Charter schools game changers for our children – Rhonda Dillingham

Rhonda Dillingham is the executive director of the NC Association for Public Charter Schools.
Rhonda Dillingham is the executive director of the NC Association for Public Charter Schools.

In a record-breaking year that saw national charter school enrollment surpass 3.2 million students, North Carolina is joining states across the country in celebrating National Charter Schools Week, May 7-11. North Carolina’s charter school movement – which serves 100,632 students across 173 schools – could not be possible without the fearless founders, trailblazing teachers, and parent partners willing to take a chance on doing something bold and new for students.

Charter schools are only as good as the people – the change makers – who are choosing charters every day. The teachers who are unleashed to lead their classroom to fit the needs of their students. The school administrators and principals who have the autonomy to create the school culture that will foster a safe, inclusive and academically stimulating learning environment. The families who rally around their kids and partner with their schools to make the most of their school experience. The advocates, local community leaders and elected leaders who stand up for their constituents who are demanding the high-quality education options for all students.

Courtney Samuelson, 2018 Charter Schools Teacher of the Year, is one of the 6,358 charter school teachers in North Carolina. She teaches at Capitol Encore Academy, an arts-based charter school in downtown Fayetteville. Ms. Samuelson says, “I appreciate the sense of pride I feel when I talk about my school. In the heart of historic downtown Fayetteville, we are an integral piece of the downtown business, non-profit, and arts community; but we aren’t a ‘neighborhood school’ – we pull from four surrounding towns and the military base here, creating a student population that is vibrant and diverse.” She appreciates that the small, independently run charter structure creates a special place for her as a teacher, affording more leadership opportunities and instructional challenges to grow professionally by integrating the arts in innovative ways.

Charter schools are unique public schools created to fill a need within a community, and as public schools, they are always tuition-free. These schools are game-changers for a student’s future.

Leticia Tuset is a senior at Research Triangle High School in Durham. Recently awarded the prestigious UNC-CH Morehead-Cain Scholarship, Tuset, asserts that attending the charter school gave her the confidence she needed. Assigned to attend Raleigh’s Millbrook High, which has over 2,000 students, Tuset chose to attend the charter school instead because of its smaller class size.

Tuset shared: “Large schools aren’t for everybody. Charter schools offer that personalized, one-on-one experience.”

Families choose charter schools because they are looking for the best academic program that meets the needs of their children. In 2016, two national surveys found that, on average, charter school parents are more satisfied with their children’s schools than are district-school parents. A survey found that 78 percent of parents support having a charter public school open in their neighborhood, with 73 percent in support of more charter schools opening nationwide. With over 50,000 names on North Carolina’s charter school waiting lists, clearly parents are clamoring for options.

North Carolina’s public charter schools face many challenges, the greatest of which is funding. Unlike district schools, charter schools do not receive funding for facilities, buses or food. Although offering transportation and providing meals is optional, many school leaders have chosen to implement these programs because of students’ needs. This puts a tremendous strain on the schools’ budgets.

To offset the costs of transportation, a pilot program was established to award grants to certain charter schools for certain transportation expenses. Fortunately, there is interest in expanding this program during the legislative short session which convenes on May 16.

Currently, in order to be eligible, charter schools must have enrollment of at least 50 percent students who qualify for free and reduced priced lunch, and “eligible student transportation costs” are limited to transportation fuel, vehicle maintenance and contracted transportation services.

Under a new proposal that will likely be considered later this month, the Program would be extended for the 2018-19 school year, and the definition of eligible student transportation costs would be amended to include transportation personnel salaries. In addition, eligibility requirements would be extended to charter schools with student enrollment of at least 38 percent students qualifying for subsidized meals or otherwise identified students under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Finally, the funding available to the Program would increase from $2.5 million in the 2017-18 school year to $3.65 million in the 2018-19 school year.

Ultimately, the best way to understand what charter schools are all about is to visit one and meet the extraordinary people inside. I would like to invite our legislators to see inspiring student achievement in action, especially at any of the eight charter high schools the U.S. News and World Report lists among the 20 best high schools in the state. Then, it will be clear why these special people are devoted to their public charter schools.

Happy National Charter Schools Week!

Rhonda Dillingham is the executive director of the NC Association for Public Charter Schools.