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Lawmakers tackle virtual charters and licensure woes

The Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee tackled a number of education topics at its meeting one day before the start of the special session. 

Withdrawals decline at North Carolina Virtual Academy

Editor’s Note: The state’s two virtual charter schools are separate and distinct from the NC Virtual Public School.


Joel Medley, head of North Carolina Virtual Academy, one of the state’s two online virtual charter schools, was quick to point out to lawmakers yesterday that when it comes to the school’s withdrawal rate, it is improving. In the 2015-16 school year, the school was teetering right at the General Assembly mandated withdrawal rate of 25 percent. It is well below that now, due in part to changes by lawmakers in what defines withdrawal. 

“The withdrawal numbers are going down,” Medley said, pointing out that at the same time the school’s enrollment has continued to increase. 

Medley said the school serves an important need for North Carolina students, giving an education to students from 40 districts that would have no other public school option if Virtual Academy did not exist. 

Medley did not attribute lower withdrawal rates to the General Assembly’s changes to the withdrawal definitions. He gave credit to the school’s Family Academic Support Team (FAST).

“They do not offer academic supports,” he said. “They instead offer engagement strategies.” 

Staffers work with families to ensure students have the support they need to participate in classes. He noted that the school has a social worker, and that three families lost everything last year due to fires. The school had computers shipped to them and worked with the students to keep them engaged. 

He told a story of one family the school helped succeed. 

“We had a family last year…a family with seven students in our school. Every single one of those students had a back-on-track plan from this FAST team because they were struggling,” he said. “But at the end of the year, every single one of those students had exited that plan and every single one of those students were proficient.” 

A majority of Virtual Academy’s students are economically disadvantaged—64.4 percent—a higher percentage than the state or Durham School District. The school also serves a higher percentage of special education students. 

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, co-chair of the committee, said the virtual charter schools challenge the status quo of students sitting in classrooms or being bused to bricks and mortar schools. 

“This is one of many things that we’re doing to change how we deliver education in North Carolina,” he said. 

Then he asked Medley what more lawmakers could do to ensure the school’s success. 

Medley said the requirement that school must employ 80 percent of its teachers from in-state could be relaxed. But renewal of the school and release from pilot status is the top objective, he said. 

Medley presented this month because his presentation was cut short during the last meeting of the committee. 

See his presentation here

View a handout about North Carolina Virtual Academy here

Difficulties with licensure

Frustrations over the licensure process in North Carolina have been a longstanding problem. Deputy State Superintendent Maria Pitre-Martin came before the committee yesterday to talk about an audit of the licensure process and plans for the Department of Public Instruction to remedy the issue. 

“We keenly acknowledge the need for the improvements that will be discussed today,” Pitre-Martin said. 

Complaints about waiting times of six months or longer for teachers to get licenses have persisted in the last few years, according to a presentation at the committee meeting. DPI contracted with TNTP to review the state’s licensure process as a result. 

The review found that while the licensure team at DPI has a lot of expertise, strong peer support, and that processing times during the “slow” season mostly met the eight-week processing goal, there is inefficiency and frustration with the process, confusion about implementing licensure policies, inadequate reference information, and poor staff development. 

The review recommended improvements to staff development, communications, policy development, and system technology. 

Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, a co-chair of the committee, expressed concern about the challenges found in the review. 

“The highlights are nice, but the challenges seem way more substantial than the highlights,” he said. 

And he questioned the eight-week turnaround goal for licensure, asking TNTP staffer Steven LaFemina whether a quicker time was possible. 

LaFemina said in few other states, it seemed that times closer to four weeks were possible, but he noted that the states examined during the audit were all smaller than North Carolina.  He said there was room for improvement. 

“An aspiration for something faster than eight weeks would be beneficial to educators,” LaFemina said

View Pitre-Martin’s presentation here

See the presentation about the audit here

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.