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BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for November 25, 2009

Healthy Start moves closer to demolishing Morehead Hill homes

Jackson_st_hsa The City Council's efforts to find a compromise with charter school Healthy Start Academy (HSA) over their proposed demolition of two houses behind their W. Chapel Hill St. school appear to have reached a dead end.

Council members -- notably real estate agent and preservationist Eugene Brown -- have urged the school not to exercise its ability by-right to demolish two houses in the Morehead Hill historic neighborhood. A 365-day waiting period that the City's historic preservation commission placed on the demolition expired this fall.

As requested by Council, representatives of the school met with Planning staff, who identified as many as four other parcels that could be alternative locations for the purported playground. Planning's Steve Medlin described the options as ones that he did not believe "were palatable to the school."

City Councilman Eugene Brown went further, describing from accounts the meeting as "not ... pleasant," and saying that school representatives spent a significant time criticizing the neighborhood for its initial opposition to the school site a decade ago.

To wit: HSA has reportedly pulled demolition permits on the two houses as of yesterday, and can begin demolition beginning on December 2.

But it's still not clear what good, exactly, that'll do for the school.

After all, as the Herald-Sun pointed out in their late October coverage of the case:

What leverage the council does have in the situation comes from the presence of an 8-foot-wide right of way for a public alley between the two houses.

The school can't build anything on the property covered by the easement without first getting the council to abandon the right of way, Medlin said.

State law makes abandonment decisions a matter of council discretion, provided they don't landlock neighboring property and "it appears to the satisfaction of the council after [a public] hearing that closing the street or alley is not contrary to the public interest."

According to a letter from Morehead Hill's Jeff Ensminger to City Council members on Tuesday after news of the pulling of demolition permits spread, it looks like neighborhood activists seem resigned that the City Council lacks the authority to stop the demolition -- but that neighborhood pressure to prevent that alleyway's closure isn't going anywhere:

The alley cannot be closed because it serves a private purpose and not the public. MHNA wanted to save the houses given that fact and that no development or rebuild could occur and that they are historic. […]

MHNA will not tolerate now attempts by this school to develop this area by trying to close the alley. We may end up with empty lots but we will not have adjustments to the existing rules set forth by the Board of Adjustments. We will at least not have to tolerate development because it cannot happen.

That was the main reason aside from the historic piece we were trying to prevent this.

HSA's executive director Liz Morey told Planning's Medlin that she's continuing to work with a party that's expressed interest in obtaining the houses and moving them -- but that the white-knight was having difficulty finding financing.

The Herald-Sun's coverage of the story today highlights a subject that came up in our October coverage of the case: namely, scrutiny over HSA's test score performance, and increasingly, the gray area that charter schools find themselves in as institutions that receive state and county funding, but which don't have to answer to local officials about issues such as this school's impact on neighborhoods.

Comments

Jeremy T

This is really quite pathetic. The school has no respect for the neighborhood upon which it is encroaching.

I'm starting to think of 'Healthy Start' as being no better than the storefront churches that litter the rest of West Chapel Hill St. Hasn't this school had all sorts of performance related issues and other problems in the past?

Tar Heelz

As I mentioned in a prior rant, the Durham City Council has a wide array of options that would remove any financial incentive (other than spite) for demolishing these homes.

For all the noise from Gene Brown on this, my read is that the Council just isn't interested in spending the effort on this issue. That is a policy choice. This line from the Council: "There's nothing we can do," is plainly false.

Will

It's a further same that a school, receiving gov't funds, can waste additional money to destroy homes for property that it can do NOTHING with. There's a city alley that runs RIGHT THROUGH the middle of the two properties! Unless the city were to allow the closure of that alley (which I can assure you the neighborhood will not let happen). NOTHING can be built there! Not a play ground, not a parking lot. SO WHY DO THIS????

Toby

While I agree that HSA should find a way to preserve those houses, and work with the neighborhood to improve relations, I am concerned that Mr. Brown's efforts will lead to problems for other charter schools, most of whom are good neighbors. (Full disclosure: I have two kids at Central Park School for Children, a charter school on Foster St.)

