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Charter school would focus on vocations

By Elisabeth Arriero
earriero@charlotteobserver.com

A group of south-Charlotte residents has applied to open a charter school that would focus on careers including carpentry and masonry.

Founders of the Russell Lee Jones Charter High School said they hope the school is open for the 2016-17 school year.

Ron Shepherd, who lives off Carmel Road in south Charlotte, is the Chief Operations Officer for Russell Lee Jones Vocational Training Inc. He said such a school is needed because there are not enough vocational training options in local public schools.

Charter schools are public schools run by independent boards and overseen by the state. They charge no tuition and traditionally accept all students, with selection by lottery if there are more applicants than seats.

The South Mecklenburg Alliance of Responsible Taxpayers hosted a meeting Jan. 16 at the Raintree Country Club clubhouse at which Shepherd described the proposed school to residents. SMART, formed in 2012, represents south-Charlotte residents who want to become a city separate from Charlotte.

Russell Lee Jones Charter High School would have similar graduation requirements to those at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; however, it also would provide a variety of electives, including a focus on trade-specific training.

“The concept is the same as the courses they’re teaching at CPCC, but the target audience is younger,” said Shepherd, who taught construction and carpentry in the early 2000s at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology. He has also taught at Central Piedmont Community College.

Subjects would include carpentry, electricity, heating and air conditioning, masonry, plumbing and welding.

Although the group has not determined a location, Shepherd said it likely would be in south Charlotte in one of the following school zones: East Mecklenburg, Butler, Providence, Myers Park, Marie G. Davis Military & Global Leadership Academy, Olympic, South Mecklenburg, Ardrey Kell or Independence.

Shepherd said the group plans to lease an existing building and renovate instead of building a new facility.

“It is expensive. That is a hurdle that’s difficult to overcome for charter start-up: retrofitting a building,” he said. “It’s probably the greatest single expense that charter schools encounter, and the greatest challenge.”

The group plans to serve 300 students during the first year and grow to as many as 750 students by the fourth, Shepherd said.

“That’s the tipping point where you can contact the folks to bring ROTC, and we feel that ROTC is a benefit to any school that it’s placed in,” said Shepherd.

Shepherd said general-education classes would be limited to about 24 students, with trade-specific classes like masonry hovering around 10 students.

The school would be part of a growing list of charter schools in the state, made possible, in part, by the removal in 2011 of a state cap on charter schools.

On Jan. 9, the state Board of Education gave final approval to 26 new public charter schools in North Carolina, allowing them to open their doors to students for the 2014-15 school year.

Anthony Rodriguez, director of advocacy for the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, said there has never been a charter school in the state with a vocational focus before Russell Lee Jones and another recently approved charter school in the area: Entrepreneur High School in east Charlotte.

Russell Lee Jones would be one of only a few charter schools in south Charlotte. Rodriguez said that historically the area has not had many because residents have been satisfied with public and private schools. But over the years, waiting lists for such schools have grown and residents have sought more choices, said Rodriguez.

“Parents are really wanting more options,” Rodriguez said, based on previous conversations with parents. “There are a lot of parents that have experienced long waiting lists for a lot of schools of choice for south Charlotte.”

Shepherd said a vocational school would be better suited for a charter setting than a public school because of the inherent costs and risks associated with such a school.

He said that, because students would be working with equipment that’s inherently dangerous, class sizes will need to be kept low. This means more labor, which means higher costs, he said.

“I understand that with limited resources, the local school system can only do so much,” he said.

Ed Guy, Chief Financial Officer for Russell Lee Jones Vocational Training Inc., said there are many benefits to a vocational education.

The school also has a Chief Executive Officer; its bylaws allow the school to have as many as 11 members serving on the board of directors, including the CEO, CFO and COO.

“It’s a great source of training for those students who may not want to go on to college but certainly want to go on to have a career where they can determine their livelihood,” said Guy, who previously taught at Phillip O. Berry before moving to Kings Mountain.

Shepherd described one student he knew at Phillip O. Berry who struggled before finding an electrical training class. That student took the education further by going to college, and he’s in construction science as a trade, living in the Greensboro area.

“It impacted his life to the point where he has come back on occasion and has worked with us on a couple of public service projects,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd said the applicants for Russell Lee Jones were expected to go before a subcommittee at the Department of Public Instruction in February 2014 for a 2015-16 opening.

Because the applicants left out a piece of the application, however, they have been delayed by a year and will need to resubmit, Shepherd said.

He said the group will send in another letter of intent in fall 2014 and an application by December 2014. They expect to go before a subcommittee by spring 2015.

Arriero: 704-358-5945; Twitter: @earriero
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