ —  and he is hoping to open a fourth charter school this fall.

From the Star News in Wilmington:

Douglass Academy opened in August 2013 and has kindergarten and first- and second-grade students. Originally, the school was geared toward students living in low-income and public housing units, such as Jervay, Hillcrest, Houston Moore and Greenfield Village. Original plans were to build a new school along South 13th and Greenfield streets or to rent the old Lakeside High School building. But neither of those options worked, and the school decided to rent and renovate the Peabody Center at North Sixth and Red Cross streets.

Mitchell said the school’s struggles to find a building confused some parents who had originally enrolled their children in the school.

“We got tied up with a facility issue and really didn’t have a designated location until about four weeks before school started,” Mitchell said. “We wound up not making enrollment.”

That caused the state to place the school on governance cautionary status, which is the first step in a three-level warning system. The school has 30 days to correct its problems, according to state Board of Education policy. If it makes the corrections, the status is removed. If it fails to correct the issue, the school moves up to governance probationary status, the second warning.

Mitchell said all of Douglass Academy’s 33 students had re-enrolled for next school year and 63 new students had also enrolled.

“We should start off next year with a minimum of 96 students,” he said.

Douglass Academy officials will be required to go before the Office of Charter Schools and the N.C. Charter School Advisory Council on Monday to explain the low enrollment numbers.

Baker Mitchell also sits on the N.C. Charter School Advisory Council, the body tasked with reviewing charter school applications and making recommendations to the State Board of Education for which applicants should be green lighted to open charter schools.

Last week, local lawmakers and community leaders got a tour of Douglass Academy that was sponsored by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. AFP aimed to showcase alternative education possibilities now that the cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in the state has been lifted. Americans for Prosperity head John Dudley was unaware the school was under a warning.

Mitchell, who has collected in the neighborhood of $16 million in taxpayer funds over the past five years for managing the two other charter schools in southeastern North Carolina, is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General. Details of the case have not been made public.

Edward Pruden, Superintendent for Brunswick County Schools, theorizes that the investigation has to do with improper enrollment practices. Boosting enrollment numbers would direct more state funding to Mitchell’s charter schools.

“According to information Brunswick County Schools received, the basis of the alleged investigation was that Charter Day School … used improper means to encourage homeschooled and private school students to enroll during the first few days of school to increase the average daily membership,” Pruden wrote in a letter he sent to the State Board of Education.

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