362 Graduates Later, North Country Charter Academy Eyes Expansion

Oct 21, 2015

Pictures of recent North Country Charter Academy graduates hang in the principal's office.
Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

North of the notches, the only charter school choice for students is the North Country Charter Academy, which serves high school-aged students in Littleton and Lancaster who have struggled in a traditional school setting.

Avion Erceg is one of those students.

She’s 16 years old and lives in Lincoln, and is one of about 20 students sitting at their computers in a classroom at the Littleton campus on a recent morning.

  “So this is my English class, this is my sophomore English class that I didn’t finish last year. And basically what you do, so Unit 1, there’s a pre-test, so you take that, and then it grades you. I got 67. And this little “E” means I exempted out of those topics from that class.”

After her three-hour morning session here in Littleton, she goes back to Lin-Wood High School in the afternoon; she spends nearly an hour on the bus every day.

At first, coming to the charter school wasn’t a choice at all.

“Last year, at the beginning of the year, I was forced to come here, court ordered to come here, and I was like, ‘No way, that school’s for idiots.’ I’m not an idiot, I know that. I don’t want to be surrounded by a bunch of these people. I was kind of stuck up about it in the beginning.

But her attitude changed when she realized she could actually get a high school diploma. 

North Country Charter Academy student Avion Erceg sits at her computer on a recent morning.
Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

“Then when I came here, I got 10 credits in one year. I failed my freshman year, then last year, I got 10 credits and I’m graduating, so really, I did four years of high schools in two years. That’s incredible.”

Avion is on pace to graduate next year and plans to become a child psychologist.

The school’s registrar Lynne Grigelevich walks me through the building.

As we enter the classroom, she says the environment here is key to student success.

“And when you come in, you’ll see it’s this quiet all the time.”

And she's right. As we're walking through, I see students working independently on computers.

There’s no talking and no distractions.

We move to Grigelevich’s office, where she handles all referrals for admission to the charter school from the ten partnering North Country school districts.

The demand for this type of program is definitely here and expansion is definitely in the minds of those who are up here. It's ensuring that the sustainability is there before you take that step.

"The sending districts are very aware that this is not a program – I want to use the word dumping ground – because it is a rigorous program. As you’ve seen in the classroom, it’s quiet. It’s like an office. We have a very strict attendance policy.”

North Country Charter Academy opened in 2004, one of the state’s first charter schools.

While most charter schools are started by a small group of citizens or educators, North Country Charter Academy was launched by a group of local public school superintendents.

Pierre Coutour has been involved in the partnership since the beginning.

He’s superintendent of the White Mountains School District, and is chair of the charter school’s board of trustees.

Students work independently using an online-based curriculum at the North Country Charter Academy.
Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

“It opened up right around the same time the dropout age was moved from 16 to 18. So now, typically students who didn’t fit the mold, who didn’t fit into the public school, they dropped out of school if they couldn’t make it when they turned 16. So we were forced to look for alternatives to find ways to keep these kids in school and get them their diploma.”

At North Country, neighboring districts that sent their students here pay $5,900 in tuition for a slot, with another $5,700 in aid coming in from the state.

But Grigelevich says that also means when local school districts are having tough years financially, there’s an impact.

“If they’re looking at mandatory budget cuts, that affects us because then we…they may not purchase the same number of slots, they may have to decrease the number of slots, which directly affects our budget.”

And for such an expansive region, it’s not surprising transportation is one of the school’s biggest challenges.

Grigelevich says the school relies on grants and support from private organizations to fill in funding gaps.

“We had a young lady who was stuck between two homes, a split home, and she lived in Whitefield. She had no way to get here at one point. The Littleton Rotary Charitable Foundation provided her with a bus pass on the North Country Transit.”

The school takes about 50 students each year, and more than 350 have graduated since it opened.

This map shows the growth of charter schools in New Hampshire since 2004. Schools that are grayed out have closed.
Credit Sara Plourde

Jim Hicks is a teacher at the Littleton campus.

He says every graduation is packed.

“The families are looking at this, they can’t thank you enough. The families are looking at the graduation thinking they never though they’d see this.”

And Grigelevich says there’s talk of expansion, with a site dedicated to special education students or students with emotional disabilities.

“And so the demand for this type of program is definitely here and expansion is definitely in the minds of those who are up here. It’s ensuring that the sustainability is there before you take that step.”