Is Envision Science Academy Charter School as Big of a Mess as Some Claim?

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Envision Science Academy is a Wake Forest area K-8 charter school with a rash of concerns and opinions swirling about. The school describes themselves as a “STEAM public charter school” (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) and last year was acknowledged by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)3 charity. No public tax returns are available online yet.

The issues surrounding the parent controversy seem to have been inflamed over a lack of communication and actions which have fueled the simmering unhappiness of some.

Recent staff transitions and a tight-lipped board meeting with the school attorney present only seem to have poured gas on the parents and maybe some teachers.

I’ve had the opportunity to hear from both the board at the school and parents. And while I’d love to tell you there is some middle ground in ongoing disputes, it instead seems the parties are standing on the opposing edges of a deep canyon.

The powder keg of unhappiness seems to have exploded at the April 28th parent meeting.

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Lacy Drummond, one of the parents of a student at Envision, first raised some issues which I looked into. She said, “I think most people hoped that after going to the meeting and listening, we could all form opinions, and things would work out.

The school sent out a message stating they would have a meeting, they would answer some of our questions, and listen.

When we arrived we were told that their attorney was present and advised them not to speak to us. They told us the rules of the meeting and offered everyone two minutes to speak.

Many people asked the board to step down or certain members of the board.

Issues were brought up that certain board members have acted unethically and not in the best interest of the school.

A teacher spoke about her issues with the board president. She said that Monica has refused to speak to her for months. Also that as a member of the board she intervened (and changed policy) to prevent her child from being disciplined after the child hit another student. The teacher is not returning next year and stated that other teachers felt the same way.

Many teachers are planning to leave at the end of the year. Teachers were told they all need to reinterview and then will be told in June if they will be offered a job for next year. Some teachers spoke. Some husbands of teachers spoke.

A parent shared a story of their kindergarten child coming home and telling her about the “F” word he heard when a board member used it at a teacher as she yelled and berated the teacher in front of staff, parents, and students. The teacher has never received an apology. The board member started this encounter with the teacher with yelling, do you know who I am? I’m a board member.

The school has been a good fit for many children this year. The administration and staff have been great. However, now we lost the principal and three full time teachers mid year. A lot for any school but especially for a small charter school.

Other charters in NC have failed and I fear if the board does not change this one will. Our funding is based on seats filled. If we can’t fill all seats the funding will not be there.”

Others people, like Sondra Triblehorn said, “It’s great to see such dedicated parents. We love Envision, the teachers are outstanding and we look forward to returning next year.”

When I contacted the school I did not hear anything back at first. Later I received an email asking me to submit my questions in advance. “We wanted to circle back to you. Since we have not received your interview questions, our board will issue a statement instead. You should receive it soon. Thank you for your interest.”

Eventually the Board of Directors eventually sent me the following message. In all communications with Envision Science Academy nobody would or did identify themselves, even when asked.

The Envision Science Academy statement in response to my request to speak with someone there. “Envision Science Academy is committed to its mission of providing innovative instruction through experiential learning with a focus on science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) in order to prepare elementary and middle school students to compete, lead, and excel in the global marketplace. Envision has made tremendous strides as a first year charter school and will continue to hone and implement the various aspects of its charter as the school grows.

Since the opening of Envision in August 2014, the school has enjoyed many successes. The teachers are doing a phenomenal job implementing project-based learning within the STEAM framework. The students are safe and secure, and they’re engaged and having fun learning. Community partners, including Bronto, UPS, and Junior Achievement, have stepped up to offer in-kind, instructional, and hands-on support. In addition, Envision parents play a key role in so many aspects of the school, such as donating, volunteering, chaperoning, and offering feedback. More recently, Envision Science Academy held its 1st Annual Design Challenge Fair at North Carolina State University, where students presented ideas for what the new permanent campus would look like. Each student design clearly encompassed all of the STEAM components. Envision could not have executed this phenomenal event without dedicated sponsors and supporters, including NC State, ThermoFisher, Design Development, and TTEC. A video clip of the Design Challenge Fair can be seen on WNCN’s website.

The Envision community has accomplished a great deal in only nine short months. The school is looking forward to significant growth in its second academic year, which boasts new staff, students, and a healthy waiting list. With growth comes change. Recently, Envision announced staff changes at the administrative level. Although the school is legally unable to comment on personnel matters, Envision held a successful parent forum where the community had an opportunity to express their concerns and suggestions as the school looks forward to the next school year. The Envision board did have an opportunity to reiterate that it always has the best interest of the students and the school at heart. The board’s primary focus is on the safety, security and academic achievement of its students. In addition, the Envision board would like to acknowledge the parents for their trust and most importantly the dedication of the teachers.” – Source

While I’m completely happy to publish their May 5th statement in its entirety it seems to completely disregard the festering unhappiness of the moment. Are they unaware of the parent unhappiness?