Eugene Brown

In response: Toby,charter schools have their place, but there is little or no oversight from NCDPI on those low performing charters such as Healthy Start Academy. After 10 years,and with a budget of over $3 million, the best they can do is a combined 44% reading and math score! They were named one of the 10 worse performing charters in North Carolina several years ago by N.C. Public Policy Research. Central Park school epitomizes the reason charter schools were started in the first place and it's fortunate your two children are there.

Eugene Brown

Response: Tar Heelz, It is unfortunate, but according to our Planning Dept. and city attorney, Healthy Start has followed the legal process. Now, after a one year wait since applying for a demo permit,they have the legal right to tear down their two houses. If you are cognizant of any options for Council, I suggest you contact our city attorney. And yes, the public alley that divides the two properties will not be closed by Council which makes it more difficult for the school to develope the properties.

shelia

Councilman Brown,

It makes me sick that one of our elected officials can so carelessly champion charter schools, let alone a charter such as Central Park. Sure Healthy Starts scores stink, but lets look a bit more closely at Central Park. What percentage of at-risk students does Central Park serve? What is the percentage of students on Free or Reduced Lunch at Central Park? What services does Central Park provide for students in need of counseling, ESL, Medical, family, EC, or social sevices? The answer is very little.

Central Park provides little to no support for any students in need of these services, and Mr. Councilman, you know why... because it doesn't have to. Students at Central Park who need these services either are lucky enough to have parents who are able to provide them for their child, or the student leaves Central Park and moves to good old DPS... which by the way does NOT get the money that went to Central Park with the student. Central Park has little to no at-risk student population. The population at Central Park DOES NOT AT ALL resemble the population of the City of Durham. But, you're not really interested in that are you, because if you were, how could you support Central Park? Or do you really think that Central Park succeeds based on its educational philosophy?

Mr. Brown, instead of championing a school like Central Park, I wish you would use your bully pulpit to bring Durham's leaders together to begin solving DPS's problems, because most of the children in Durham attend DPS schools.

Convene an education summit with City Council members, County Commissioners, School Board Members, DPS administrators, Parents, Police, Duke and NCCU education professors, Social Services, parole personnel, Business leaders, and ____________ (insert your favorite well connected friend here). Lock the doors, work together, and for the sake of OUR children in Durham, solve the problem.

Would this be difficult? Yes, certainly more difficult than making snide comments about one school while championing another charter that allows a few lucky middle class families the option of a "Duke School like" education at the expense of taxpayers.

Respectfully,
Shelia

Kevin Davis

@"Sheila" -- I'm not agreeing or disagreeing with your concerns over charter schools or whether individual charters draw representative populations.

But I will say that, as someone who's spoken with Eugene on this topic a few times, it's worth noting (and he doesn't mention this much) that his wife works in the public schools here in Durham. I can assure that he's pretty passionate about making education better in Durham.

FWIW, to get on my own soapbox for a minute: I think the idea of a summit is a great one. Frankly, I'm sick of our continuing to kick-the-can for government to solve this.

As far as I'm concerned, if a child isn't learning in school, social services needs to be involved and start working with parents and the student in question to find out why. Is there a nutrition problem at home? A parent whose work schedule isn't allowing time to follow up on school work, and whose child could use tutoring? A situation where a parent is struggling and needs enforced child support to help make ends meet?

Ironically, those in our culture who are most antagonistic to schools and who stand up for "traditional values" would be the first to see this as an overreaching of the government prerogative into home lives. But as a taxpayer, I support public schools as a way of ensuring the next generation can be as economically productive as the last.

And if our kids aren't performing in schools -- or if the schools aren't performing -- that's everyone's problem.

Duke Morehead

Sheesh.

Two structures that Healthy Start Academy could renovate and put to good use will instead be razed.

Meanwhile, merely 1,056 feet away from Healthy Start Academy, the late Ronnie Sturdivant's "Urban Merchant Center" continues festering in all its "Now Leaving Durham" eyesoreness.

And, Mr. Brown, your Distinctive Properties sits a mere 338 feet downwind of the Urban Merchant Center mess. If ever there were an occasion to try some All-American Eminent Domain, the Urban Merchant Center is it.

Dear Mr. Brown and other faithful BCR-reading City Council members, any insights? Thanks!

Robert L. Chapman

I am a founding board member and strong supporter of Central Park School for Children, a public charter school located in downtown Durham.

