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charter school facilities Archives - North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools

Permanence, postponed: A charter facility built on personal loans and delay

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Situated on 11 acres in Asheville, North Carolina, the Franklin School of Innovation offers families a charter school experience amid sweeping vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The school, which launched a decade ago, serves 700 students in grades 5-12, melding real-world learning with soft skills and character education. It’s working: Accolades are rolling in. In 2023, FSI garnered “Best of Asheville” awards in middle, high, and charter school categories. This year, it ranks among the state’s top 20 charter high schools.

It’s all happening in a facility that’s beautiful, commodious—and new.

Is FSI an archetypal school success story? Surely, in some ways it is. But it’s also a story of obstacles overcome. “There were so many opportunities where it totally could have fallen apart,” Michelle VruwinkFSI’s founder and executive director, says of the school’s start.

Finding an initial facility to lease was arduous. “Everybody said no,” says Vruwink.

Funding a facility was even more challenging. In North Carolina, public charter schools receive no facility funds, unlike district schools. Instead, charters must cobble together funds from loans, grants, operating dollars, and other sources. That can push leaders to the point of extremity. “I took a second mortgage on my house and made a loan” to fund modular classrooms early on, Vruwink says. Two board members provided personal loans.

Temporary spaces and years-long construction projects followed. The school’s 10th year, 2023, marked the first time students were all together in one building.

From concept paper to charter school

FSI began with a concept paper Vruwink wrote herself. She envisioned a school that would provide an engaging, equitable education—but could help resolve her own parenting dilemma. In middle school, her son had shifted from an engaged, happy student to “not wanting to go to school at all,” Vruwink says. Other parents of adolescents voiced similar sentiments. “Nobody was really thriving,” says Vruwink.

Moreover, external factors seemed favorable for a charter launch. Asheville had no charter high schools, and state lawmakers had removed the 100-school cap. Vruwink saw an open door.

Securing approval was easy, but start-up was difficult. “None of us was connected to money or sources of funding,” Vruwink says.

Fortunately, a local philanthropy, the Glass Foundation, agreed to purchase 11 acres of land and lease it back to FSI. The foundation also provided a grant to fund the lease. But the land was undeveloped and preparing it for modulars was costlier than expected. Reluctantly, Vruwink returned to the foundation, and its leaders agreed to an interest-free loan.

But there was another problem: Modulars wouldn’t be ready for FSI’s August 2014 opening. With one month to go, Vruwink signed a lease for a vacant preschool building, housing the 6th and 7th graders. Nearby, a local university’s satellite campus could accommodate the older students.

Conditions that first year were far from optimal. “We had tiny preschool toilets for our middle school students!” remembers Vruwink. At the university campus, teachers packed up classrooms daily.

Early finances were tenuous. “We didn’t have any money other than those loans from board members to get us through until that October drop of [state] funds,” says Vruwink.

A bank loan, a bond, and a building 

Circumstances began to turn, albeit slowly. The land gained value, and Vruwink won a federal start-up grant award. “By the end of that first year, we were able to retire the loans that everybody had made, and we had some critical cashflow,” she says. The next year, students moved to modulars on FSI’s land.

Five years in, school leaders were ready to begin building a permanent facility. But procuring a bank loan was like déjà vu. Again, “everybody said no to us,” says Vruwink. Banks were risk-averse and ill-informed, she says. “Their favorite line is, ‘What if [lawmakers] change the law and there are no charter schools next year?’”

Determined, Vruwink hired a consultant, who helped FSI access an $8 million bank loan. The school began construction on first floor offices, classrooms, and a multi-purpose space. The building’s second level would have to wait.

During FSI’s seventh year, Vruwink took a cold call from an organization offering bond financing. The bank loan, topping out at $10 million, would allow her to finish the second floor—but she couldn’t build the gymnasium. Vruwink believed FSI could afford both. So, she moved forward with a bond, wrapping construction during the school’s ninth year.

What does Vruwink wish lawmakers and the public knew about charter facility financing? “It’s just so hard,” she says. “It takes away from our ability to invest in our educational programs. I had to learn how to write a bond. We did it all ourselves.”

After nearly a decade of temporary or unfinished structures, the new and finished building is a powerful emblem of stability. “It gives a sense of permanence that helps people feel more secure,” Vruwink says.

 You feel real. You have a building you can be proud of.”

 

Photo credits: Franklin School of Innovation.

Despite long waitlists, NC charter school growth is flatlining. Why?

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There’s a puzzling paradox for public education in North Carolina right now. This past year, charter schools reported over 85,000 students on waitlists. But when school opens for the 2024-25 school year in August, there will be no increase in the number of charter schools. Veteran education reporter Ann Doss Helms, who noted the shift following more than a decade of steady growth trend data, has written about flat growth in a new WFAE story. This year, she writes, will be the first with no increase in the number of charter schools since lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap back in 2011.