It seems things slid downhill fast at the April 24th special board meeting where the beloved principal departed and a replacement was almost instantly on hand.

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Lacy Drummond said this about that meeting, “Notice went out about a special board meeting. It was on Friday at 2. Not long before parents had to be in carpool. The notice stated that they were discussing HVAC issues and going in closed session for a personnel issue. The notice stated “no action will be taken” They met for three minutes about HVAC. They went into closed session. The principal resigned and the new one was hired. The new principal was able to meet at the school 30 minutes later for a staff meeting.

There was no way they planned for no action to be taken…

Also they have made repairs in the past without a board meeting. Not sure why they needed one to fix the HVAC.”

Not long after a petition was launched on Change.org to remove the current board members. It resulted in 107 signatures received and the following posted comments.

Dare Peed said, “The Board of Directors are no longer following the charter that they created.”

Susan Wilkinson said, “The board has made unethical decisions and repeatedly been dishonest with stakeholders, causing undue stress on teachers and administrators during a critical testing period at ESA.”

Neil Harding said, “I’m signing this because Steve Pond was a uniting force at Envision Science Academy and the actions of the board of directors in recent months have been at best unethical and at worst illegal.”

Erin Lanning said, “I strongly believe in Mr. Pond’s leadership, based on the success of ESA. I believe the Board of Directors has acted unprofessionally and not in the best interest of the school.” – Source, Source

But not all responses I received were negative. “XXXX” [This is where there was a positive comment by someone who asked that it be removed from the story.]

Another parent said their initial experiences at Envision Science Academy was wonderful but things have changed. “Let me start by saying we were thrilled when our daughter got into Envsion (as this is the first year of the school), it sounded amazing with STEAM/Project based learning, Mandarin, a principal, Steve Pond, that was moving from the very elite Trinity Academy, and the pick of the best teachers in Wake County. We have been very pleased with her education and the quality of teachers that are currently on staff.

All was well until around December 2014 when word got out the a parent had communication from “The Board” that there would be a sibling cap for the 2015 lottery and in order to make the school more “diverse” siblings would not be granted automatic entry. A parent forum was held the Board relented. We thought that was the end of it, until right after Christmas word came that both (and the only) third grade teachers has resigned due to harassment in the classroom from the Board. An incident in carpool was then reported by parents when a Board member verbally attacked a teacher for being told to hang up her cell phone. It then came out this was a very common occurrence, and the Board had been using the school and teachers for their own personal agenda, including admonishing the principal for standing up for the teachers when it came to the Board “letting them teach” in the classroom. Another teacher came forward to say she was told to hide an incident with a Board members child when that child struck another in her classroom. The Board also did away with “differentiated” learning after one of their children was not placed on the highest level of learning, and another member did away with “Fun Friday” when her child forgot his homework and was not allowed to participate. We also have no security or camera system in place in the school, malfunctioning bathrooms, and HVAC issues, and we have been continually brushed off when we inquire where and when the school will be moving to Wake Forest. All these issues have been confirmed by teachers, who are scared of losing their jobs. Many have come forward because they are not returning next year.

The final straw came when our beloved principal,who had only been in the position since August was forced to “resign” in a secret closed door Board meeting on April 24th. Within 24 hours parents had mobilized and come forward with grievances they had experienced at the hand of the Board, over 100 signatures were signed to a petition to replace the Board.

After very negative press on Facebook the Board called a parent forum and attended with their attorney. We were told they were not allowed to speak. Parents were allowed to voice concerns but no response was or has been given (over a week later). New parents whose children got in for next year stormed out of the meeting calling the school “a joke” and many parents and teachers gave emotional pleas for the board to step down.

The school is set to move to Wake Forest in 2016. The majority of the families that attend live in Wake Forest, including the former principal who resides in Heritage. To this day we have been given NO answers as to the future of the school. Teachers and students are leaving in droves at the end of the year. All of us have worked so hard to build this school up, with money, time, support and the teachers are amazing but the future is not looking bright. We need answers. We don’t want to lose our amazing teachers and supportive families. In the end the children suffer and the Board does not seem to understand this. We want answers and that is why we have chosen to go to the press.”

Jenny Terry said, “We haven’t had any negative issues with Envision at all – and I have not personally seen any board members do anything immoral. I have faith in the school the board created and they hired some phenomenal teachers to implement their visions. Parents have to understand that this is a brand new school and there will be some bumps in the road – they can’t compare this school to other highly successful charter schools yet. My son is in 4th grade and came from another charter school in Raleigh that is highly ranked. We are confident, even with the recent slew of parents criticizing the board, that we made the right decision. Trust me, if I didn’t think Envision was a good learning environment for my son, I would yank him tomorrow and send him elsewhere.”

XXX” [A formerly supportive parent has asked that their comment be removed.]

