Around the country, Olympic High is known as a model of partnership between public education and high-tech employers. It’s a place where teens can land European-style apprenticeships and work on computerized equipment donated by local industry.
Superintendent Clayton Wilcox sees and appreciates that. But Wilcox, who took the top job in July, says he’s found a bleaker side: A disenchanted community, a student body lacking school spirit and a structure that creates unequal opportunity.
Previous Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders split the southwest Charlotte high school into five career-themed schools in 2006. It was part of a national trend, with reformers and philanthropists calling for smaller, more personalized alternatives to reach teens falling through the cracks in big schools.
More than a decade later, eighth-graders who plan to attend Olympic must choose – or be assigned to – one of those schools. Where they land affects their access to advanced classes and their odds of academic success.
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Now Wilcox is searching for one principal who can reunite the campus, fix the problems and build on the school’s strong partnership with the manufacturers who have embraced Olympic.
“We have a good thing,” Wilcox said, “but I think we can make it better.”
A difficult balance
Olympic embodies challenges that are lighting fires under educators and employers across the country: How can public education adapt to the warp-speed pace of workplace change?
What’s the proper balance between classical education and job training?
And how can schools prepare students for skilled trades while ensuring everyone a shot at college success?
Those questions are especially urgent in Charlotte, where leaders are trying to craft new paths out of poverty and attract companies like Amazon that demand skilled tech workers. Olympic’s boosters say they’ve got answers.
The advanced manufacturing school symbolizes the grandest hopes and deepest flaws of the “Olympic community of schools.” Its opportunities to earn money and college credit while studying for a diploma have earned national acclaim.
But state data paints a different picture, one where almost 90 percent of freshman arrive lacking basic skills and almost three-quarters of students log test scores showing they’re not ready for college and careers. Whether you look at industry credentials or Advanced Placement exams, students in the advanced manufacturing school look significantly less prepared than counterparts at other Olympic schools.
Students, families, faculty and business partners are watching with hope and trepidation. Can Wilcox preserve the best of Olympic while fixing its flaws?
“There’s a lot on the line with this because there’s a lot invested,” said Olympic business adviser Clifton Vann IV, CEO of a Charlotte-based company that works with hydraulics manufacturing. “The manufacturing community doesn’t want to start over.”
A bold experiment
Olympic High School has deep roots in Charlotte’s past – and a front-row seat to its future.
It opened in 1966 on the rural outskirts of town. Now the Steele Creek area is booming, with growth expected to surge for years to come. Olympic’s zone includes new arrivals and multigeneration Olympic families.
The five-school plan emerged in 2005, under then-Principal Pamela Espinosa. CMS was under fire for dismal results at many high schools. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was pushing the idea that small high schools worked better than big ones. Espinosa and her faculty created a plan to split the school, which had about 1,700 students at the time, into five independent schools, each with its own principal. The Gates Foundation and the California-based Coalition of Essential Schools provided grants.
The idea was that all students would choose a theme suited to their interests, with options ranging from humanities to biotechnology to global business. Personal relationships were key: In a school with roughly 350 students, faculty would know everyone by name, students would know their classmates and leadership opportunities would abound.
There was always potential for confusion. Incoming freshmen had to pick a school – some with clunky names that made it hard to figure out what they were offering. For instance, one small school was named International Studies and Global Economics, while another was International Business and Communication Studies.
Five principals had to work together on such joint efforts as busing, building maintenance and sports, while maintaining separate faculties and budgets. The leadership team was in constant flux – long-timers say the five schools have cycled through 17 principals in the past 11 years.
One constant was Mike Realon.
Outside the echo chamber
Realon, a career-technology coordinator, was in on planning the career-themed small schools. He emerged as a liaison between industry and academics – and a spokesman who touted Olympic’s value to a growing stream of national and international visitors.
Realon and other supporters say Olympic has found the elusive balance of career and college readiness that advocates across America seek. There are Advanced Placement classes and other opportunities for students who will move straight to four-year universities. And there are opportunities to learn job skills that can provide a quicker paycheck.
In 2014, the German-owned Bosch Rexroth donated computerized manufacturing equipment that would become the showcase for a new advanced manufacturing school at Olympic – and would train future employees of the company’s Charlotte machine-parts plant. The advanced manufacturing school is part of an Olympic engineering academy that has received the highest rating from a national network of career-themed high schools.
But when Wilcox arrived in Charlotte last year, he heard skepticism. Many families in the Olympic zone were opting out, he said. They talked about inconsistent leadership, performance and discipline among the five schools. He heard about – then saw for himself – football games with a nearly empty student section, signaling a lack of school spirit.
“Outside the echo chamber,” Wilcox said recently, “I don’t hear great things.”
Despite the goal of preparing all students for college and careers, many say the perception of Olympic’s small schools reverts to an outdated model: Schools that separate college-bound students from “vocational” counterparts who are less privileged and less promising.
School report cards show 48 percent of METS ninth-graders passed their eighth-grade math and reading exams, above the state average. Only 11 percent of TEAM ninth-graders met that mark.
Among last year’s 11th-graders, about two-thirds of METS students earned ACT scores that show college readiness, compared with about one-quarter of TEAM students.
METS offers 14 Advanced Placement courses to TEAM’s seven (students can take classes from other Olympic schools, but it requires counselors to get involved). Last year 134 METS students took AP exams, with 56 earning scores high enough to qualify for college credit at many universities.
Meanwhile, 19 TEAM students took AP exams. Only one scored high enough to earn credit.
Bigger pond, smaller ripples?
Erik Olejarczyk became principal of TEAM in 2015. He agrees that the school has picked up a stigma: “The perception is that it’s vocational like it was 20 or 30 years ago, and that’s not the case.”
The performance numbers are real and disappointing, he says, but he talks about the “big ripples in a small pond” effect. Because TEAM is new and small, each bad score has a bigger impact. And last year he lost two key teachers, leaving a gap that brought about lower scores.
The result: If you look up his school now you’ll see it’s graded D, compared with a B for METS.
This year’s midterms show improvement, but the small-school breakdowns won’t matter much longer.
Starting in 2018-19 there will be one Olympic with about 2,600 students and one full-sized faculty.
Career-themed academies will remain, though Wilcox says students will get more time and flexibility in making career decisions. Core classes will serve all students, and it will be easier for academy students to sample other career specialties. And Wilcox hopes the consolidation brings students together for sports and clubs.
“We need to do a better job of building espirit de corps across Olympic High,” he told families at a recent meeting.
Families peppered Wilcox with questions. Will AP classes fill with students who aren’t ready or motivated? What happens when students who are ranked high in their small school are thrown together in a big setting that will have only one valedictorian?
Many details will fall to the new principal. Wilcox says he will make that hire this spring. The consolidation has already begun: Instead of five principals, Olympic is down to two.
Despite anxiety and uncertainty, many voice hope that a unified school can merge the best of Olympic’s past and present.
English teacher Suzanne Newsom is an Olympic graduate, parent and longtime faculty member. She sees benefit to consolidating leadership and giving students more time to pick a career track. She just hopes the personal touch isn’t lost.
“What I value most about the small schools is the student voice,” she said. “We could make something wonderful. We just need to make sure they’re a part of it.”