Cambridge in Charlotte: British education comes to the suburbs, and NC takes note

In 1864, the University of Cambridge began offering exams to students outside of Great Britain who hoped to attend the prestigious school.

Today those exams — and the K-12 education program that Cambridge created to prepare students for success — are viewed in 160 countries as a ticket to a top-flight education.

The worldwide interest in these exams is so intense that — Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials swear this is not a joke — Cambridge has ordered Hopewell High in Huntersville to install a cage around the file cabinets where the school stores the exams, lest someone crawl through the ceiling to steal them.

But locals who hear that Hopewell is a Cambridge International School are likely to respond with, “What’s that?” In North Carolina the program can be found only at Hopewell, six Charlotte-Mecklenburg elementary and middle schools that feed into Hopewell High and a Mooresville charter school.

That may change. In 2017 the General Assembly voted to give Cambridge classes the same standing as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate offerings, with the state paying exam fees for students and offering bonuses to teachers who get the best results. The University of North Carolina and North Carolina community college systems have approved Cambridge classes for credit, just like AP and IB.

Being a Cambridge International School is rare enough in North Carolina that people involved with the program at Hopewell High have to explain it frequently. John D. Simmons

All three are offerings that push high school students beyond basic skills, taking on work that requires deep knowledge and analysis. The IB program, which has been in CMS schools since the 1990s, is better known in the United States, but Cambridge International Schools are more prevalent worldwide. Sixty-four nations use Cambridge as their national curriculum, says Stephanie Kelso, who coordinates the Cambridge program for CMS.

“I describe it as IB on steroids,” says Beth Hunt, who has an eighth-grade daughter in the Cambridge program at Bradley Middle School. Her daughter, Shannon, was one of the earliest Cambridge students in CMS, starting at Long Creek Elementary.

Kelso prefers to call it the best of both worlds: Like IB, it offers a demanding diploma track that’s recognized worldwide and a pathway that starts with the youngest students. Like AP, it offers flexibility for high school students who only want to take a course or two.

Stephanie Kelso coordinates the Cambridge program for Hopewell High and its six Charlotte-Mecklenburg feeder schools. In addition to the CMS schools, a charter school in Mooresville also offers the international curriculum. John D. Simmons

She and others struggle to explain exactly what makes Cambridge unique. Perhaps that’s because everything it offers — global perspective, focus on real-life application of academic topics, individual responsibility coupled withteamwork, intensive research and writing — is the gold standard for education everywhere.

All of those things are easier said than done. That’s where support from the Cambridge University team comes in, Kelso says: “Cambridge isn’t something you can touch. It’s something you can feel.”

Competition spurs change

Unlike most CMS programs, Cambridge came not from central offices but from family demand.

About six years ago, parents at Mountain Island Lake Elementary were worried about the flow of families leaving the district for charter schools, say Kelso and Matt Hayes, the assistant superintendent in charge of schools in northwest Mecklenburg County. One of the parents had heard about Cambridge and done some research; the school leadership team asked CMS to adopt the program.

Hunt was one of those concerned parents.

“We live in a part of town that is not typically known for good schools,” she said. Hunt, a journalist, is married to a math professor and has a daughter who inherited both sets of skills. They were impressed with her experience at Long Creek but worried she wouldn’t get enough challenge in middle school.

They entered the lottery for Lake Norman Charter School, a popular K-12 school in Huntersville, and Shannon had been awarded a seat for fifth grade. The Cambridge option is what persuaded the family to stick with CMS, Hunt said.

Hopewell High expects to graduate its first eight seniors with Cambridge diplomas in June. These younger students taking English One represent a much larger group stepping in as the international program matures in CMS. John D. Simmons

Meanwhile, the Florida-based Charter Schools USA introduced Cambridge at Langtree Charter Academy in Mooresville five years ago. Like Hopewell, Langtree will graduate its first Cambridge class this spring.

Two other Charlotte-area charter schools that are part of that chain, Cabarrus Charter Academy in Concord and Iredell Charter Academy in Troutman, are preparing to add Cambridge classes, said Chuck Nusinov, Carolinas state director for Charter Schools USA. “Cambridge has been pretty big in the state of Florida,” which made it a natural connection for his schools, Nusinov said.

Cambridge worked with state officials to synchronize its lessons with North Carolina’s curriculum and graduation requirements, Kelso said.

Cambridge schools pay a fee to the organization for the expertise, training and exams. In CMS it comes to $90.50 per pupil, Kelso said, with about 3,000 students participating at all levels. While Hayes said he isn’t allowed to release the budget, that comes to just over $270,000.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who jokes that his political career began when he was elected president of Hopewell’s PTSA in 2006, said recently he’s not familiar with details of the Cambridge program. But he caught a glimpse of its results when he asked Hopewell to nominate three of its top juniors to serve as a Senate page last year.

