Space, money ongoing issues at charter school as applications rise

Some seven months after the Community Public Charter School took up residence at Murray High School, proponents of the Albemarle  County school say the move is not everything they had hoped it would be.

The school, which serves grades six through eight, is at its capacity of 50 students. In its eighth year of operation, it now occupies one hallway at Murray, home of Albemarle County’s first charter school, established in 1988.

For now, Albemarle officials said, enrollment is capped, but if the charter school had its druthers, there would be more room to grow.

“We’d like to at least go to 70,” said Bobbi Snow, who co-founded the school in 2008. “We would love to have 60 or 70 kids — that is what we can imagine having and attracting, but there is no way we can have that in that building.”

Physical space at the charter school has declined since last year, division officials said. When the charter school was at Burley Middle School, teachers and students had more than 4,100 square feet of space. At Murray, they have 3,925 square feet.

The school will face another challenge next year when it will lose its director position.

The school has a memorandum of understanding with Albemarle that funds it at one full-time equivalency for every 10 students. Anything above that threshold is incumbent upon fundraising.

Raising that money has become tougher recently, Snow said.

The school is staffed above the one-to-10 ratio outlined in the memorandum of understanding, and outside funds were not able to pay for the director position next year.

The director is CPCS’s only administrator dedicated full-time to the school. The school’s principal also is the principal of Murray.

Parent Cara Bickers said she is worried that losing the director position will have unforeseen consequences.

“That will be really hard on the students. … I am hard-pressed to think that there won’t be changes in students that maybe they don’t realize at this moment,” Bickers said.

“We have struggled for the past few years on the fundraising end,” said Ashby Kindler, principal of Murray and CPCS. “The county is doing their part of the agreement, and we are unable to raise the funds for the other part.”

County funding for the school has not changed, Kindler said.

“This is not a [school division] budget cut,” she said. “There is a perception that it is, and it is not.”

Snow and the charter school’s leadership had hoped the new space would allow for expansion.

“We thought we would be moving into a space that would fit our growth model, and it doesn’t,” she said. “So we are still kind of stuck in a place where we can’t really grow.”

The charter school has seen interest in its program expand since the move, and this year has more applicants than ever, Kindler said.

“We have more students than we have had enrolled in the past, which is great, and we are having continued interest and applications earlier than we ever have in the past,” she said.

The move served to raise the profile of the school, which is still working to carve out an identity within the division, she said.

“Murray has been in the county for 28 years now, and even now, people don’t know that we are there,” Kindler said. “We are only in our eighth year, so we are still building that reputation,” she said of CPCS.

Students now attend all of their classes on the same hallway, a benefit they did not have at Burley.

“Charter also now has their own entrance into the building, which was not the case at Burley, and they no longer are in a basement space — lighting, for example, is brighter,” said county schools spokesman Phil Giaramita. “The new location is more cohesive since the rooms are next to one another.”

For now, Giaramita said, the county projects enrollment at the school to remain steady.

“Right now, there’s not a plan that suggests the charter school will expand much beyond its current enrollment, so the possibility of reaching Murray’s 110 students is unrealistic at this point,” he said.

Despite the tight quarters and fundraising challenges, Bickers said, the school has been good for her family.

“It is amazing, and it has been amazing for my child,” she said. “[It] offers a place for students who don’t feel that they have a space where they can feel comfortable.”