Why is that?

Charter school facilities are hard to find and fund

Flat charter school growth is due to a couple of converging factors. First, state leaders closed two charter schools this year, and only two new charter schools are opening in August. Those two schools, which received final approval to open at last week’s Charter Schools Review Board meeting, are American Leadership Academy-Monroe (K-8 charter school in Monroe) and Riverside Leadership Academy (K-7 charter school in New Bern).

Still, any simple recounting of closures and openings does not capture the full story. Seven other charter schools were originally slated to open in 2024, and all of those schools ended up requesting a delay year. As others have noted, it has become increasingly difficult to open a charter school. Why? For many charter schools, finding and funding a facility is the single most challenging obstacle—and it is much harder than it needs to be.

We’ll cover much more around facility challenges in the coming months, but parents and other charter supporters who care about charter growth need to understand the gravity of the problem and how it’s impacting the charter movement. Unlike district schools, North Carolina charter schools–which are also freepublic, and open to all students–do not receive any separate facility funding. Instead, they must pay for their own facilities through loans, grants, operating funds, or other sources.

Lindalyn Kakadelis, the Coalition’s executive director, outlined the dilemma for the state’s charter sector:

Unfortunately, the number of North Carolina charter schools next year will stay flat for the first time since 2011, when lawmakers removed the 100-school cap. No growth stands in direct opposition to what the state’s parents want. The best measures of unmet demand, charter school waitlists show more families than ever want access to a charter school for their child. Yet outdated and unfair policies are making it harder for new schools to find and finance facilities. That fixable problem, and not a decline in demand, is why we will see no growth in the number of schools for 2024-25.

Other states aren’t waiting to act. Nevada lawmakers recently established a $100 million revolving loan fund managed by the State Infrastructure Bank (with $15 million in public dollars and another $85 million from private philanthropy partners) to provide charters with facilities loans. Five other states have revolving loan programs “that self-replenish by using interest and principal payments from one loan to make new loans to other charter schools,” notes the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in a state policy snapshot. It’s a great model for North Carolina to consider as well.

 

Q&A with Charter Trailblazer Jason Wray

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Meet Charter Trailblazer Jason Wray

A 20-year U.S. Army veteran, Dr. Jason Wray is the superintendent of Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy, North Carolina’s only public charter military school. Prior to coming to Paul R. Brown, Dr. Wray served for eight years as the principal of East Bladen High School.

 Located in Elizabethtown, Paul R. Brown opened in 2013 and serves 200 students from five counties. In addition to its unique status as a military charter school, Paul R. Brown is a funding trailblazer: Last month, Bladen County commissioners approved the school’s request for $70,000 to renovate the gymnasium, making Paul R. Brown the first N.C. charter school to receive facility funds by direct appropriation from county commissioners. Such funding is possible because of a new law—the outcome of a strong advocacy push from the Coalition—that allows county commissioners to provide facility funds to charter schools.

 Kristen Blair, the Coalition’s communications director, spoke with Dr. Wray about how charter schools can optimize success with facility funding requests, impacts of the new law for the charter movement, and more. We include the full Q&A below.

You’re a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army and the former principal of East Bladen High School. What drew you to a public charter school?

Dr. Jason Wray is the superintendent of Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy in Elizabethtown. Photo credit: Jason Wray.

Jason Wray: East Bladen is about eight miles from Paul R. Brown. I’ve known Colonel Lloyd [Paul R. Brown’s founder] for about ten years. I graduated both of his boys from East Bladen High School. So, when the opportunity arrived to move to Paul R. Brown, it just felt right for me to do that. I had been at East Bladen for eight years, so the time to move was kind of ideal. I fit right in, with my military background and a military school.

Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy serves an economically disadvantaged student population—and it’s the state’s first and only public charter military school. Tell me about your vision for this school and the students you serve.   

Jason: The vision is to give the students the opportunity to be successful. We provide transportation to the students; we go to their doorstep and pick them up for school. Parents appreciate that. We serve five counties: Bladen, Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson, and Columbus. That’s huge to cover such a wide area and bring 200 kids to this school every day. That’s something that most won’t tackle, but we’re willing to do that to give kids a chance to be successful.

How does the military school structure help instill character traits such as integrity, honor, and self-discipline?

 Jason: It helps get kids on track. For a lot of kids at Paul R. Brown, their parents bring them here because of a reason: They’re not interested in school; they don’t want to attend school. But one thing I tell the teachers and the staff is, “Don’t mistake behavior for ability.” Just because a kid gets in trouble doesn’t mean that kid doesn’t have the ability to succeed and do well in school.

