Eighth-grader Cameron Brown is learning how to divide this year at Apple Charter School.

He should have mastered that concept in elementary school, but he didn't. Brown wouldn't turn in science projects or assignments either, and he still passed to the next grade.

His school experience changed when he enrolled in the charter school on James Island. Brown said teachers take the time to ask students if they need help, and he feels comfortable accepting that offer.

"I was shy to raise my hand in a big class (at Fort Johnson Middle School)," he said. "I raise my hand now. The whole class raises their hands."

The small school has made a positive difference in many of its students' lives, but the Charleston County School Board said this week the school needs to close. The board has specific reasons for wanting to shut it down - enrollment is far smaller than what school leaders promised, its finances are in poor shape, students aren't achieving at target levels, and the school's board lacks a sufficient number of members.

If the school wants to stay open, it will have to appeal the county school board's decision. Patricia Williams, its founder and principal, said she knows without a doubt that the charter school is doing what organizers hoped it would, but she's not going to lead this fight.

"I'm going to leave it up to the parents," she said. "It's high-time black parents step up to the plate and focus more attention on their children's education."

Parent and board member Shmica Smalls said she plans to gather parents to rally behind the school and petition the board not to close it.

"We're not going down without a fight," she said. "We need it for our kids."

She enrolled her son in the school when it opened in fall 2010, and she said it's made a world of difference to him.

"It offers everything he needs for a good education," Smalls said.

Reasons for closure

One of the issues the school has is its enrollment. The school's charter, or its contract with the school board outlining its vision and offerings, said the school would serve 360 students, but only 74 were enrolled on the 10th day of school this year, when official enrollment figures are determined.

The k-8 school uses the former First Baptist Church of James Island's church and fellowship hall on Camp Road, and Williams said the capacity of that space is 140 students. She asked for and was denied spaces in other district buildings that would have allowed the school to grow, she said.

During a visit to the school Friday, some classes had less than 10 students. The three-walled elementary classrooms opened up into a shared hallway, and shower curtains served as the fourth "wall."

The school's enrollment affects how much money it receives; the district said the school owes it $70,445, and that its prior year's audit showed a negative fund balance of $159,142.

Williams said she knew the school owed the district money, but she said the school hasn't received timely disbursements of the funds owed to the school, such as federal Title 1 funds, and that the school never got some of its promised state money. She said the school received a clean audit, but she wasn't sure whether it had a deficit and would need to check on that.

State charter school law requires the school's board to have seven members. Williams produced a list of six names, and she said it was short one because a board member died in December.

The school district also said the school's achievement hasn't matched what it promised; 79.4 percent of its students were supposed to be meeting or exceeding state standards by last school year in English, but the school's percentage was 53.9 percent. The school has been ranked among the lowest-performing in the state.

Williams said that's because most students didn't succeed in a traditional classroom and are a few years behind. It takes more than a year to boost their scores, she said.

Making a difference

Students, volunteers and staff said this small school offers a needed alternative for students who don't do well in larger schools. Williams hugged most students she saw while walking around the building Friday, and she often said, "I'm proud of you."

Williams also is proud of the school's focus on teaching students real-world skills, such as financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Students create business plans, and students apply for and interview for jobs at a student-run store.

Carroll Lucas, a retired military officer, is a school mentor and volunteer. The entire staff is dedicated to students, and they take the time to know them on a personal level, he said.

"That's where the difference comes in - the genuine love and concern for the success and future of students," he said. "It's exactly what students need."

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.