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PACE Academy has charter renewed

Alternative education at PACE Academy will get a second chance — which means several changes for the school in August.   

PACE is a charter school in Carrboro serving kids with all kinds of alternative learning needs, from minor cognitive impairments that require one-on-one attention to problems with concentration and assimilation in typical public schools.

As of June 27, the N.C. State Board of Education agreed to renew PACE's charter for another three years — three days before the school's doors were set to close permanently.  

"I think the most important thing for people to know is that we're open, and we're excited, and we're accepting applications for this coming year," said Jamie Bittner, PACE's transitions coordinator.

The Board of Education voted not to renew PACE's charter in February after the Office of Charter Schools discovered the school had several non-compliance issues, including not testing enough of its students, not increasing enrollment and not showing enough growth by North Carolina's test performance standards. 

The school filed a petition contesting the board's decision, citing school administrators were willing and had begun to solve the problems the Office of Charter Schools had brought to light. PACE also claimed the Office of Charter Schools failed to communicate effectively with the school about those problems throughout the renewal process.

Joel Medley, director of the Office of Charter Schools, said that complaint did not contribute to the decision to renew PACE's charter. 

"Did we provide them with information that they were non-compliant? Yes. Did they know the areas in which they were non-compliant? Yes," he said. "Where did we get this information? From (PACE's) audits. Who pays for the audit? The school does. All we did is analyze the audit."

Medley said anytime a school's charter is not renewed and a petition is filed to contest the non-renewal, the first step is for the Board of Education and the board of the school to sit down and have an informal discussion.

In PACE's case, that discussion resulted in a settlement agreement between PACE and the Board of Education. The agreement renews PACE's charter but stipulates that the school must fix all of its current problems within three years. This means the case never had to formally go to court. 

"The board realizes that this is a unique population of students. We've heard from the administration and the board (of the school) that they would work to do better," Medley said. "If they do not do better in three years, this conversation will be a very different one."

The settlement agreement outlines several specific steps PACE must take to move toward compliance.

First, the school's board must hold a retreat in early August to devise a strategic plan covering the school's goals for each of the three years of its new charter.

"I get it, I totally understand, we need more oversight for the school," said Rhonda Franklin, PACE's principal.

Franklin said budget constraints mean charter schools operate on a lot of volunteer work, which has caused some of the problems with PACE's board.

The settlement agreement requires PACE increase its board's membership from five members to the state-required seven, meet monthly with an attorney present, publish minutes within five days of each meeting and elect a treasurer and secretary. PACE must also create a method for effectively and regularly evaluating its principal.

Weaknesses in PACE's financial and student accountability audits that caught the attention of the Office of Charter Schools are another factor. The agreement states PACE must keep better records that are fully accessible.

Finally, the school must test 95 percent of its students and meet growth standards for test performance.

Franklin said the nature of PACE's small size and alternative school environment is what has made it difficult to test enough students.

"At the end of the year, if I've got 20 kids scheduled for a test, it only takes a few to get below the 95 percent requirement. Some students know they're failing, and it counts as 20 percent, so some of them blow it off," she said. "We're going to look at incentives for those students to take the test."

PACE's administrators quickly penned a letter to all of their current students' families immediately after the good news was announced, Franklin said.

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"Almost immediately we had students coming in to apply. We need to get our numbers back where they need to be — we had families straddling the fence, and we need to make sure we're marketing and recruiting. We've got to rally up the troops," she said.

On the last day of school, Franklin said, seniors were worrying they would be PACE's last graduating class instead of basking in the usual end-of-year joy.

"We managed to keep the majority of the students. If they did leave, it had nothing to do with the non-renewal," she said. "They all stuck with us until the end."

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