RALEIGH — Even though lawmakers removed the cap of 100 charter schools nearly two years ago, the bulk of the nontraditional public schools remain in a cluster of metropolitan counties.

Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina has launched what it calls the N.C. Public Charter School Accelerator program, aimed at helping rural North Carolina counties obtain charter schools, prepare potential charter operators to navigate the state’s bureaucracy, and, after obtaining their charters, help them provide quality instruction to their students.

“This is serious business,” said Darrell Allison, president of PEFNC, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes school choice. “We’ve got to make sure that we push for and we demand higher quality out of public charter schools. We can’t have mediocre schools.”

Charter schools are public schools that get tax money based on the number of students enrolled at the school. Each is governed by its own board of directors and generally has more flexibility and fewer regulations than traditional public schools.

Allison notes that by this fall there will be 132 charter schools in the state, with more than a third of them in either Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, or Raleigh. He said that about half of the 156 letters of intent to open charter schools in the fall of 2014 were located in those cities.

“It looks like they’re trying to make sure that students across the state have choice everywhere,” said Joel Medley, director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools.

The accelerator program is working to open charter schools in the fall of 2014 in Bertie, Halifax, and Scotland counties, none of which has a charter.

“We’re talking about counties in regions where we’ve had a historically dismal performance,” Allison said.

PEFNC notes that the three counties have an average end-of-grade test passage rate of 49 percent. The graduation rates are 76 percent in Halifax and Scotland counties and 72 percent in Bertie County.

“We are trying to offer very high quality options to students who don’t currently have options available to them in some of our state’s underachieving districts,”
said Christopher Gergen, who has been retained by PEFNC to help create the program. Gergen, a Durham-based entrepreneur and management consultant, has experience working with private and charter schools to improve their leadership and student performance.

“We’re not focused on output, we’re focused on outcomes,” Gergen said.

Gergen said the accelerator draws on similar programs in Chicago, Denver, and New Orleans.

“The first stage is to proved the applicants access to best practices, leadership, and coaching as they prepare their charter school applications,” Gergen said.

Medley said that while the state charter schools office does have workshops to help potential operators through the application process, the office doesn’t have the resources to offer the intensive level of training that the accelerator program will be providing.

PEFNC’s accelerator program won’t stop when a charter is awarded. They plan to support the applicants through their planning year, Gergen said.

The training will be for both the charter school’s administrators and its board of directors. Allison said the accelerator program will take charter applicants chronologically from the application process to opening their doors to students.

The group does not plan to stop with one set of applicants. It hopes to have an additional six charters ready to open in each of the following three years.

To accomplish the task, the accelerator program has amassed a support team to work with the applicants. They include officials with the KIPP Foundation charter schools, founders and chief school officers of other charter schools, and former Teach for America corps members.

“It sounds like they’re reaching out to folks that have demonstrated that they have charter school experience, have produced charter school excellence, have worked in small rural areas or have recently opened charter schools,” Medley said.

Allison noted how charter schools have more flexibility and the ability to embrace innovation more openly than most traditional public schools.

Some schools have expanded hours, he said. For example, some charter schools start at 7 a.m. and end at 6 p.m. in order to provide more time to help students with reading.

“You have schools that, every quarter or so, have two or three Saturdays where they have students in the classroom,” Allison said.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.