by Tori Hamby

Corvian Community School teacher Christa Olech leads her third-graders through a simple dance. It’s the beginning of the school year and after a couple of renditions of the hand jive, all her students’ first-day jitters seem to have disappeared.

Olech, a former teacher and literacy facilitator in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, came to Corvian last year, when the school still operated as a low- tuition private school. Corvian began its first year as a public charter school last week.

“Here, teachers are empowered to make decisions and use their expertise,” Olech said. “We’re leaders in the school, and we can be creative. We still follow state standards, but we’re entrusted to teach how we feel works best in our classrooms.”

As charter schools continue to flourish since North Carolina lifted the 100-school cap last year, many former teachers in public school systems have sought employment at charter schools. With looser restrictions on everything from classroom instruction to teacher certification, some teachers say charters give them more control over how they can best teach students.

Teachers attracted to charter schools – especially at the high school level – sometimes include former professionals who have left their line of work after years of experience, said Joel Medley, executive director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools. While these teachers don’t possess teaching certificates, time spent on-the-job make them a valuable asset to schools.

The state loosens certification requirements so charter schools can lure these experienced professionals, Medley said. Unlike traditional public schools where all teachers who teach core subjects must be certified or in the process of the obtaining certification, only 75 percent of elementary school teachers and half of high school teachers in charter schools must be certified by the state.

“I know of one charter school in North Carolina that hired a retired physics professor from (UNC) Chapel Hill,” he said. “Is that person someone who qualified to teach? Certainly. Are they going to be back and get that education certification? Not likely.”

A flexible classroom

At Corvian, Executive Director Stacey Haskell said she assigns teachers thematic units – unifying themes that tie different subjects together. During a fairytale-themed unit, for instance, teachers would tie all lessons and activities in language arts, math, science and social studies classes back to fairytales. She said teachers cap off each unit with a classroom performance or field trip that physically engages students.

The school’s structure also allows teachers to tailor classroom schedules to students’ needs and learning styles. When a student brought in a bird’s nest during the last school year – when Corvian was still operating as a private school – a teacher stopped the regularly scheduled classroom instruction to have students write about the nest.

That’s something teachers and administrators appreciate. Rigid classroom instruction schedules that stem from budget concerns as well as federal and statewide testing benchmarks often prohibit teachers in traditional schools from veering off of the approved curriculum when appropriate.

“When you tell a child they can write what they want to write about, their writing turns out to be really good,” Haskell said.

But, that classroom freedom doesn’t come easy.

Haskell said Corvian’s teachers undergo a highly selective hiring process. Teachers typically have to know someone at the school before they can even secure an interview.

Corvian has about 200 teacher applications on file.

“It’s really hard to work here,” she said.

Olech said the flexible curriculum allows her to mold her lessons to fit her students’ interests and help them apply what they’ve learned to the real world.

“I think kids internalize more when you integrate all subjects together,” Olech said. “They make connections to their own lives.”

‘Local control’

While public school teachers answer to their district’s board of education, charter school teachers and administrators answer to their school’s board of directors, whose members make decisions about hiring and firing of staff, school budgets and teacher salaries.

NCDPI does not keep records of charter school teacher salaries, but Jonathan Bryant, assistant chief administrator at Lincoln Charter School, said the school pays the state rate plus a $1,000 supplement – the equivalent of the local pay supplement that teachers in traditional Lincoln County public schools receive.

For the 2012-13 school year, a teacher with 10 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree would receive a base salary of $37,110 from the state. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools that same teacher would receive a local supplement of $5,570.30 for a total salary of $42,680.30.

Medley said charter schools vary in whether they choose to pay teachers using the state salary scale. Some rely on teachers fresh out of school who the board can afford to pay less, while others pay more for experienced teachers with advanced degrees, he said.

A 2010 study from the National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt University also found that charter school teachers are paid less than their traditional school counterparts nationwide and that lower pay and unsatisfactory working conditions have increased teacher turnover at charters.

The study indicated that teachers in charter schools earned salaries that were about $4,300 less than salaries in traditional schools. Half of charter school teachers said they planned to apply for another teaching job, compared with 15 percent of teachers in traditional schools.

Teachers who feel they’ve been fired or treated unfairly can take their grievances to court, Medley said, but the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction does not provide employees with an appeals process.

Gina Parry said she found out firsthand how charter school administrators can fire teachers without an explanation after she was brought into the classroom as a long-term substitute in a Lincoln Charter School social studies classroom.

After a mix-up with an electronic grade book gave several students in her class zeros for a quiz in 2011, she said an administrator told her he didn’t think she could teach and told her to pack her belongings and leave.

She said she planned to make changes to the grade book, but administrators never gave her the opportunity to explain the situation.

“I never got to change whatever he didn’t like,” Parry said. “There was no teacher observation or evaluations. I never got the chance to hear what I was doing wrong.”

Parry said she read a letter at Lincoln Charter’s board of directors meeting that asked the board to allow her to appeal her termination, but no action was taken.

She’s in graduate school at UNC-Charlotte and hopes to return to teaching.

The school offered the following statement about Parry’s dismissal:

“It is the school’s policy not to discuss the details of any confidential personnel matters, but that Lincoln Charter acted appropriately and in full compliance as it relates to termination of Ms. Parry’s employment,” the statement said.

Lake Norman Charter School teachers and parents lobbed similar accusations at Tim Riemer, the school’s former managing director, in 2011. Reimer resigned a day before the beginning of the 2011-12 school year.

No complaints have surfaced since the school’s high school principal Shannon Stein took over as managing director following Reimer’s departure.

Medley said the setup of a charter school board is similar to the relationship between teachers at traditional schools and local education boards. Most of the power rests with the boards, he said.

“The state gives all of its schools a lot of local control,” he said.