What’s next for charter schools in North Carolina? What impact will a new law converting the Charter Schools Advisory Board (CSAB) into a Charter Schools Review Board (CSRB)—with the authority to approve and renew charter schools—have on the broader charter movement? To answer these and other questions, the Coalition’s communications director, Kristen Blair, spoke with Hilda Parlér, a longtime educator and charter leader. Hilda is serving her third appointed term as a member of CSAB, now the Charter Schools Review Board.
A middle school math teacher for nearly three decades, Hilda is also the founder of two public charter schools: Wake Forest Charter Academy and Wake Preparatory Academy. She serves as the current board president for Wake Forest Charter Academy, which was named one of Raleigh’s best charter schools by the News & Observer in 2022. She is also the former board president of Wake Preparatory Academy. In addition, Hilda has served as a member of the NC ACCESS Equity Working Group. Created in 2018, the five-year NC ACCESS Program has distributed over $36 million in federal grants to charter schools, to remove enrollment barriers for educationally disadvantaged students.
We include the full Q&A below.
You began your career in education as a middle school math teacher in both public and private schools. What led you to the charter movement?
Hilda Parlér: It goes back 70 years to when I was a young girl, seven years old. I always wanted to start my own school because I loved numbers, loved my teachers, and loved going to school. I also used to teach my brothers and sisters when school was out. So, I practiced teaching quite a bit as a young girl!
When I retired on paper in 2013, after really seeing that many students were not getting a quality education and were falling through the cracks to no fault of their own, I researched and researched the possibility of opening a private or charter school. I decided to open a charter school because it would be tuition-free and still a public school, but non-traditional.
I started Wake Forest Charter Academy in 2014; it’s a K-8 school. The second one, Wake Preparatory Academy, a K-12 charter school, opened in 2022. They were my lifelong dream, realized with the help of many.
Given your experience as a charter school founder, how would you characterize the most essential components of a new charter school?
Hilda: Oh, I have such a long list! It ties in with the board, too, as well as the school itself. The founding board members must have a clear vision and mission and be committed to follow through, so that when the school opens successfully the mission aligns with what the school is promising to provide the families and students.
Schools, especially the administrators and the board, should have a working knowledge of charter school finance, accountability, federal programs, legislative updates, local and state [policies]—all of those areas that affect the school. Teacher retention is very important. Schools must make sure that they hire quality leaders and teachers, and ensure they have consistent teacher professional development opportunities so that they can grow, and bottom line, that their students will grow academically and socially. Involve parents where appropriate.
Leveraging your charter oversight and governance background, what would you share with charter superintendents and operators about optimizing their school’s operational and academic success?
Hilda: They must be very knowledgeable about charter school laws as well as federal, state, and local laws. They should be knowledgeable about the roles and responsibilities of the board and what they are held accountable for. The board holds the charter, and the buck stops with the board. So many times, I’ve heard some school administrators and operators say, “Our charter.” No, they have to know that the board holds the charter because the board applied for the charter. And superintendents or heads of schools must attend board meetings. Reports should be presented at the board meetings which include updates of their ADM [Average Daily Membership] by grade, the waitlist, updates on academics, special programs, teacher professional development sessions, teacher retention, student discipline cases, and any expulsions—all things about the school. And then of course, activities, assemblies, athletics, fine arts, and parent involvement.
In your view, how has the charter movement advanced educational opportunities for students, and what work still needs to be done to remove barriers for educationally disadvantaged students?
Hilda: I think it has advanced significantly overall. Most people think charter schools are not public schools. But the state report cards and other data prove that many of the charter school students have outperformed the students in the traditional public schools. Charter schools have been able to be innovative with instruction. That has made a marked difference in student proficiency and growth, too.
More of the charter schools are beginning to implement equity plans so that they will help students who are educationally disadvantaged to be successful. Schools are beginning to see the difference between equity and equality—and that using equity plans will enhance learning for all students. If we implement equity plans, it will reduce challenges for the education of educationally disadvantaged students, and ultimately, all students.
What are the opportunities ahead for North Carolina’s charter schools?
Hilda: Now that we have a Charter Schools Review Board, on which I sit, that can improve the process of boards to apply for charter schools. The CSRB will have the opportunity to approve—or not, of course—boards that have applied for charters. That will reduce the time that it takes for charter schools to open because there won’t be another level of approval. It will speed up the process greatly.
The Charter Schools Review Board members are affiliated with charter schools. There are founders on the board, board of directors [members], heads of schools or superintendents; some have children and grandchildren enrolled in charter schools. I think it will encourage more boards to apply for charter schools, thereby increasing the number of charter schools.
There has been a leveling off of applicants. I remember when the board applied in 2013, for Wake Forest Charter Academy, there were 79 applicants. Now, for [its upcoming meetings on] September 11-12, the state Charter Schools Review Board received 15 applications. So, that’s a huge drop. But I do believe, because we now have the Charter Schools Review Board, more boards will apply.
What are some key or ongoing challenges for the charter movement? You mentioned earlier that many people believe charter schools are not public schools. Is messaging one of the challenges?
Hilda: Well, that, number one, is on my list! There will always be people who do not know the difference, or they choose not to express the difference [between public charter schools and traditional public schools]. So, we have to find ways so that they are not misinformed. Sometimes the media can throw a monkey wrench into the situation. [It would be good] if we could ever get to that point where people realize a fact is a fact—that charter schools are public schools, but non-traditional. A lot of people think we are private, because of uniforms to an extent. No. They say we’re taking money away from the public schools. Number one: We are public. Number two: We get 37 percent less for each kid to operate. Charter schools operate with less and get more positive results.
A lot of people don’t think charter schools are held accountable. In essence, we’re held more accountable because our schools can be closed if they are low performing for a certain length of time. That does not happen in the traditional public school sector.
As you know, House Bill 618, Charter Schools Review Board, is now law. This new law converts the Charter Schools Advisory Board into the Charter Schools Review Board, with authority to grant charter approvals and renewals. Could you share your perspective on how this shift could impact the charter approval process in our state as well as the broader charter movement?
Hilda: I strongly believe it will cause more boards to apply for charters, the charter movement will stay alive, and we will have far more applications resulting in an increase of charter schools. It will speed up the process. And it takes the politics out of the process, being that the CSRB [members] are pro-charter schools, while keeping the bottom line in mind always that schools are for children.
Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share?
Hilda: I will always do what I can to give our children the quality education they need and deserve, with equity. I remain the Voice4schoolchoice!