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"This law is about blaming teachers and principals"

As a program designed to close the racial achievement gap and increase school choice, No Child Left Behind might expect a friendly audience among black parents who are wary of traditional public schools.

But in North Carolina's predominantly black charter schools -- schools of choice that already serve minority children -- some parents and principals fear the new federal program will eliminate the choices they prefer.

"I'm not so sure this law is about leaving no child behind," said Jackie M'Buru, principal of SPARC Academy in Raleigh. "I think this law is about blaming teachers and principals who need more support. If you say you need more help, the answer is: 'Get better or we'll shut you down.'"

SPARC Academy is one of 22 charter schools statewide, including nine in the Triangle, with enrollments that are more than 90 percent African-American. Only 23 percent of those schools met the tough new federal standards required by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Charter schools with white enrollments of more than 90 percent fared much better. Of the 20 such schools statewide, three of which are in the Triangle, more than 80 percent met the standards.

Charters are free public schools that operate independently of
traditional school districts and often have unique programs. There are 93 charter schools in North Carolina, enrolling about 21,000 students. Roughly half the schools met the federal standards, preliminary state results show.

The large disparity between mostly black and mostly white schools is certain to refocus a discussion about whether the state should close poorly performing black schools. State officials have been loath to close such schools during the charter program's six-year run, knowing that minority parents often choose the schools because their children were struggling in traditional classrooms.

"We have never closed a charter school on academic grounds, but No Child Left Behind does set the stage for that to happen," said state schools Superintendent Mike Ward. "Hopefully, it won't come to that."

The state has provided charters with some flexibility within the ABCs accountability program that allowed them to keep operating.

The No Child Left Behind law does not allow the state to make exceptions on meeting academic standards. That lack of flexibility may ultimately force the state to revoke some charters.

Parents who send their children to the charters say they want the
schools to remain open.

"I know when my child is making progress," said Donna Price, whose son Jared Holloway is an eighth-grader at Carter Community School in Durham. "I don't need state and federal school programs to tell me if my kids are getting what they need."

Carter Community was one of five predominantly African-American schools statewide that met its federal goals. It rallied after state officials threatened to close the school if it didn't improve after three years of unusually poor test scores.

"It was the state warning that really concerned us, but we knew the federal standards also mattered," Principal Becky Sterling said. "That's why we turned our focus to the testing program months in advance, right after Christmas."

Sterling said she would like to see the school reduce its emphasis on testing and return to its original idea of helping children succeed on a broad variety of fronts.

"But it was very naive of us to think we could do that right away," she said. "It came down to getting our test scores in order first."

But other charter school operators said they are less willing -- or even able -- to dramatically refocus their missions for the sake of better test scores.

Omuteko Gwamaziima charter school in Durham offers an African-centered curriculum that has attracted 87 students, all of whom are black.

"People know what we offer, and that's why they send their children here," said Yvette Walker, director of the program. "We know we are not achieving at the level we want to, but if we change our curriculum, we change who we are. We take that choice away from parents."

Those who did meet the standards of No Child Left Behind agreed that reducing parents' choices isn't likely to solve the larger problem of improving minority achievement.

"Choice and public schools can work together just fine," said Dietrich Danner , principal of Healthy Start Academy in Durham. "We shouldn't beat up a school because they didn't make it. We should ask if they have what they need to succeed while they are offering choice. Berating a school and closing it down doesn't increase choice."

— Tim Simmons
Law Threatens Some Schools
Raleigh News & Observer

July 30, 2003


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