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Fresh new start

WINDSOR – Three members of the charter school management group that has assumed the charter of the former Heritage Collegiate Leadership Academy (HCLA) held their first public meeting here on July 6 at the Roanoke-Cashie River Center.

“We want to introduce you to the new leadership that has been assigned the responsibility of serving the students of Bertie County,” said Don McQueen of Torchlight Academy in Raleigh, one of three charter school CEO’s who serve as representatives for Global Education Resources, Inc. (GRE), the non-profit management group that has assumed HCLA’s charter.

Joining McQueen at the introductory press conference were two other charter school superintendents.

Simon Johnson is said to have founded one of the earliest public charter schools in the state, Quality Education Academy in Winston-Salem in 1997. Six years ago he founded his second charter school, College Prep Leadership Academy in High Point. The other is Eugene Slocum, founder of Alpha Academy in Fayetteville which opened in 1999.

All three executives claim they are ‘charter school advocates’, and in 2017, they founded Black Lead Schools of Choice.

Back in June, the North Carolina State Board of Education voted to transfer control of HCLA to GER, a nonprofit education management group that currently operates three charter schools in the state.

David Machado, executive director of the Office of Charter Schools, at that time called the assumption the first time the state has transferred control of a charter school, a move that came following a recommendation from the state’s Charter School Advisory Board.

Machado says the school’s new managing organization had to submit a plan to satisfy the more than $250,000 in outstanding debt to the Office of Charter Schools by June 29; a plan that had to also include steps to meet academic growth standards during the upcoming school year.

One of the reasons GER was awarded the assumption was because they convinced the state Board they could keep the school open, rather than have it closed down for a year, as a competing charter school management group had claimed in their presentation before the Board.

GER’s plan not only promised not to close the school for a year, but did so hoping to maintain and – if possible – increase enrollment, allowing students already enrolled there to attend in the fall.

“It’s a work in progress, and we’re excited about the opportunity that lies ahead for us,” added McQueen.

The trio stated that the school will be known in the future as Three Rivers Academy, in homage to the landmark bodies of water that flow through Bertie County.

“In order to provide a continuum of service the state did not want to deprive those students of choice, but rather to provide new management, new vision, new leadership,” McQueen said.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to work with the students and the parents in this area,” Johnson remarked. “I believe we have a positive board (of directors), and a board that will make a difference.”

Johnson said as part of the school’s debt reduction, GER has worked with Williams Scotsman, owner of the modular units (trailers) HCLA had used for offices and classrooms.

“We have negotiated with them and they have agreed to forgive a large portion of the debt,” he maintained. “We are still working with the owner of the property there and are continuing negotiations with him through the latter part of this month and we think we’ll have a very successful operation this fall.”

He noted the timeline for re-opening as Three Rivers would be in August or September, after Labor Day at the latest.

“We don’t need for them to miss another season of school or be dislocated in such a way they are not at what they traditionally believe is their home school,” Johnson said. “The name has changed, the leadership has changed, but the location means everything to a child.”

“We understand the challenges,” said Slocum, who noted that his school is located in a military town (Fayetteville) filled with much student transition. “They want to have a choice. We have to work through those things, make sure the kids have a good solid foundation and the parents are able to get the understanding of what is expected of their children.”

Several members of the local Board of Directors of the school – three from Bertie County – including chairman Tuesday Sauer, Carolyn Smithwick and Sylvia Brooks, along with Melissa Grimes of Greenville – were present for the news conference.

“It’s a group of committed local professionals, people who understand the community, folks who have grown up here, educators, business professionals, retirees; and we take our marching orders from them, and are proud to be a part of this service team, serving the people of Bertie County,” said McQueen.

As for what will change, and what will remain the same, the group said the school will still offer the free reduced lunch program and the bus transportation based on the location of their student population.

“We will be looking at a change in leadership,” McQueen related. “We will be looking at new and some of the old teachers – looking at their past test results to determine if they are going to meet the standards and qualities we demand.”

“We’re not here to bash public schools,” insisted Slocum. “Charter schools are just another choice and this provides an opportunity that parents are looking for.”

“There must be synergy between the Board, GER, and the community that will make this a successful school,” maintained Johnson. “When they combine, the power from that is what will make this a successful school; no one of those three components can do it alone.”

GER insists they are not taking funding away from traditional public schools.

“We have to rent, lease, or mortgage, because nobody provides the building; same thing for the buses, drivers, and teachers,” said Slocum. “It all comes from one allotment, so we have to be careful how we spend our money. We want to do all we can to work with (Bertie County Schools); we do not want an adversarial relationship to exist, nor to waste taxpayer money.”

The GER group said they had not met with administrators of the local school districts, but some of the Board members may have. Though the school remains based in Bertie County, enrollment will be open.

“The only limitation is the room that is available,” said Slocum. “If we only have room for 300, then it will be the first 300.”

Three Rivers Academy hopes to have a website available within the next week. Teachers as well as students may apply online: GERapplications@gmail.com .

“Students will be selected by a lottery system,” McQueen said. “There will be no preference whatsoever. We know at one time the school had nearly 300 students; we’d like to see that come back. For the first year we want 200 students, we may take more, but for now we will have K-through-5th grade; though that hasn’t yet been determined, it may be K-through-6.”

The group says the lottery system will apply by grade.