After 15 years as a K-8 school, Sugar Creek Charter School is adding high school. And its leaders are trying to avoid the path of some of the nation’s most lauded college-prep charter schools.
Sugar Creek, an independent charter school in north Charlotte, is working with Central Piedmont Community College and UNC Charlotte to design a program that will prepare some students to earn four-year college degrees and others to enter the skilled workforce.
“If our goal is to end generational poverty for our kids, the best way out that you can count on is education,” says Director Cheryl Turner. “But it’s not just the book knowledge. Get a job, keep a job, support a family – that’s what the middle-class lifestyle is about.”
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Sugar Creek is hardly unique in realizing that test scores and diplomas aren’t enough. Educators across the nation are confronting the realization that even getting into college, as big as that achievement might be for children of impoverished families, isn’t an automatic ticket to prosperity. Many students who lack family support and money leave with debt and without a degree.
Partnerships between high schools and colleges are flourishing across North Carolina. Sugar Creek’s model is similar to the approach Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools launched in 2007 with Cato Middle College High and is expanding this year.
Turner and Sugar Creek’s board believe the school’s community connections and family bonds can add something to the mix.
For instance, Jermaine and Shaina Peterson have sent five children to Sugar Creek. The oldest two went to Queens Grant High, a charter school in Matthews, to start high school. The oldest transferred to Cato for junior and senior years and is about to start at Winston-Salem State University.
But Shaina Peterson, who is studying to be a family counselor, is thrilled that the younger three can stay at Sugar Creek. Son Isaiah, who finished eighth grade last year, is among approximately 70 ninth-graders who will launch the high school Aug. 4. His mom says he struggled academically and got special help for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder throughout middle school. This spring he passed all his state exams, Shaina Peterson said.
Teachers and administrators work with her and her husband whenever their kids have academic or behavioral issues, she said: “It’s so family-oriented at Sugar Creek. It makes it easy to succeed.”
Charter schools, which are run by independent boards and funded with public money, are designed to promote family choice and academic options. They have more flexibility than other public schools on issues such as setting a calendar.
Sugar Creek, one of Charlotte’s first charter schools, offers 190 days of classes each academic year, 10 more than CMS. This year it’s launching a year-round schedule in hopes of reducing the academic regression that comes with long breaks.
Unlike traditional public schools, charters aren’t required to provide busing or meals. Sugar Creek, where about 90 percent of students come from low-income homes, does both.
After a rocky start in the late 1990s, Sugar Creek has won community respect. Superintendent Heath Morrison frequently cites it as a charter school that’s doing good work with the kids who most need strong academic options. UNCC’s Urban Education Collaborative works with Sugar Creek to research and promote strategies for serving disadvantaged students.
In 2012, two-thirds of Sugar Creek students, most of whom are African-American students from low-income homes, passed state reading and math exams. That was well above averages for the state and CMS, where roughly half of black and low-income students passed both tests.
In 2013, the state introduced new exams that required higher scores for passing. That year the level of Sugar Creek students passing both tests fell to 24 percent, still topping rates below 20 percent for black and low-income students in CMS and statewide. Results for 2013-14, when the state again revised the scoring system, have not been released.
High school challenge
Many charter schools combine elementary, middle and/or high school. About a dozen in the Charlotte area are or plan to become K-12 schools.
For years Sugar Creek resisted adding higher grades. “We wanted to get good at K-8 before we added high school,” Turner said.
Not only does a high school require a different curriculum and expanded faculty, it creates a need for new and different facilities. Charter schools receive no county money for buildings, so Sugar Creek had to tap into its operating budget to buy land and a building in a former shopping center at North Tryon Street and Sugar Creek Road.
The board has launched a $7 million capital campaign to expand that building, adding classrooms and a gymnasium. The Charlotte-based Dickson Foundation has pledged $1 million to start the work, with an additional $1 million if the board can raise $5 million from other sources, said board Chairman Frank Martin.
Before deciding to expand, Turner said she, board members and UNCC advisers studied charters that have a reputation for success with college-bound minority students. Even the best schools acknowledged that keeping their graduates in college is a challenge.
At Sugar Creek, the first step will be helping students figure out whether a four-year university is their best option. They’ll start career counseling and college visits in middle school, Turner said, and high school will include seminars on financial literacy and applications.
Students will start taking tuition-free classes at CPCC in 11th grade, an option that’s available to all public school students. CPCC already provides on-campus and online courses to students at Queens Grant and Lake Norman charter schools, says J.J. McEachern, CPCC dean of enrollment management.
The college experience, coupled with personal support at a school where they’ve come to feel comfortable, is especially important for kids whose families don’t have much experience with higher education, Turner said. While some students will accumulate credits toward a four-year degree, others will follow career paths in skilled trades such as construction, automotive work and medical technology.
Parents also will be counseled on the college experience, from realistic expectations about costs to preparing for the freshman “I want to come home” calls.
For the next four years, Ayana Allen, a post-doctoral fellow in the UNCC Urban Education Collaborative, will help Turner design the high school program and document its results.
“We’re going to research every aspect right from the outset,” said Chance Lewis, director of the collaborative, which is part of the College of Education. “We will be an external set of eyes and ears.”