I was very surprised and very disappointed by the blog post from Shelia (11/25/09 responding to Councilperson Eugene Brown on the Healthy Start Academy post). Shelia asserted that Central Park School for Children does not reflect the population demographics of Durham and that it ignores at-risk students. These and other assertions and questions by Sheila deserve accurate responses.

Sheila's assertion: The population at Central Park DOES NOT AT ALL resemble the population of the City of Durham.

Response: The racial demographics of the student population at Central Park, using N.C. Department of Public Instruction methodology, are as follows: 66.1% White, 23.6% Black, 1.7% Hispanic, 2% Asian, and 6.6% Multicultural. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the estimated racial demographics of Durham County in 2008 were 56.6% White, 37.2% Black, 0.4% American Indian or Alaska Native, 4.4% Asian, 0.1% Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, 1.4% Persons reporting two or more races, 12.3% Hispanic or Latino origin, and 45.2% White persons not Hispanic. Census numbers exceed 100% because Hispanics may be of any race and are also included in an applicable race category.

I personally think that Central Park's racial demographics come much closer to matching the racial demographics of Durham County than do a large number of district public schools.

By law, Central Park must serve children from any county in North Carolina. Currently the majority of children at the school live within the City of Durham. Children are also attend from Durham County outside the City, and from Orange, Person, Caswell, and Granville counties. (Funding for children from other districts comes from those districts, not from Durham.)

Sheila's question: What percentage of at-risk students does Central Park serve?

Answer: 45 students of the 299 students currently enrolled at Central Park -- 15% -- receive EC (Exceptional Children) services with IEPs (Individualized Instructional Programs). This compares with 13.5% of students currently enrolled in the district public schools.

Shelia's question: What is the percentage of students on Free or Reduced Lunch at Central Park?

Answer: 16 students, 5.4%, receive free lunches.

Q: What services does Central Park provide for students in need of counseling?

A: This year Central Park is budgeting $176,476, 15% of it's instructional budget, for counseling and EC staff. This includes a counselor, a contract psychologist, speech and language specialist, and occupational therapist.

Q: ESL, for Spanish speakers?

A: Central Park does not have an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program at this time. When children who speak only Spanish enroll, the School tries to assign them to classrooms in which the teacher is knows basic Spanish.

Q: Medical services?

A: Like many other elementary schools, Central Park does not have a school nurse. However office staff and administrators receive basic training in the proper handling of medical issues.

Q: Social services.

A: We know that the School does a lot but its administrators and staff don't feel that we should publicize what we do.

As a board member, I am proud that Central Park School for Children is always trying to improve its programs.

As a concerned board member, I would be delighted to meet with Shelia at her convenience to learn more about her issues and concerns. All meetings of the School's Board are open to the public in compliance with the N. C. open meetings law and she would be welcome to attend. Time and place is posted on the School's website, centralparkschoolforchildren.org.

TH

@Robert, you are comparing Central Parks demographics to all of Durham's demographics (not just the age group of 5-10 year olds). Below I've compared Central Park's demographics to DPS which I think is a more accurate picture since they both receive public tax dollars:
as you state Central Park -
66.1% White,
23.6% Black,
1.7% Hispanic,
2% Asian, and
6.6% Multicultural.

And as the DPS website states DPS schools:
53.9% African-American
22.6% white
17.1% Hispanic
3.6% multiracial
2.6% Asian
0.2% Native American

You stated that Central Park's population is 5.4% free and reduced lunch. DPS is closer to 50% plus.

While I do think Central Park Charter has it's merits and is an asset to the community I do not think it reflects the general demographics of the elementary aged students in public schools in Durham.

Shelia

@Robert, Thanks for providing the data so that my argument stands on solid ground. TH nailed it: 5.4% Free/Reduced Lunch. The big shocker for me: 1.5% Hispanic. WOW! Central Park really represents the area right around the school, huh?

Robert, would you have a map showing where most of your Central Park families live? I'd be willing to bet that most of your families don't live in the Hillandale, Easley, and Mangum zones (for those not familiar with DPS, these are your "richer" schools with lower Free/Reduced Lunch numbers). In fact, I bet most of these families are exhibiting the new 21st Century style of "middle class white flight". Now that Bull City living is "Where the cool happens", charters and private schools are doing a big business. (I could include Magnet schools here, but that is another story)

Robert, maybe you could also do a study of the amount of resources that each Central Park family pours into your school. Do they volunteer? Garden? Chaperone field trips? How about help with fund raising? If a teacher isn't doing his or her job, are these parents involved in drawing this to the administration's attention? These statistics don't show up in the dollar amount that gets sucked out of the DPS coffers, but they should. Each middle class family attending Central Park is a middle class family not in their local school district striving to make that school better.

