On second attempt, proposed Wake charter school gets ‘improbable’ green light

On second attempt, proposed Wake charter school gets ‘improbable’ green light

- in Education, News, Top Story
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The leaders of Heritage Collegiate Leadership Academy of Wake County sailed through a second-round interview Monday to win improbable, but unanimous support from the Charter School Advisory Board to open a K-8 school in northeastern Wake County.

Why improbable?

In 2020, the charter board roundly rejected the school’s application, citing concerns about projected enrollment numbers and budget projections.

And several years earlier, Kashi Bazemore, the chairperson of the school’s board of directors and its likely principal, had been on the losing end of a contentious and messy State Board of Education-sanctioned takeover of a charter school. Bazemore founded and led that school, which operated under the same name — Heritage — in Bertie County.

The state board was prepared to revoke that school’s charter because of late financial audits and academic performance issues. But the revocation process that was cut short when the Heritage board of directors agreed to allow charter operator Don McQueen to take over the foundering Bertie County school.

The takeover proved fatal for the school, which McQueen renamed Three Rivers Academy. The state board ordered it closed in January after NC Department of Public Instruction investigators found numerous academic, fiscal and governance shortcomings.

With that history, few people would have bet on a second act for Bazemore, who felt angry and bitter after losing the Bertie County school to McQueen.

“I did say some ugly things,” Bazemore acknowledged in an interview with Policy Watch. “I did curse some people out. I did not hold my tongue.”

Bazemore described winning the charter board’s approval this week as a “miracle.”

“I prayed that all of the adults in the room would just focus on the children we are trying to serve as we sought their [charter board member’s] approval,” Bazemore said. “What I saw was just that; my prayers were answered.”

On Monday, a very different Bazemore appeared before the charter board. Rather than the angry and combative school leader that its members had seen before, she was poised and prepared, impressing charter board members with plans to open a school for children she contends are not being served well by the Wake County Public School System.

Supplemental data provided by the Heritage planning teams show many of the elementary and middle schools in northeast Wake County have received state performance letter grades of “D” or “F.”

Charter Board Chairwoman Cheryl Turner noted Bazemore’s personal and professional transformation.

“What we’re seeing now is just very different from what we’ve seen in the past, very positive in terms of the possibility of this being successful,” Turner said.

With a bit of irony, Turner noted that Bazemore will likely have a large pool of students to fill her school in the wake of the state board’s decision to close McQueen’s Torchlight Academy in Raleigh last June. An exhaustive NCDPI investigation uncovered serious fiscal and governance issues, similar to those found at Three Rivers.

Torchlight’s closure left the families of hundreds of children from Wake and surrounding counties scrambling to find new schools. Many parents swore by the culturally enriched programs Torchlight provided its mostly Black and Latinx students.

Kashi Bazemore (Photo via Facebook)

“There were 600 kids at Torchlight who now have no place to go, so they really have, inherently, a population of people who are going to be interested because they’ve been in charters and theirs went away,” Turner said. “I honestly don’t think recruitment is going to be an issue if they locate in the northeast [Wake County],” Turner said.

Bazemore said former Torchlight parents have begun to express interest in Heritage.

“We want them to know that we will be an option for them,” Bazemore said.

Like Torchlight Academy, Heritage will openly celebrate the culture and history of the Black and Latinx students.

“People fail to realize how important that is to parents,” she said. “Black and Hispanic parents don’t want the general, neutral education where their children are being asked to not let their culture and heritage come through. We want children to be able to be who they are in an environment that allows them and encourages them and has high expectations for them.”

Bazemore won an endorsement from former Office of Charter School Director Dave Machado, whose leadership she often criticized.

Dave Machado

“I’ve seen a different board, I’ve seen a different leader,” Machado said. “We need to take into consideration mistakes in the past, but I don’t think they ought to be penalized when there’s a path to run a better school this time.”

Machado stepped down in July to become the North Carolina state director for Charter Schools USA, a for-profit charter school management company based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is an NC House-appointee to the charter board.

Explaining her new outlook, Bazemore said time healed many of the wounds she suffered during the contentious loss of the Bertie County school in 2018.

“After being removed in time from the situation, I was able to see that there were so many things we were proud of, but there were some things we could have done better, that I could have done better as the executive director of the school,” Bazemore said. “Some of the complaints of noncompliance were accurate and I had to step back and look at that and own that to get to a place where we can move forward.”

Bazemore believes her acknowledgment of those shortcomings helped win over the charter board.

The charter board will recommend that the State Board of Education allow Heritage to proceed with plans to open a new school in 2024. The state board ultimately decides which schools move forward, but often follows the advisory board’s recommendations.

Plans call for Heritage to open with 440 students in grades K-6, then enroll 600 K-8 students by 2028. Several vacant buildings in northeast Wake County are being considered for the new school, Bazemore said.

Charter board members questioned Bazemore about the HCLA budget, which calls for paying teachers $40,000 a year. That amount, they said, won’t be competitive in Wake County.

Bazemore responded that Heritage will rely on a combination of new teachers and those willing to come out of retirement, who want supplement their income.

The state board has been reviewing charter applications, particularly those that hire for-profit management organizations, with more scrutiny in the wake of the Torchlight and Three Rivers debacles under McQueen’s leadership.

Unbeknown to Torchlight’s board of directors, McQueen’s charter management firm, Torchlight Academy Schools LLC, reaped huge profits. McQueen and his wife, Cynthia McQueen, also drew hefty salaries and shared the wealth with a son-in-law and daughter who both worked for the school.

Meanwhile, the Three Rivers board of directors was a governing body in name only. McQueen controlled every aspect of the school.

Wake County Public Schools leaders cited Bazemore’s troubles in Bertie County in a letter to NCDPI and the Office of Charter Schools opposing the new school in Wake County.

“There is nothing in the application that gives us confidence the problems that occurred at that school wouldn’t be repeated in a new Wake County charter school,” Wake County Board of Education Chairman Linda Mahaffey and Superintendent Catty Moore said in the letter.

Bazemore, however, is confident that the state board will view HCLA favorably if the focus remains on what’s best for children.

“If they [state board members] do that, then I’m sure we will be able to move forward,” she said.