Raleigh charter school sanctioned and under threat of closure over special-ed program

Torchlight Academy is a K-8 charter school in Raleigh, N.C. The elementary school students are educated at 3211 Bramer Drive.

Torchlight Academy is a K-8 charter school in Raleigh, N.C. The elementary school students are educated at 3211 Bramer Drive.

News & Observer file photo

One of North Carolina’s oldest charter schools has 10 days to fix problems in its special-education program or risk being closed by the state.

The State Board of Education voted Thursday to put Torchlight Academy, a K-8 charter school in Raleigh, on level 3 governance non-compliance status, giving it 10 days to fix issues in its exceptional children’s program. If the issues aren’t resolved, state board members warned that they may take further actions such as revoking the school’s charter.

“The Board of Education is deeply concerned about the ongoing, long-standing and widespread failure of Torchlight Academy to comply with federal special-education laws,” state board chairman Eric Davis said Thursday. “The State Board of Education is taking action today because it’s obligated to provide oversight of our schools.”

Torchlight has until Jan. 5 to present data to the state Office of Charter Schools showing that the issues are resolved. The state board will discuss the school at its Jan. 6 meeting.

The board went one step further than what was recommended by the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board, which had recommended putting Torchlight on probation and giving it 30 days to fix what officials called “grossly negligent administrative oversight” of its exceptional children’s program,

Torichlight’s leaders had urged the state board to reject the advisory board’s recommendations and to give them 90 days to comply.

“We believe the CSAB’s actions are unwarranted and overly severe,” Pam Banks-Lee, Torchlight’s board chair, and Don McQueen, the school’s executive director, wrote in a letter to the state board.

Banks-Lee and McQueen argued that a 30-day window is impractical and inconsistent because of the upcoming holiday break when parents and many members of the state Department of Public Instruction’s exceptional children’s division will be away. They said a 90-day period to correct problems would be better.

‘Numerous deficiencies’ found at Torchlight

Torchlight opened in 1999. It serves 600 mostly Black and Hispanic elementary and middle school students. It’s drawn praise over the years for its high academic growth results on state tests.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow. But the state’s 203 charter schools aren’t exempt from the federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

During a routine February 2020 compliance visit, DPI says it found “numerous deficiencies” in the services that are required under federal law for special-education students. The school was given until April 2021 to fix the problems, many of which DPI says are still unresolved.

In June 2021, DPI says it discovered that the school’s former exceptional children’s director had altered student records to make it appear that some out-of-date Individualized Education Programs for special-education students were now current.

In September 2021, DPI says it conducted an unannounced visit at Torchlight that discovered more issues.

The Charter Schools Advisory Board gave several reasons for recommending disciplinary action, including:

”Failure to properly implement the Individualized Education Program process as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.”

”Inability and/or failure to provide access by NCDPI EC staff to EC student and finance records when requested.”

”Lack of qualified staff in the EC program.”

“Falsely reporting staff’s compliance with Every Child Accountability and Tracking System (ECATS) training.”

”Failure to provide all documentation requested by DPI’s EC Division.”

Accusing DPI of being adversarial

Torchlight’s leaders fired back at DPI’s exceptional children’s division, accusing it and the Office of Charter Schools of taking an adversarial position against the school instead of trying to help resolve the problems.

Torchlight points to how DPI’s exceptional children’s division is listed as being noncompliant with the U.S. Department of Education. School leaders say they’re being held to a higher standard for being non-compliant during thr COVID-19 pandemic than DPI.

“We do not claim to be perfect, and we are working diligently to correct all noncompliance, but we are deeply concerned the EC Division has failed to appropriately communicate with us and appears intent upon covering its own inability to provide actual and meaningful notice of alleged continuing violations and technical assistance that would resolve the outstanding concerns by supporting the school and the EC program,” Torchlight says in its letter.

Torchlight disputed the allegations, accusing DPI of not providing proper notice of their concerns and of exaggerating the problems. For instance, they said that the changes to students were user error and not malicious.

Double standard compared to Wake County

Torchlight’s leaders contend that it’s a double standard that it’s being held to a higher standard than the Wake County school system, which includes Raleigh. Torchlight notes how it’s Black and Hispanic students typically outperform the Wake County school system academically.

Additionally, Torchlight says DPI isn’t talking about closing down the Wake County school system even though the district has received multiple complaints over the years about how it serves exceptional children.

In Torchlight’s case, DPI says 18 children in the exceptional children’s program are not in compliance.

“Let it be known that Torchlight Academy can and will cure any and all concerns related to those eighteen students but for the sake of the remaining almost six hundred students Torchlight Academy should not be threatened with closure,” the school wrote in its letter.

School refuses to ‘acknowledge its failures’

Torchlight’s defiant response didn’t sit well with the state board.

“The board remains concerned that Torchlight appears to have engaged in intentional misconduct such as altering documents to change dates and documents on students’ IEPs without conducting the necessary meetings, data review and updates,” said Davis, the state board chair.

“The board is also concerned that rather than acknowledge its failures, Torchlight continues to blame the Office of Charter Schools and DPI’s Exceptional Children’s Division for Torchlight’s non-compliance and takes little or no responsibility for its failure to comply with federal and state special-education laws, rules and regulations,”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.


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