Again, TH, I would ask, why should our tax dollars allow the priveledged few to benefit while those most disadvantaged suffer. Hey if these people want to attend a private school, no problem. Just make them pay the real cost.

Respectfully,

Shelia

Natalie

Wow. Shelia, Did your child not win the lotto for Central Park?

TH

@Sheila, Central Park is a small school and as such there are benefits that other 600 plus student schools cannot provide. Some students have real needs that would be better met from attending a small school. Durham Public Schools does not offer many small school environments (under 300 students). And those that the DPS offers are magnet options. Some children are overwhelmed in some of the 750 plus schools that we have. (I've seen this in the halls of our elementary school). As a middle class parent I can not afford private school for my children. Fortunately my children do not need a small school. But if they did, I would be thankful to have Central Park as an option.

However, with that said I do think that NCDPI should make changes to Charter Laws and Rules that require a Charter School to reflect the demographics of the school district the charter is located within. I also think Charters should be required to offer the same services (not just EC) but school counselors, librarians, bus transportation, lunches for free and reduced lunch students, that local districts have to provide. Charters can be used to help close the student achievement gap in Durham, if used properly. But state laws will need to change for that to happen. Given that Arne Duncan and the Obama Administration is Pro-Charter we might just see those changes in the next 3 years.

Shelia

@TH,I'd love to see changes made to Charter School rules, too. It would be a step in the right direction.

It seems you've bought into the theory of "trickle down" educational improvement.

A quick run down of the Charter School movement: Charter schools were an idea that found its beginning in the the 80's when when Schools of Education found it frustrating to work within the political realties of urban Public School Systems. With the rising inequality in all facets of American life, educators were finding that their lab schools were not providing the economic or racial diversity that modern schools showed. These teachers of teachers sought more control in the schools in which to test their educational ideas. The idea developed that a state could give a "Charter" to a group to start a school. They believed that the Charter School would help show best practices in education which would then "trickle down" to other schools, a light on a hill. This didn't concern most Americans until the idea was scooped up by the Republican Revolution of the 90s. These politicians seized on Charters as a way to take back the schools from liberals, teacher's unions, and evolutionists. Charter Schools would be privatized. Parent's would control their child's education, not some liberal Board of Education. (This also tied in nicely to the educational movement in the 80s that sought to make schools run more like businesses.)

So... clearly "trickle down" economic theory was proven wrong. Why do we still buy "trickle down" educational theory? Has Central Park had any effect on making DPS better, or does it just provide an option for the priviledged few.

North Carolina doesn't have teacher's unions. Durham is a relatively small school system. Teachers, administrators, and Superintendents can and do lose their jobs in Durham for poor performance. What we have in North Carolina is underpaid teachers, underfunded schools and trailers, too many political initiatives and not enough support for early childhood education and afterschool, an increase in social service support, an increase in course offerings between local high schools and community colleges. Just what in the heck are Charter Schools going to do for these problems?

TH, Wouldn't everyone want their child to go to a school with under 300 children? It used to be that no elementary school would be greater than 300 kids. However, we all know why huge enormous elementary schools like Forest View exist: MONEY. We have chronically underfunded education It is no secret that Republicans openly want to abolish the Department of Education.

And now, on top of it all, to add insult to injury, we in Durham have rolled over and accepted Central Park as a reality because why... it is small? it provides MY child a good education at the expense of others? my child is so smart she must be around other smart children ALL the time? it is too much effort to bother trying to make a change with DPS?

No, Natalie, my children were never entered into a lottery for Central Park. I could never sleep with myself knowing that they were taking advantage of a loophole in the law. To me, that would be just like hiding money in an offshore bank account to avoid paying taxes. And you know what, it is time for those parents at Central Park to explain how they rationalize such a gross misuse of taxpayer money. It is time Durham stop looking the other way to this gross injustice.

Respectfully,

Shelia

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