Take a charter school where low-income African American students shine at math and science.
Add a university that specializes in urban education.
Create a program that spreads success to struggling students across the country.
Thats the vision of Schoolwise, a partnership between Sugar Creek Charter in north Charlotte and UNC Charlottes Urban Education Collaborative. It made its public debut Thursday with a lunch that drew more than 400 people to the Ritz Carlton to hear renowned urban educator Geoffrey Canada.
Canada, founder of the Harlem Childrens Zone, said Charlotte stands poised to surmount the totally phony arguments that pit charters against traditional public schools.
Youve got a great opportunity here, he said. You could do something that no one has done in America.
The Schoolwise fundraiser drew leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, colleges and universities, nonprofits, foundations and government bodies.
Canada, whose New York City project includes charter schools, and founders of Sugar Creek agreed: Charter schools can create islands of success, but theyll never be enough to help all the children who are failing. It takes a united front on public education to accomplish that, they said.
We can be a little test case to help everybody do it better, said former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, a Sugar Creek founder.
Canada warned the crowd against seeking quick fixes and giving up when those fail. People use a failure in education to suggest we shouldnt try anything else, he said.
Sugar Creek is an example. It opened in 2000 in an old Kmart just off North Tryon and Sugar Creek Road, created to provide choices for inner-city families unhappy with CMS. For the first few years, so many students were failing that the state threatened to yank the charter.
The local board fired the for-profit management company that had opened the school. Cheryl Turner, a former Baltimore teacher, became director in 2001 and began inching the K-8 school toward success.
It took years, and Turner laughs when asked about the secret: Weve just been teaching.
Sugar Creek students spend 10 more days in school than those in CMS, and their school day is half an hour longer. Students can stay for a free after-school program thats focused on academics. This year about 300 of the 900 students participate, getting an extra 2 1/2 hours of learning each day.
The school uses a curriculum called Learning-Focused. But Turner says the real key is paying attention to each class and constantly adjusting how teachers are assigned and what theyre doing to meet the kids needs. Over the years, she said, her faculty has learned that every step needs to be spelled out for their children, who dont have some of the background knowledge more affluent students bring.
Kids with challenges
Critics of charter schools say those schools gain an edge by cherry-picking students with families who are motivated to seek alternatives. In North Carolina, charters dont have to offer transportation or meals, which can eliminate the neediest students.
Sugar Creek does both. It recently added a cafeteria and has 11 buses that pick up students from across Mecklenburg County, making one run when school is out and another when the after-school program dismisses.
Almost all the students are African American and 90 percent qualify for lunch subsidies, used nationwide as a gauge of school poverty. About one in 10 have disabilities, the same proportion as in CMS.
Last year, more than 80 percent of Sugar Creeks students passed the state math and science exams, topping the averages for North Carolina and CMS. They outperformed black students statewide and locally by large margins.
Almost everywhere, minority and low-income students lag on test scores and graduation rates, and the challenges tend to be even bigger at schools where most students are disadvantaged. CMS has tried everything from offering bonuses to recruit top teachers to closing low-performing urban middle schools and creating K-8 schools, the same structure as Sugar Creek.
Local philanthropists, inspired partly by an earlier Canada speech in Charlotte, have raised $55 million to bolster nine west Charlotte schools with demographics similar to Sugar Creeks. Founders of Project LIFT said they chose to work with CMS rather than create another charter school because solutions need to reach thousands of students.
The people who run Sugar Creek agree.
We will never have more than 900 kids, and that doesnt begin to touch all the kids in Mecklenburg County who need to be touched, Turner said.
Thats part of what sparked the UNCC connection. Chance Lewis directs the universitys Urban Education Collaborative, a group of education professors working with local schools to study and improve public education. Hes leading an effort to develop a math/science curriculum that offers high-level lessons in terms urban children can relate to.
Sugar Creek will put the lessons to the test, starting in its after-school program. The lessons will be specifically tailored to N.C. standards, but Lewis said he hopes theyll eventually reshape teaching across the country.
UNCC researchers will also study Sugar Creek to derive lessons about whats helping their students achieve at higher levels. The Sugar Creek board contributed a $150,000 seed grant to launch the Schoolwise partnership.
Superintendent Heath Morrison, several members of the CMS board and leaders of Project LIFT attended the Schoolwise luncheon. Meanwhile, the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association hosted about 40 people at the Hilton University to talk about expanding the growing menu of charters in the Charlotte region.
Canada said Charlotte is fortunate to have so many people trying to improve education, and rare in their willingness to work together.
Most of the charter schools I know are actually rooting against the traditional public schools, Canada said.
Vinroot and Frank Martin, chairman of the Sugar Creek board, said their philosophy is the opposite. With charters and CMS working together, we can give Charlottes children the best public education of any city in the country, Martin said.