Unit 4 board grills charter-school proponents about gaps in plan

Unit 4 board grills charter-school proponents about gaps in plan

CHAMPAIGN — Unit 4 school board members left Monday night's hearing for a proposed Champaign charter school with more questions than answers — at least 50 more.

In a three-plus-hour session that at times grew tense, founding members of North Champaign Academy answered some questions and deferred on many others, expressing frustration that they weren't given a chance in advance of Monday's hearing to fill in missing details Unit 4 officials pointed out.

What NCA representatives Craig Walker, Nathaniel Banks and Lekevie Johnson reiterated was a message about an achievement gap in Unit 4, saying the school they hope is up and running by August in a 15,000-square-foot facility at 1400 West Anthony Drive can bridge that gap.

During Monday's hearing, which was required by the state as part of the charter school application, the trio emphasized a new framework for education and "holistic" family relationships during their back-and-forth exchanges with district leaders.

But the idea isn't as simple as it sounds, Unit 4 officials pointed out in a cramped meeting room at district headquarters.

Before the school board began asking questions of NCA officials, Unit 4 Superintendent Susan Zola told board members that part of the district's job is to vet proposals to ensure they align with criteria delineated by state law.

"Our responsibility is to take a look at the law and then break it down," she said.

In doing so, Zola said, a number of discrepancies were found within the 50-plus-page application submitted to the district on Feb. 26.

Among them:

— A lack of criteria to identify students who have learning or physical disabilities.

— A budget line that included grant money no longer available from the state.

— The absence in the staffing plan of an assistant principal, social workers or library staff.

"So these are things that are included, things we couldn't find and things that need to be clarified as you move forward," she told the board.

After Zola's presentation on her team's findings, board President Chris Kloeppel opened the discussion for questions, starting with a list of his own. The questions were detailed, asking for clarification regarding gaps the board saw in the proposal.

They included questions about funding for special education staff, security regarding student test data and where NCA students would play outside.

After a handful of Kloeppel's questions had been asked — "I have 50," he added — Banks asked the board for relief.

"We need to answer each one of these questions, but this is the first time we're hearing them," Banks said. "We haven't seen these before, so we're operating at somewhat of a disadvantage."

Walker added that it would have been a matter of "professional courtesy" to have received the questions prior to Monday's hearing.

"These questions are to answers that could have been provided in this school proposal," Kloeppel said.

For the remainder of Kloeppel's questions, committee members — primarily Banks and Walker — declined to answer immediately, instead deferring with "We'll get back to you."

Kloeppel said the board would submit the remainder of their unanswered questions to NCA members following the meeting.

He said the board would set a date for its ultimate decision once it has had a chance to review those answers. Under state law, Unit 4 must reach a decision within 30 days of Monday.

After Kloeppel finished his questions, other board members asked ones of their own in a similar vein, attempting to understand perceived gaps in the budget or instances in which the proposal failed to align with state law.

Most questions were again answered with a request for a delay, which NCA members said they were doing on behalf of the public, who, by 8 p.m., had not had a chance to comment about the proposal.

When the public did get a chance to speak, comments ranged from uncertainty about the application due to lack of clarity to pleas directed at board members to support a charter school whose founders say is aimed at improving academic progress in low-income and low-achieving students within the Champaign school district.

"Seven of my nine students are African-American," said Joel Wright, a special education teacher at Jefferson Middle School. "I am highly concerned with several of the gaps (in the proposal) — these kids need very intensive support.

"The other thing I wanted to say to the board, regardless of your decision, what you're seeing tonight is that the stakeholders — the black community — feel like they don't have a stake to hold. I think there's serious problems in the application, but I think Unit 4 needs to figure out a way to include these stakeholders. Everyone in this room has the best interests of students in mind. But how to do that will be the challenge ahead."

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