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Fletcher cool to charter school's request for land

FLETCHER — Parents who support a new charter school in northern Henderson County encountered skepticism when they asked the Fletcher Town Council to give them land for a schoolhouse.

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FernLeaf Community Charter School cleared a major hurdle last week when the state Board of Education gave it preliminary approval to open in August 2016. The school plans to open with 176 pupils in grades K-3, adding one grade a year until it reaches eighth grade and a projected enrollment of 416 students.
FernLeaf leaders and parents of prospective students appeared at the Fletcher Town Council meeting last week and again on Monday night to appeal for the town’s help in its building plans. Charter schools receive public funding for operating costs but must pay for their own buildings. FernLeaf wants the town of Fletcher to donate property around the new Town Hall, which is part of the council has set aside for a “Heart of Fletcher” development.
“It is a wish of ours to locate there,” Michael Luplow, the chair of FernLeaf’s Board of Directors, said in an interview. “We made a presentation to the town council a week ago to mixed reviews. A number of the councilmen had some concerns.”
Luplow and board member Kevin Tierney proposed use of the land under a five-year lease at $1 a year, during which time FernLeaf would provide mobile classrooms. The land would then be given as a gift if FernLeaf performs well and raises the money to build a 38,000- to 45,000-square-foot school building with 18 classrooms and 30 teachers and staff. Should FernLeaf not meet their financing commitment, it would return the land to the town.

‘Extremely ambitious’ timeline

On Monday night Luplow read a letter from Isabel Taylor, the owner of Bell’s School for People Under Six in Fletcher.
“While there are private schools in Fletcher, many parents cannot afford the tuition cost of private education,” Taylor wrote. “The religious focus of some private schools may also not be acceptable to some families. When I heard about the philosophy of FernLeaf Charter School, I was both happy and endeared. Could it be possible to have a charter school in the area that uses a hands-on approach to learning that is so much a part of how we know that children learn?”
Kevin Tierney reflected upon the June 1 meeting, and admitted, “Based upon last week’s conversation, we listened very carefully and we’re sensitive to the fact that perhaps we were overreaching by also asking the town fathers if you would consider helping us install the sewer, water, and utilities, and that’s problematic to the town.” He also conceded that the projected timeline of the school was “extremely ambitious.”
While expressing support for the school, the council was unwilling to commit to the land donation its leaders sought.
“We’re as much in favor of education of our young people as anybody around here,” said Mayor Bill Moore. “But I have to look at what is best for the citizens of Fletcher, not just a certain few, whatever the subject it is. … This town council is certainly not against education. What we have to look at is what it’s gonna cost the citizens of Fletcher.”
“The town of Fletcher per se is not in the business of running schools,” added Councilman Bob Davy. “That’s a county function. I hope they can make a go of it, because I think it really does sound good.”

‘Experiential, project-based’ learning

A teacher for 16 years in Illinois and Henderson County, Luplow teaches orchestra at Apple Valley Middle School and North Henderson High School.
“Our board is considering a lot of different options for school director,” he said when asked whether he is in line to lead the school. “I am one of the options.”
FernLeaf said on its website it would offer “experiential and project based learning model utilizing the Common Core and N.C. Essential Standards” in an atmosphere that encourages children “to develop their innate creativity and curiosity” and inspires them to “pursue their unique passions and aptitudes.”
Experiential learning, Luplow said, involves hands-on projects to teach standard subjects.
“For example, a lot of the basic math principles can be implemented through building things,” he said. “The teachers that work in this type of environment are skilled and adept at weaving it into a variety of different experiences. A teacher who had half of his class out with the flu might get the class engaged in a discussion of what really is happening, how are these germs transmitted back and forth, to weave that into a discussion about health and cleanliness.”
The FernLeaf board has developed policies for hiring staff and plans to start prescreening applicants this summer, Luplow said.
“An additional feature for us is we would really like to see teachers in action with kids before we would ever consider hiring them,” he said. “We would create an environment for them (in a mockup classroom) to come to teach.”
The school plans two classes per grade and will keep class sizes small. Elementary class sizes will be about 50 percent smaller than conventional public schools and middle classes will be 80 percent smaller, Luplow said.
“One of the big draws is that small class size and that greater sense of community,” he said.
Under state law, FernLeaf can’t start enrolling students until January. With an email list of more than 300, the school expects to have plenty of signups and may have to go to a lottery, Luplow said.