Education

A low-performing virtual charter school seeks permission to grow

Should a charter school that’s performed poorly be allowed to grow?

That’s the question State Board of Education (SBE) member James Ford asked Wednesday during a board discussion about N.C. Virtual Academy’s (NCVA) request to increase its enrollment by 20 percent next school year.

“My primary concern is, until something has proven to be successful, why do you want to expand it?” Ford said in an interview.

NCVA, one of the state’s two virtual charter schools, currently enrolls 2,425 students. It wants to increase enrollment by 20 percent – 485 students — despite receiving a “D” on the state’s school grading system the past three years.

Students attending NCVA have never met academic growth goals. The school is also on the state’s list of continually low-performing schools.

The SBE is expected to vote on the NCVA request when it meets this morning.

NCVA and N.C. Connections Academy opened their doors in 2015. Neither school has performed well.

Under the pilot legislation that created them, enrollment was capped at 1,500 students the first year.

After the initial year, both schools were allowed to grow by 20 percent a year up to a maximum student enrollment of 2,592 in the fourth year of the pilot.

Ford’s question about allowing low-performing charter to expand is similar to those asked by critics last year when state lawmakers extended the pilot four years. The pilot now run through the 2022-23 school year.

The pilot legislation that established the schools also gave the SBE the authority to waive the maximum student enrollment threshold, beginning in the fourth year of the school’s operation “if the State Board determines that doing so would be in the best interest of North Carolina students.”

State law also permits low-performing charter schools to grow annually up to 20 percent.

Dave Machado, director of the Office of Charter Schools, offered state law and the fact the schools are part of a pilot program as among the reasons the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board (NCCSAB) unanimously recommended NCVA be allowed to add students.

Machado said the NCCSAB and the Office of Charter School have attempted to treat the two virtual charters the same as traditional charters, which are allowed to grow even if they are deemed low-performing.

But Ford argued that the two virtual charters are not the same as traditional charters because of the experimental nature of the programs.

“They’re in an experimental phase without a proven record of success,” Ford said. “That’s just hard for me to compute.”

Machado acknowledged that charters sometimes struggle in the first five years.

“When they get to five [years] and above … schools that have been around a little longer, their data is much stronger. They understand what they’re doing. They do a better job at it. They make any adjustments they need to make.”

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