Seventy-five students filing into gray modular classrooms on the edge of uptown this week are previewing one of North Carolina’s biggest education trends.
They’re the first students at Invest Collegiate, one of six new charter schools opening in the Charlotte area this month. The surge in charters represents the biggest shift in public education since North Carolina opened the doors to the alternative, independent public schools in the late 1990s.
Two years ago, state lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap that restricted opportunities to launch new charters for almost 15 years. Before that, anyone seeking to open a new school had to compete for the small number of charters that became available when other schools closed.
A handful of new charters opened last summer, but most have just worked their way through the process that leads from application to approval to letting students in the door. Statewide, 23 new charters are opening this month. The state now has 129 charter schools.
“I think it’s going to be huge,” said Antoinette Ellison, a former academic facilitator for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools who is now Invest Collegiate’s head of school. “I think it’s going to require other schools, not just public schools but private and religious schools, to step it up. I think it’s going to raise the rigor across the board.”
Skeptics see charters as a risk for students and communities, opening with visions that may not materialize and siphoning money from traditional public schools that may eventually see students returning from charters.
But the heightened competition is making a difference.
This week CMS principals and top administrators are at a two-day “transformation summit” at Hopewell High designed to make the district’s 160 schools more academically appealing and competitive.
Also this week, the state Board of Education will vote on new applications for charters opening in 2014. An advisory panel has recommended 26 for approval, including nine in Mecklenburg County. If all are approved and open, that will more than double the number of Mecklenburg charter schools in two years – from 12 in 2012 to 25 in 2014.
Most public schools will open Aug. 26, a date determined by state law. But charters can set their own dates. Invest Collegiate students started Monday and will go straight through to Thanksgiving, Ellison said.
After Thanksgiving, Ellison’s students won’t return until Jan. 6. They’ll have a two-week break in spring and six weeks off next summer.
Charters also have more flexibility in hiring, paying and firing teachers. Ellison, who worked at Eastway Middle School and Hidden Valley Elementary, said she’s offering a higher salary to her teachers, most of whom are right out of college, than CMS would.
Charters are run by independent nonprofit boards, with money coming from state, local and federal governments. Some hire for-profit management companies to run the schools, though Invest Collegiate does not. The local founders hope to expand to six schools around North Carolina using a similar philosophy.
Like other public schools, charters can’t charge tuition or use selective admission.
But unlike district schools, they don’t have to offer busing or meals, a restriction that some say eliminates students from the most impoverished and fragile families.
Invest Collegiate is drawing students “from Lake Wylie to Huntersville,” despite the fact that parents must get them to and from school, Ellison said. She doesn’t have a poverty tally yet, but says her children are economically, racially and culturally diverse. Many, she says, are classified as academically gifted. Their parents told Ellison they weren’t getting enough attention and challenge in their old schools.
Students can cross county lines to attend charter schools. Invest Collegiate isn’t pulling from other counties, Ellison said. But two large charters that are about to open – Cabarrus Charter Academy in Concord and Langtree Charter Academy in Mooresville, both run by the Charter Schools USA management company – are likely to do so.
The view from Invest Collegiate can be bleak. Located on 10 acres between the Charlotte School of Law and Bryant Park in the Wesley Heights neighborhood, the two six-classroom units look out on the back of WBTV studios, with chain-link fences topped by coils of barbed wire. A morning downpour sent water under the doors, leaving the carpet wet at the entrance.
Like other new charters, Invest Collegiate is opening in a temporary building. The founding board had hoped to lease the vacant Wilmore School from CMS, but that didn’t work out, Ellison said. The school is working with a developer to build a school, and the sight of it rising nearby will make it easier for families to tolerate the boxy, gun-metal gray setting for a year, she said.
While county commissioners provide construction money for CMS, charters must pay for their own facilities, raising donations or pulling from the operating money they get from the government. Ellison said Invest will lease the new school from the developer, with the option to buy.
Proving their worth
To parents, students and faculty at Invest Collegiate and other charters, what’s inside is what matters.
Invest focuses on preparing students for college, starting with kindergarten. There are small classes, arts opportunities, mandatory public service, leadership activities and twice-weekly Spanish classes.
Like many charters, Invest also promises continuity. It’s opening with kindergarten through sixth grade and plans to add grades as students advance, eventually covering K-12.
Todd and Teresa Calamita decided to send their son, Colin, to kindergarten there after he got wait-listed for a CMS magnet school. They live within walking distance of Invest.
“At first we were a little skeptical because it was brand new, and we’ve seen some charter schools we weren’t impressed with,” said Todd Calamita, a financial planner. The leadership of Ellison and co-founder Kate Alice Dunaway won them over, he said.
Of course, nearly every public and private school says it’s preparing students for college and developing leadership skills, Ellison acknowledges. It will be up to her, the fledgling faculty and the families who are taking a chance on a startup to demonstrate results.
Calamita agrees: “It’s one thing to have a plan and another thing to implement it. That’s where we had to make a leap of faith.”
Joel Medley, director of the state Office of Charter Schools, says being free of a school district doesn’t guarantee success. Charters, like other public schools, span the spectrum from weak to outstanding, he says – an assessment backed up by national research.
The expansion of charters will only be successful if all public schools shift toward success, he said: “To me, the end result of this should be academic excellence.”
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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