Marshall Miles Jr. Hopewell Cambridge.JPG
Marshall Miles Jr. at a Hopewell High JROTC event. Courtesy of Hopewell High

Tillis chose Marshall Miles Jr., a member of Hopewell’s first Cambridge class. Tillis says Miles’ work ethic and organization made him a standout even among the high-achieving pages chosen from across the country. Tillis recalls that when he asked the group who was the best at several skills, “he was the odds-on favorite for everybody.”

Miles and his parents, Sonia and Marshall Miles Sr., say Cambridge demands and develops the kind of study skills that enabled him to flourish while splitting his time between classes and the Senate floor.

“It’s not an easy program by any means,” Miles said. “It teaches important skills like time management, how to work efficiently and how to get things in before deadline.”

Tillis says the adoption of Cambridge in a public school system is exactly how school choice ought to work: “One of the reasons why CMS is being creative is competition.”

About those exams

The emphasis on exams — the official name of the organization is Cambridge Assessment International Education — may be offputting to people who believe North Carolina’s public education system already does too much standardized testing.

But these exams are nothing like the long multiple-choice tests the state administers.

Miles and the other 31 members of Hopewell’s first Cambridge class had to test into the program to be accepted as freshmen. He recalls starting with information about a scientific experiment using plants, water and light. Students had to run calculations from the data and write an essay about the best environment for the plants.

“It wasn’t really a test that you could study for,” he said, and it made North Carolina’s End of Grade exams seem easy.

Jackson Scullion, 14, works on a project about Romeo and Juliet in a Cambridge English class at Hopewell High School. Students at the Huntersville public school get the same challenging courses as students in 160 countries that participate in the program. John D. Simmons

The end of each Cambridge high school class brings an exam, too — AS level for introductory classes and A levels for the more advanced ones.

A chemistry exam would involve opening a box, doing the lab work that’s contained within and writing up results. Psychology might bring several case studies, which students have to analyze.

The kind of test prep that coaches students to succeed on multiple-choice exams does little good here, educators say. Instead, teachers have to equip their students with the ability to write well, do advanced math and interpret information, rather than just regurgitating it.

That makes the teacher training Cambridge provides an essential part of the program, administrators and teachers say. Patrick Maholland, who teaches Cambridge literature at Hopewell, compares it to being a sherpa who guides students on their trek.

Hopewell math teacher Jim Cross says working with British texts requires a bit of translation. While Americans talk about slopes and radicals, he said, Cambridge material uses “gradient” and “surd.”

Starting young

Cambridge debuted in CMS with fourth-graders at Mountain Island, which is now the K-8 Mountain Island Lake Academy. The first students were a select group, with grade-level reading and math scores required to ensure they could handle the material.

Now the program is offered at Torrence Creek, Long Creek, Grand Oak and Barnette elementaries and Bradley Middle as well. And teachers use the Cambridge approach with all students, not just a select few. That’s part of the CMS strategy of making sure all students get access to rigorous teaching and the specialty theme any school offers.

Of the 32 Hopewell students who started the Cambridge program as freshmen, eight are on track to earn Cambridge diplomas. That requires students to take seven Cambridge classes and pass the exams.

Among the diploma candidates is Kalei Small, who says when she was in eighth grade she was deciding between Hopewell and nearby Hough High. She had friends line up and make the case for each school, she says. The Cambridge option was what swayed her for Hopewell.

While Small loves the idea of having a diploma that’s recognized by the nation’s best universities, she says her favorite thing was the camaraderie among the students moved through the program together. That includes some, such as Miles, who didn’t take enough Cambridge classes to aim for the diploma.

“Everyone knows everyone,” she said. “We do things outside of school, and we make sure to include the teachers, too.”

Gabrielle Griffin, 14 and Katie Martinez, 14, collaborate on a health and wellness project in Spanish Two at Hopewell High School. Hopewell High and its feeder schools are piloting the Cambridge program, a British curriculum that emphasizes real-life projects and lots of writing. North Carolina’s only Cambridge schools are in the Charlotte area. John D. Simmons

Miles says his time in Washington as a page, his leadership role in JROTC and scheduling challenges kept him from meeting the diploma requirements.

That’s not a disaster. Hopewell students are allowed to pick and choose a mix of college-level options, including Cambridge, AP and classes offered at Central Piedmont Community College.

Kelso says the Cambridge classes are growing. Hopewell has 50 Cambridge students in 11th grade, 70 in 10th and almost 100 in ninth grade, she said.

At all grade levels, about 3,000 CMS students are being exposed to Cambridge teaching, Kelso says.

Hayes, the administrator in charge of the CMS Cambridge schools, says that’s a benefit even to families who haven’t heard of the program and students who may never apply for prestigious universities.

“It’s just good teaching and learning,” he said.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.