Wednesday, December 8, 2021

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County’s fifth charter school could open by 2023

A Graham resident who previously founded six charter schools in Alamance, Orange, Chatham, and Durham counties has filed an application with the state Office of Charter Schools to open what could become Alamance County’s fifth free public charter school.

Peter Morcombe is chairman of the board of directors for Unity Global Academy, a new charter school that would be located in Alamance County, pending approval by the office within the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) that’s responsible for authorizing new charter schools and overseeing their operations.

A former Mebane resident who now lives on Thompson Road south of Graham, Morcombe was a founding member of “Financial Reform for Excellence in Education” (FREE), a nonprofit that opened six charter schools in Alamance, Orange, Chatham, and Durham counties between the late 1990s and early 2000s. FREE filed the application last week to establish Unity Global Academy, Morcombe said this week in an interview with The Alamance News.

If the application is approved, Unity Global Academy could open in 2023 with as many as 450 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, Morcombe estimated this week.

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Approximately 50 students in each of the high school grades would be added in successive years of operation, reaching a final estimated total enrollment of 650 students by the fifth year, based on the application Morcombe has filed.

FREE established Clover Garden School in the Altamahaw community on the outskirts of Burlington in 2001, Morcombe recalled, as well as the former River Mill Charter School in 1998. River Mill Charter School originally opened in a restored mill in Saxapahaw, before changing the name to River Mill Academy in 2001 and moving to Graham in 2003.

FREE also established two charter schools in Orange County in the late 1990s: Village Charter School in Chapel Hill and Eno River Academy (formerly known as Orange Charter School) in Hillsborough. The organization also opened Carter Charter School (now Carter Community Charter School) in Durham County and Woods Charter School in Chatham County in 1998.

Carter Community Charter School in Durham County.

A specific site hasn’t been identified for Global Unity Academy yet, pending state approval, according to the application materials Morcombe filed with the state and subsequently provided to the newspaper.

The new charter school would be modeled on the original plan for Clover Garden School that initially opened with 36 students per grade in kindergarten through eighth grade, for a total opening enrollment of 324 students. Clover Garden School also expanded by one grade level per year, to a total enrollment of 468 students by the fifth year, and currently serves more than 600 students.

“The Clover Garden proposal led to the creation of a charter school in Alamance County that is deservedly popular within the community it serves,” Morcombe stated on his application to establish the new charter school in Alamance County.

In the interview with the newspaper, the chairman pointed to FREE’s success with building a new facility Orange Charter School, as it was known at the time. For the first several years, Orange Charter School operated out of two temporary locations, at Fairview Baptist Church in Hillsborough and Sunrise Baptist Church between Hillsborough and Chapel Hill, before building a new facility at the Meadowlands business complex in Hillsborough, Morcombe recalled.

Construction of the new building for Orange Charter School was completed within six months in 2002. “At the time the school was built, the population of Hillsborough was [less than] 25,000 so our project was eligible for USDA loan guarantees,” Morcombe explained. Orange Charter School has since moved to a new campus along N.C. Highway 57 in Hillsborough and changed its name to Eno River Academy, he added, though it retains ownership of the building at Meadowlands.

 

New charter school would follow Cambridge curriculum
A significant distinction between the proposed Unity Global Academy and the Alamance-Burlington school system lies in the curriculum.

ABSS follows the state’s standard course of study, which is aligned with the state’s “Common Core” academic standards. The curriculum at Unity Global Academy would be based on the Cambridge Assessment International Education program (or CA for short), an academically-advanced and globally-recognized curriculum developed by Cambridge University in England.

The high school curriculum would be based on the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) standards within the Cambridge program. IGCSE is similar to the “International Baccalaureate,” an academically-advanced program that Williams High School began offering several years ago.

The Cambridge curriculum offers more than 70 subjects and 30 languages that are intended to teach skills such as: on critical thinking through content mastery, inquiry, and applied knowledge; flexibility and responsiveness to change; verbal and written communication in English; and cultural awareness, according to Cambridge Assessment International Education.

The same academic standards were implemented at Woods Charter School in Pittsboro.

In his application to establish Unity Global Academy, Morcombe offered this analogy: “When the Woods CS adopted a British curriculum, it seemed risky since our students were being taught to play cricket while their exams would be based on their knowledge of baseball. In other words, the SAT test would be based on U.S. standards that are not aligned with British standards.”

We need not have worried,” Morcombe wrote in his application, “since within four years our little school run by amateurs outperformed all 357 high schools in North Carolina (run by professionals), including the previously dominant Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.”

Cambridge Assessments would be used to gauge students’ academic progress at the new charter school, which would follow a year-round calendar.

FREE’s original board disbanded in the mid-2000s, once the number of charter schools operating in North Carolina reached the previous limit of 100, as stipulated under a state law that had been in effect since 1996, Morcombe pointed out this week. The General Assembly passed subsequent legislation eliminating the cap on the number of charter schools in N.C. in 2012.

At least one of the founding board members for FREE, Louise Cole of Durham, is joining Morcombe in his latest venture, he said in the interview. A retired educator and researcher for the Environmental Protection Agency, Cole co-wrote with Morcombe the proposals for the first six charter schools that FREE established.

Several other members of the six-member founding board of directors for Unity Global Academy are also professional educators, Morcombe noted in the charter school application. The board of directors intends to work with Cambridge Assessment International Education to hire a school leader with the training and experience needed to manage the day-to-day operations at Unity Global Academy.

 

Why open another charter school in Alamance County?
Morcombe points to the state’s more than 200 charter schools, which he said have wait lists exceeding 80,000 prospective students, for evidence of the demand.

“While enrollment in charter schools is growing, the traditional schools are shrinking, and they would be shrinking much faster [if] the number of charter schools were allowed to grow according to market demand,” Morcombe explained in the application. “Demand for the school is evident in statewide waiting lists for charter schools, and the expansion and lack of available seats in [existing] Alamance County charter schools. Teachers interviewed have expressed a desire for an environment in which they can teach in smaller class sizes, with faculty support and parent involvement. Parents have expressed a desire for a school which can integrate technology and rigorous academics with the hands-on and non-traditional approaches more readily available in a charter school.”

The county’s fourth charter school, Alamance Community School, opened in a temporary location in Mebane in the fall of 2020, before moving into its new facility on Jimmie Kerr Road on the edge of Graham near Haw River.

Members of its board of directors will be barred from micromanaging the charter school’s operations by interfering in decisions such as how academic credit is to be awarded, the method for calculating grade-point averages, and the like.

“FREE will hire professionals to fill the positions of faculty charged with day-to-day management of the school, including assessments and reporting,” Morcombe wrote in his 47-page application. “Elective courses will be offered based on student interest matched with available resources. We believe that the demanding CA curriculum will drive up [standardized test scores] of our students. That will improve their prospects in post-secondary education.

The mission of the school [is] to engage in meaningful activities with real-world applications [that] prepare students to pursue any post-secondary goals, including trades and immediate workforce entry. Students who enlist in the military will be well-served by the global nature of an internationally-used curriculum.”

The deadline to apply to open a charter school in 2023 was last Saturday, July 31, according to the N.C. Office of Charter Schools.


Read more about one of the members of the board of directors who has been instrumental in opening and promoting charter schools in central North Carolina: https://alamancenews.com/founder-of-new-charter-school-has-decades-of-stem-experience-school-choice-advocacy/

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