Why 50 young teens at UNCC embody the future of public education in Charlotte

Neal Kapur, one of the first ninth-graders at Charlotte Teacher Early College high school on the UNC Charlotte campus, explains his contribution to a machine demonstrating evaporation and precipitation.
Neal Kapur, one of the first ninth-graders at Charlotte Teacher Early College high school on the UNC Charlotte campus, explains his contribution to a machine demonstrating evaporation and precipitation.

Shamon Carter and Neal Kapur are only 14, but they know there’s a lot riding on their freshman year in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

They and 48 fellow ninth-graders are the founding class of a new high school on the UNC Charlotte campus. It’s part of a trend in CMS and statewide to create small, specialized schools that prepare students for careers.

In this case it’s not some high-tech career of the future, but a calling that’s at the heart of public education. These teens have decided coming out of eighth grade that they want to become teachers.

Charlotte Teacher Early College High is part of a budding national movement. In Buffalo, N.Y., for instance, the public school district and state university system just launched an Urban Teacher Academy similar to Charlotte’s new program. In North Carolina, Edgecombe County is adding a teacher-prep track to one of its college-based high schools, and Duplin County is planning one.

The schools are opening at a time when many education colleges have seen enrollment dwindle and many school districts scramble to find enough teachers. Eleven days before the Aug. 28 opening of school, CMS still had 75 vacancies to fill.

“You can help someone the most when they’re young,” says Shamon, who says her life has been shaped by teachers as far back as preschool. “We are the first. A lot of people are going to be looking at us being great so they can continue the program.”

For the first two years, the prospective teachers will spend most of their time taking high school classes, though they’ll visit elementary classrooms and be encouraged to do summer internships working with children. By 11th and 12th grades they’ll be taking UNCC courses, shaped partly by what field they hope to teach. They’ll also work in CMS classrooms, in a sort of modified student teacher program.

If they stick with it, they can choose to graduate at the normal time in 2021 or stay for a fifth year to pile up even more free college credits.

CTEC Shamon Carter
Shamon Carter is attending high school at the UNCC campus in hopes of becoming an English professor someday. Ann Doss Helms

The teacher school is one of 125 public high schools based on North Carolina college campuses this year. That includes two at UNCC – the teacher school joins Charlotte Engineering Early College High – and four at Central Piedmont Community College campuses in Mecklenburg County.

The traditional model for expanding public schools – build a big school where the population is growing and draw a boundary around it – isn’t obsolete. But it’s being elbowed aside in a world where public school competition encourages the creation of boutique schools, whether they’re run by school districts or the fast-growing charter school movement.

Innovation offers options for families and opportunities for students, whether that’s an elementary school that prepares students to be fluent in Spanish and English or a career-track high school that sends graduates out with a tuition-free associate’s degree.

But customized education isn’t cheap or easy. Per-pupil costs are tough to calculate, state officials say. But the state provides an extra $180,000 to $275,000 to start the new schools, plus paying college tuition. And a principal may oversee as few as 100 students, compared with 2,000 or more in large CMS high schools.

For CMS, just getting students to and from its expanding roster of school options costs millions and strains the district’s ability to recruit bus drivers and mechanics. The demand and cost shot up last school year, when CMS restored a magnet busing system that had been curtailed during the recession, and are expected to rise again this year.

The CPCC high schools are open only to 11th- and 12th-graders, who get CATS bus passes. Because the two UNCC schools are open to ninth-graders, CMS sends its own buses across the county to get students to and from the northeast Charlotte campus.

Will Leach, principal of both UNCC-based high schools, says busing is essential to ensure that his students can seize the opportunity to take high school and college courses at the same time, in programs that allow them to take a “grade 13” year that’s all about piling up career-prep credits at no cost to their families.

Students have to be dedicated enough to return to class three weeks before most CMS schools start. Some board buses before 5:30 a.m. to arrive in time for the 7:15 start. And by choosing a small high school, they often miss out on sports, proms, clubs and the social life that comes from joining hundreds of classmates at a traditional high school.

Neal would have attended Myers Park High with almost 3,000 other students if he hadn’t opted out. He says he’s happy about the trade-off.

CTEC Neal Kapur
Neal Kapur chose the small high school for teachers over the larger Myers Park High. Ann Doss Helms

“I like the size. I won’t get lost here. There’s more one-on-one attention,” he said. And yes, he had to report to class early – college-based high schools are tied to the academic calendars at their host schools – but he’ll also start summer break sooner. “Getting out in May is a lot nicer,” he said.

Competition creates a cloud of uncertainty every August, as district and charter schools watch warily to see how many students really show up. CMS had chosen 55 students for the teacher school’s first class, but over the summer 15 fell away as families either changed their minds or moved. Shamon was one of those pulled from the waiting list, and the class still has four seats open.

As the students reported to their new home – three classrooms in UNCC’s Cato College of Education – Leach knew the competition wasn’t yet settled. If the new school doesn’t wow his kids and their parents, they can always go back to their neighborhood high school with classmates on Aug. 28.

So Leach and his tiny faculty – three teachers and an academic facilitator sharing time with the engineering school – set out to quickly build community among teens who don’t know each other, and to build excitement about their dual role as students and someday teachers.

Sara von Muller, a social studies teacher recruited from Harding High, had the students working in small teams to design Rube Goldberg contraptions to illustrate such concepts as the cycle of evaporation and precipitation. It was partly an ice-breaker and partly a lesson on the concepts. But mostly, von Muller said, it was about teaching them to learn from failure and try again – an essential teacher skill.

No matter how carefully you plan a lesson, she said, “sometimes it doesn’t work and you’ve got to improvise on the spot. If you gave up every time a student didn’t get it you wouldn’t get very far.”

There’s no guarantee the graduates will go on to study education, let alone come back to work for CMS around 2025. But Ellen McIntyre, dean of the Cato College of Education, would love to see that happen.

She and former Superintendent Ann Clark hatched the plan for the teacher school in 2016. Both are well aware not only of the need for teachers in general, but the quest to recruit more teachers of color, especially men. CMS, like most big-city districts, has a majority white faculty teaching a minority white student body.

Females outnumber males by about 3-to-1 in the initial class of 50, but 47 are students of color. Both Leach and McIntyre describe that as a pleasant surprise. The students were selected through a new lottery system designed to create socioeconomic balance, but race isn’t a factor in admission.

“They’re exactly the people we need in teaching,” McIntyre said of the strong interest from nonwhite students. “I could not be more thrilled with the demographics.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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