STARS Students Improve on Test Scores
For the first time in a long time, the STARS community can finally breathe a sigh of relief and see glints of opportunity in its future.
Preliminary test results indicate that the charter school has performed well enough on its end-of-grade (EOG) tests to remain open for an additional year and continue the process of renewing its charter.
The early scores from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) show that 66 percent of STARS students are performing at or above grade level, and the school made high academic growth for the 2010-2011 year.
STARS principal Wes Graner shared the testing results with the school’s board of directors at a meeting last week.
“That’s what the state wanted at a bare minimum,” he told the board. “It keeps us safe, and it gives us another year to continue to improve.”
Last year, STARS missed proficiency by 1.2 percentage points, scoring 58.8 percent.
The results will not be official until the State Board of Education approves them, but the news is music to the ears of students, teachers and parents at STARS, who have endured despite so much uncertainty surrounding the school’s future.
The potential revocation of STARS’ charter has loomed over the school since last July, when low test scores paired with a dispute among the Board of Directors prompted DPI to place the board on governance probationary status.
In order to maintain its charter, STARS, like all other N.C. charter schools, must demonstrate compliance in its board governance, academics and finances. The board was placed on probation for not complying with the state’s open meetings law and for perceived violations in the school’s own charter.
Both the board and the school have come a long way since last summer.
The controversy that culminated in a lawsuit among its members just before the start of school has died down, and the board has spent most of the year operating under a consent order issued by Superior Court Judge James M. Webb.
In January, Graner took over as principal after then-principal Sue Kemple resigned. In March, the school transferred its accounting services to Acadia NorthStar, which has rectified some problems with the school’s finances.
The board has gradually rotated off its veteran members, with Steven George and teacher representative Cathy Buchan ending their terms this month.
DPI is expected to take the board off of its probationary status July 1.
The board also plans to hold a strategic planning meeting in July to get organized for the next school year.
With governance and finances in order, academic compliance was the last thing to check off the list.
Board Chairwoman Sandy Lampros said Thursday that the improved scores are a testament to how hard everyone at STARS has worked to keep the school open amid so much scrutiny.
“[STARS] has taken a mountain and truly climbed it,” Lampros said. “I had every confidence that the teachers, the students and Wes would accomplish this. I knew they were on the right path. Those kids were focused.”
She added that the students’ motivation to perform on the tests was driven by the desire to be a part of the student-run, end-of-the-year production, “Footloose.”
Students did not officially begin rehearsing for the production until after testing was over, but they were still able to put together a successful show in a short time.
Lampros said the show’s success demonstrated the level of cooperation and dedication present among teachers and students at STARS.
“[That teamwork] was the most astounding thing between the teachers and the students that you are ever going to see,” she said. “It seals the reason why we have got to keep the funding for [the arts]. That’s what makes this school a totally unique place.”
Though the future seems brighter for STARS, the school, like all other public schools in the state, must still absorb budget cuts.
Tom Williams, of Acadia NorthStar, outlined the school’s financial outlook for the coming year Thursday, describing the financial forecast as a “perfect storm” thanks to the loss of federal stimulus funds, state budget cuts and the school’s arts programs, which cost the school an additional $140,000 a year.
Williams projected a 7 percent funding shortfall for the school next year, due to a reduction in per pupil funding. He recommended that the board dip into the school’s fund balance to accommodate the shortfall, instead of cutting positions that are already stretched thin and given that the school is working to improve academics.
Williams credited the organization of finances and Graner’s ability to bring in roughly $90,000 in grants in a short amount of time to the board’s ability to end the year with a general fund balance of roughly $661,000, which it will use as a rainy day fund to accommodate any additional funding shortfalls.
Graner said the school’s commitment to the arts doesn’t have to be compromised by the drive to bring up test scores or make budget cuts. He added that the additional cost of providing arts programs shouldn’t be viewed as a financial disadvantage because the school is about the arts in education.
He thinks the key to success at STARS is to strike a balance between the arts and academics to make sure that one doesn’t compromise the other.
“You don’t do either one at the expense of the other,” he said. “The minute that one begins to supercede the other, problems can arise.”
Graner stressed that “growth” through increased enrollment and investments in technology will help STARS move forward.
He pointed to next year’s average daily membership projection, which is five students more than last year’s, at 273 students.
“It’s a small increase, but we’re better than we were,” he said. “If you can get your school capped out, that deficit wouldn’t be quite so large.”
The school has seen a lot of interest from parents hoping to enroll their children next year. Kindergarten already has a waiting list.
He told the board that the school has to act now to make more technology resources available for teachers and students in order to promote, not inhibit, the school’s arts-integrated curriculum.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Graner said. “It’s things that we have to start doing as a school regardless. Growing your way out is the key.”
Contact Hannah Sharpe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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