Another parent noted this about the administration change, “The new principal is an interim and is only available part time. She was also hired and in the school prior to having a background check. This is against Envision policies and charter school laws. Parents question why they could not retain the current principal for another 5 weeks which is the end of the school year. Students are about to start end of grade testing and this is already a stressful time. Parents also question why it was announced on Facebook with no other communication. Once parents responded negatively to the Facebook post and sent emails, a special meeting was called.”

Instead of addressing these issues, they have a parent meeting and they hide behind their attorney. They called the meeting saying they would answer questions. When we arrived they said their attorney advised them not to talk to us. The original invitation is still on their Facebook page. As of today the Board has still not responded to parent concerns.

At the meeting, teachers spoke, husbands of teachers spoke, and many parents spoke. The majority (but not everyone) agreed the Board has issues that need to be addressed and that some members of the Board need to step down.

A teacher explained she was not returning next year and that she has heard the same from some of her colleagues.

Three full time teachers left Envision mid year. All three teachers had Board members students in their class. Envision only has 14 classroom teachers this year plus four specialists.

Allegedly a Shane Trent posted this on their Facebook page about the last inflammatory board meeting, “On the bizarre side… a tiny fraction of the parents, who claimed to not use Facebook, were very upset about what people were telling them was being posted on Facebook. Not upset enough to actually get an account and read for themselves, but upset enough to speak out at a public meeting.

A pair of incoming parents bailed and said they were not sending their kid to ESA for 3rd grade and left the meeting.

A teacher shared that she was upset when a board member intervened to prevent the board member’s child from being disciplined in the classroom after hitting another student (and the teacher would not be returning next year). A parent shared their story of their kindergarten child coming come and telling her about a board member using the “F” word when berating a teacher and pointed out that the teacher never received an apology.

Finally, there was also a small fraction that took umbrage at any questioning of the boards behavior or actions. I understand disagreeing with the significance of someone’s actions but it strikes me as odd to dispute someone’s right to question a board member’s behavior.”

Hopefully the board and parents will cross that wide canyon and work collectively to resolve these issues for the benefit of the children who deserve continued exceptional education and learning opportunities. After all, the corporation founding documents say the nonprofit purpose is charitable and educational. – Source

It seems the situation at Envision has changed a lot in the last two years. In 2013 the school told the State of North Carolina, “The school will partner with parents to foster students’ positive character traits, such as honesty, self-discipline, and integrity, which may address discipline, academic, and safety concerns.”

According to the same document the board shall have the following duties and responsibilities:

“The board of directors shall constitute no less than seven and no more than eleven members. Paid employees, such as the principal and head administrator, may serve on the board of directors only as non-voting members. The board shall perform any and all duties imposed on them collectively and individually by law, the Articles of Incorporation, or the Bylaws. Envision Science Academy is currently governed by a non-profit board of directors comprised of dedicated individuals who bring qualities of leadership, service, and expertise in a range of fields. The strategic recruitment of the board members was critically important as each person brings his/her own personal and professional experiences, expertise, perspectives and contacts. Envision’s board reflects the diversity of the communities served which strengthens our position to execute the school’s mission and confidently face opportunities and challenges. In addition to being parents who are passionate about education, our board is currently represented by members with the following areas of expertise: fundraising, law, human resources, finance, education, sales/marketing, business, management, engineering, science, and technology.

The board will ensure that the school is an educational and operational success by ensuring that:

  • Student performance reflects a solid grasp of STEAM knowledge and core standards as evidenced by high marks on EOGs and other state and federally mandated assessments.
  • Enrollment goals (i.e. diverse applicant pool and increased number of applicants) and growth targets are met or exceeded.
  • Annual independent audits are financially sound.
  • Administrator and staff turnover is minimized.

To ensure that there will be active and effective representation of key stakeholders, including parents, all board meetings will be open to the public, as required by law.

The board of directors will provide notice of board meetings through the school’s website, Facebook page, and other appropriate public locations, such as the library.

The board meetings may be held at a consistent time, day and location each month in order to increase accessibility for parents and community members to attend. At each meeting, the agenda will include time for public comments. The board may also conduct annual parent surveys in order to collect valuable feedback.”

Those same forming documents layout how the decision-making process can be influenced by parents, “The board of directors will establish a committee to develop or address school policies. The committee will bring its recommendations to the board, who will then review the recommendations and ensure that it aligns with the mission of the school. The board will review, discuss and vote on the school policies.”

Parents were welcomed to participate since “A parent-teacher association will be developed to serve as the conduit for engaging parents and strengthening school support. The proposed name for the association, Envision Parents in Action (EPA), demonstrates the level of involvement encouraged from our parents. Parents will also be engaged in the life of Envision Science Academy through volunteering (club, classroom, lunch, and field trips), school newsletter, and the school and individual class websites.” – Source

Here is the bottom line, whatever is happening at Envision Science Academy right now appears to have fractured a formally happy learning environment. Hopefully parents, who help support and fund the school, and the school administration and board can find a way to openly and frankly operate the school for the benefit of the children by finding a way to get along.

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