That was Jason Wray: I got in trouble, and I didn’t do well in school. But things change and people change, and mindsets change. So, that was one of the things that drew me here—to give the kids a second, third, fourth, or even fifth chance to be successful.

Let’s cover another first: Paul R. Brown is the first North Carolina charter school to receive county facility funds. In an historic first for the state’s charter movement, Bladen County commissioners voted last month to allocate $70,000 in county funds to renovate Paul R. Brown’s 75-year-old gymnasium. What does this mean for your school?

Jason: The funny part about it is I really didn’t set out to be the first. Once the law was passed [allowing county commissioners to allocate funds for charter facilities] through the General Assembly, I thought … there probably wasn’t a chance to do anything this year. But I was working on the gym and trying to set aside some funds to do that, so I reached out first to the Office of Charter Schools. They directed me back to Lindalyn [the Coalition’s executive director]. I called her and said, “This is what I want to try and do.” She gave me some tips and ideas for how to approach it.

It was really about what kind of relationship we had with the county commissioners. Are you a stranger asking them for $70,000, or are you someone they know has put in work in the community and offered assistance financially? Paul R. Brown does a lot of community events, we post colors at the town council meetings, and we have great relationships with local businesses. There are nine county commissioners [in Bladen County], and I think for five or six of them I have graduated their kids or grandkids from East Bladen.

So, I could walk in there, and they could see a familiar face and we could have personal conversations. That was part of the battle. Then, I had to understand how to put together a product that convinced them to support us. Because again, it had to be something they voted to support; it wasn’t required by law.

What we did was lay out a plan to show that we put a lot of financial support into Bladen County. I laid out all of the vendors. Over the last 18 months since I’ve been here, we’ve spent $783,000 just on Bladen County [vendors] alone. We all know county commissioners are about the purse. We wanted to show them we were really investing in this community, and we needed some help to get this gym renovated so our parents, kids, and community could be proud.

That data about the vendors, and every dime we spent on them, was a huge selling point. They were really impressed by it, and I think that turned a corner for us.

What could this new flexibility for facilities funding mean for the state’s charter movement?

Jason: A lot of the charter schools across the state have, like us, moved into pretty old buildings. That’s what was available, and you have to take what you can get. Right now, charter schools have to foot their own bill for facilities updates or renovations, and they just don’t have the funding to do those things.

Show the county commissioners that you’re doing great things in the community—helping and investing in the community. Work with commissioners on how you can invest in the community, not only financially, but also as a volunteer.

How would you characterize the opportunities ahead for North Carolina’s charter schools?

Jason: There’s a huge market for charter schools. Every day there’s a new kid coming through the doors at Paul R. Brown. Parents are seeing value in smaller classroom sizes and the personal touch that a charter school can bring to education.

When I was on the public [district] side, I never saw that.  Now being on the charter side, you see the advantage with your child needing a smaller, more personal setting—parents can pick up the phone and call the charter superintendent or school director to have a conversation. You don’t get those things on the public district side unless something is going wrong. There’s a huge advantage for charter schools. That’s why charters are growing the way they are, because parents are now turning to a small classroom and school setting for their child.

What do you see as some key or ongoing challenges ahead?

Jason: When you come to a charter school, most folks in the building wear four or five hats. I’m the director, the superintendent, and the data manager; I also drive school buses. That’s true for everybody in this building. You have to wear multiple hats to be successful in a charter school. You don’t have the resources of 40-50 people on your staff to get things done. But the state still requires you to get those things done. In that, lies the difference. That’s my main takeaway in moving from a public [district] school administrator to a charter school administrator.

What do parents need to know about charter schools, and how can they work to help and advance the state’s charter movement?

Jason: Parents need to get more involved with the charter school and understand the process. There are a lot of misconceptions about charter schools. I even had some myself before I came over.

Public charter schools are held to the same expectations as regular public schools. They do the same end of grade tests and end of course tests. All of those things are required. There are no shortcuts for charters the way people assume there are.

I had a misconception that charter schools could do whatever they wanted to do—that they could spend money wherever they wanted to spend it. They’re required to follow those same structures. That’s important because that keeps charter schools in line and accountable for what they’re doing. I think that’s important for parents to understand and know.

What would you like Coalition members and other charter operators to know about you and your approach to leadership? And is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share? 

Jason: The main thing I would say is if you are a small charter school, you have to advertise—what you have available, what you do, what your mission is. If you don’t do those things, no one will ever know.

We go to five different counties. But none of our buses had Paul R. Brown written on them. We were in Cumberland County picking up kids, but parents didn’t know. So, we got the buses painted and put our name on them. And that’s when the kids really started to come. Other parents saw the military uniform and knew that child was doing better, so they said, “I’m going to go talk to that parent.” That’s how you get the word out.