Fresh Start: Charter School Moves Ahead
A new year is a fresh start for STARS, offering opportunity to move past the uncertainty that surrounded the charter school last year.
Since students returned to the classroom Aug. 25, Principal Wes Graner has been a busy guy.
Before heading out to begin teacher observations Thursday morning, Graner said the beginning of his first full year at the school looks promising as he and teachers work to get back to the school’s main focus — serving students through arts-integrated learning.
“It feels really good to watch that be clearly what everyone is after,” he said. “It makes you feel like you’ve got all the right people to work with you and do the right thing for the kids.”
The potential revocation of STARS’ charter was a major fear that loomed over the school last year, when low academic scores and discord among the school’s board of directors prompted the N.C. Department of Instruction (DPI) to place the school on governance probationary status.
The board was placed on probation for not complying with the state open meetings law and for perceived violations of the school’s own charter. Members spent most of last year operating under a consent order issued by Superior Court Judge James M. Webb following a lawsuit lodged between previous board members.
To remain open, the board had to become compliant in its governance and the school’s finances, and the school had to show significant improvement on end-of-grade tests last year.
The school earned the chance to remain open for another year when students demonstrated significant academic growth on end-of-grade tests, improving 7.5 points to have 66.3 percent of its students performing at or above grade level.
With a brand new set of members operating on a compliant board and the school’s improved academic performance on end-of-grade tests, DPI took the school off probation in July.
Graner said that so far, most of the feedback he has received from parents has been positive — a sentiment he attributes to the fact that the school is in good standing with the state and STARS is on track to receive a new charter this year.
“There’s not anything swirling around them right now,” Graner said. “I think that makes them feel comfortable. Everything is going alright with their child’s education. I think the feedback’s been really positive. The students are enjoying using some of the newer things that we have. I feel like everyone feels like they’re in a good place, which is all I ask for.”
Graner has also overseen the implementation of new technology at the school, including DualBoards, interactive whiteboards, in each K-2 classroom, and interactive handheld tablets connecting to an LCD screen for classrooms in grades three through eight, along with the standardization of the school’s technology infrastructure, which needed some organization.
“We’re still fine tuning it and trying to get the most opportune set up,” he said. “But it’ll be a really nice thing once we get everything set up.”
Graner hopes the upgrades will help streamline the process for teachers as they try to bring more technological elements into the classroom.
“Besides that, everything else is just normal teaching and learning,” he said.
In a few weeks, students will present their “informances” — short productions performed in front of the student body that showcase what students have learned so far this year.
Susan Hand’s fifth-grade class is preparing to perform another 1700s Colonial re-enactment, with students building a Colonial village and performing the roles of citizens living in that time period.
The school is also working closely with the A+ Schools Program, an education reform organization that promotes arts-integrated instruction and is overseen by the N.C. Arts Council.
Before the school year started, the staff at STARS participated in a staff development session with A+ to focus on how to integrate the arts into instruction so that classes still follow North Carolina's standard curriculum.
Graner said A+ will continue to help teachers throughout the school year with more workshops that will help the school prepare for the transition to the common core curriculum that the state plans to adopt next year.
“They’re focusing on that as well as how to continue fully integrating art into the curriculum,” he said.
Graner has also spent a lot of time helping the school’s six new teachers become a part of the STARS community.
“It’s been a lot of just trying to indoctrinate them into the school and all the different things that we do,” he said. “This school is unique and has a focus different from anywhere else.”
He added that because some of them are first-year teachers, they need to have a strong foundation bolstered by their colleagues through mentor relationships.
“You have to spend a lot of time and support them,” Graner said.
With those relationships, veteran and newly minted teachers learn from each other, which Graner says provides opportunity for even better instruction.
“The staff has just ate them up,” he said. “There’s a ton of energy.”
‘Focused on Kids’
In addition to a fresh start, the school anticipates receiving a renewed charter from the State Board of Education next year.
STARS expects a site visit from DPI in October or November, and the newly formed N.C. Public Charter School Advisory Council will decide in December whether or not to recommend that the State Board of Education approve a new charter for the school.
The council was created with the passage of charter school legislation lifting the cap on charter schools in June.
The council will make recommendations on charter policies for adoption by the State Board of Education and monitor charter school operations, as well as determine grounds for charter revocation.
DPI consultant Joel Medley has spent a lot of time working with STARS over the past year as the school worked to get into compliance with the state.
After a recent board training session, Medley said he was confident in the board’s progress moving forward.
“The board has a completely different spirit about it than where it was at this time a year ago,” he said. “It seems like they’ve got the right things in mind that they’re trying to do, and they understand that academics are the most important thing to focus on, particularly for this year. They asked a lot of good questions about how to change some of their practices and things they need to do.”
Medley added that the charter renewal process for the school is on track, but the new Charter School Advisory Council is just getting started as an operating body.
“The new N.C. Public Charter School Advisory Council is going to be hearing these renewals, and their first meeting is in October, just to get together for the first time,” Medley said. “We can’t turn around and have them do that when we haven’t provided any kind of training. So, it looks like they’ll look at these in December, and it will go to the state board in January or February. A decision could come as late as March.”
Graner said the enthusiasm at STARS this year is palpable.
“It feels good walking around and talking to parents,” he said.
Graner said he hopes he and his staff can channel that energy into something significant for students as the school moves forward.
“Everyone’s very focused on the kids,” he said. “That’s what everybody shares, and it”s been really good.”
Contact Hannah Sharpe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story