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A group of charter school leaders spoke to the community about their vision of education at Healthy Start Academy in Durham Wednesday night. The panel, part of the Durham Charter Collaborative’s Community Leaders event, brought together representatives of Research Triangle High School, Carter Community Charter, Kestrel Heights Charter, Voyager Academy, Maureen Joy Charter School, and Central Park School for Children for a discussion about how charter schools operate and the diverse missions of their individual schools.

“We offer parents the choice to choose what’s best for them,” said LaManda Chestnut-Pryor, principal and executive director of Carter Community Charter School.

She spent 17 years in the traditional public education system and said that one of the eye-opening experiences for her was the realization that at Carter, she was free from the constraints that apply to regular schools. The school has a large population of Hispanic and African-American students, so it chose to focus on social and emotional learning. She said she did not have to sit down with a superintendent and seek permission to do so. She could just do what all the schools’ stakeholders thought was best.

“I was able to sit down with my teachers, my parents, my board, and we made the best choice for what was great for our school,” she said.

Mark Tracy, executive director of Kestrel Heights Charter School, echoed Chestnut-Pryor’s comments about autonomy. He also came from the traditional public school world, and he described what he saw there as a disconnect between the school, families, and the community when decisions were being made. At Kestrel, he said that’s different. 

“If something was going on, you could stop and address that situation and move in the right direction,” he said. 

Jennifer Lucas, managing director of Voyager Academy, said that when it was time for her four-year old to go to kindergarten, she started looking around at schools. Every school in her child’s zone was an A school, but she was still nervous.

“They were large and they were crowded and I thought: ‘This isn’t right for my kid,'” she said.

She checked out a charter school and eventually chose it. She became a parent volunteer and described the experience as being “like lightning.” By the end of the year, she left her corporate job and went back to school to become a teacher.

She said charter schools are just one possible option in the choice landscape. She has sent her kids to traditional public schools, charter schools, and private schools, depending on their needs and the available options.

At Voyager, she said she values her school’s ability to be “nimble.” Since the school started in 2008, she said it’s changed a lot, with the population of economically disadvantaged students, minority students, and students with disabilities growing rapidly. She said that, depending on their student population, the school adjusts operations to meet students’ needs.

Mark Bailey, principal and executive director of Maureen Joy Charter School, said running a charter school is a tremendous responsibility.

He said his school focuses on equity and access through three primary means: transportation, food, and language.

The school has 13 buses that go throughout Durham, provides free-and-reduced price lunch for its students — 88% of whom qualify — and school staff make sure that correspondence with families goes out in Spanish and English because the community has a large number of Latino families. 

“We certainly believe in school choice, and we believe in choice and responsibility,” he said. 

John Heffernan, director of Central Park School for Children, talked about how his school recognized that it was a potential vehicle for white flight and took steps to make sure it got more students of color in its doors.

In the 2012-13 school year, the population of the school was 18.3% black, 3.8% Hispanic, 1.5% Asian, and 71.2%  white. 

After the school’s efforts to change that, in 2017-18 the demographics were 27% black, 11% Hispanic, 2% Asian, and 48% white.

While the political conversation around charter schools often puts them at odds with traditional public schools, when it comes to supporting teachers, they often have much in common.

During the conversation, the topic turned to the teacher rally next Wednesday. Maureen Joy, Carter, and Central Park are all closing so that their teachers can participate. Research Triangle High School and Voyager are remaining open. Tracy didn’t explicitly say whether Kestrel Heights was going to be open or closed, but he said there had been a community discussion around the rally and teacher rights.

The Durham Charter Collaborative describes its mission as:

  • Increasing Democracy in Public School Systems
  • Improving Autonomy
  • Providing Increased Access to Quality Schools
  • Creating Homegrown Durham Schools
Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.