Charter schools experience first-year growing pains

sbowman@islandpacket.comSeptember 14, 2013 

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Clockwise from left, Fifth graders Alexa Haglund, Sarah Olivarri and Hannah Thompson watch as Payton Miller and Ahnasia Williams play a clapping game Friday afternoon while waiting for school to let out at Bridges Preparatory School in Beaufort.

SARAH WELLIVER — Staff photo Buy Photo

Children often experience growing pains, as most parents can attest.

But so, too, can the schools they attend, according to the superintendent for the S.C. Public Charter School District.

That's why Wayne Brazell is neither alarmed nor surprised by tumult at Bridges Preparatory School in Beaufort, which lost its head of school less than a month after it opened in August.

"This is not uncommon," Brazell said. "The first year is usually the most troubling, but usually after the first two years, we see a huge improvement."

Melesia Walden resigned Sept. 6, citing an overbearing board in an email to parents and staff. She was replaced by retired teacher Bernie Schein, who will serve as interim head of school and help in the search for a permanent replacement.

Beaufort County's first charter school, Riverview Charter School, went through a somewhat similar experience in 2009, when its board fired the school's first director about halfway through its first academic year. It is now on its third.

Such conflicts between boards and the people they hire to oversee their schools' daily operations is not uncommon, Brazell said. It can be a tough task to take charter schools from concept to inception, often with a devoted set of parents and unpaid volunteers tending to the complicated details.

"During the transition of a planning committee who have put their heart and soul into developing a school, and it's their baby, it is very difficult for them to release the reins, so to speak," Brazell said, "and that is a concern."

There's even a term for it: "founders' syndrome."

"I knew if I stayed there it wouldn't be effective, which is why I volunteered to resign," Walden has said. "The board is there to make policy and evaluate, not govern day-to-day operations."

Several attempts to reach Bridges board chairman Charlie Calvert for comment were unsuccessful.

Soon after the Beaufort County Board of Education decided in the fall of 2011 to close Shell Point Elementary School, a group of parents upset at the loss of their neighborhood school began planning for a state-sponsored charter school.

Bridges eventually became something other than a replacement for the neighborhood school, however. It adopted a Paideia curriculum, in which teachers match their instruction to a student's learning style, and it's conducting classes at the Beaufort Boys & Girls Club and the Charles Lind Brown Activity Center on Boundary Street until it settles on a permanent home.

Even before the school opened, there were instances of friction among its leadership.

The executive director of the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, Mary Carmichael, told Calvert in April that she thought he and then-board chairman Ivie Szalai should resign because their disagreements were stymieing progress.

Szalai stepped down, but Calvert didn't, Carmichael said.

Szalai said she chose to resign because the contentious relationship was creating problems, and she said she wanted what was best for the school and for it to move forward.

A similar situation happened at Riverview Charter School, which is part of the Beaufort County School District, after it opened in 2009.

The school's first director, Eleanore Bednarsh, was hired in April and fired that December. She sued, saying the school misrepresented her responsibilities and fired her without cause. That suit was settled last year, with Bednarsh getting $75,000.

Brazell said it is the administrator's responsibility to interview applicants, operate the school, order equipment and perform other daily duties. It is the board's responsibility to provide oversight and monitor the school to make sure it complies with the law, he said.

Problems often arise because parents are granted greater freedom and voice in the school's governance than they had in traditional public schools, according to state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort.

"That's the beauty in charter schools," she said. "But it's a double-edged sword, because it's a group of people formed together by choice with a common goal but with varying ways of seeing how to get to that goal."

Carmichael said the alliance works with schools to help during their transition and has begun giving more training to prepare the board and director before a school opens.

The state charter district also is working to prepare administrators to adapt to charter schools' structure. Brazell said a good relationship between the director and the board is vital to having a quality, effective charter school.

"Either boards become effective and act professionally, or often the school doesn't make it if that doesn't happen," he said.

Erickson said the most important thing schools and parents can do during a school's critical first year and its accompanying growing pains is remember the goal that brought them together: better education for their children.

She said Riverview made it through with flying colors, and she expects Bridges to do the same.

"These struggles, you can't go under them, can't go over them, you just have to go through them, and there is no way around those growing pains and hurdles," Erickson said. "But these schools will scale the hurdle, patch themselves up, brush it off and move on."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

Related content:

Citing board interference, Bridges Prep headmaster resigns, September 6, 2013 Bridges Prep appoints new interim administrator at emergency meeting, September 8, 2013

Riverview Charter School, former director reach settlement, October 4, 2012

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