Education

Dozens celebrate future of charter schools at Charlotte conference

Alexis Hess, a 2008 graduate of Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, spoke about how the Rutherford County school prepared her for medical school.
Alexis Hess, a 2008 graduate of Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, spoke about how the Rutherford County school prepared her for medical school. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

About 180 school choice advocates gathered this week in Charlotte, the epicenter of North Carolina’s charter school boom, to celebrate the changing charter scene.

“We must be on the leading edge of a movement in this country to rewrite history,” Alex Quigley, a Durham charter school operator who chairs the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board, told the annual conference of the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Charter enrollment has grown rapidly, especially in the Charlotte region, since the state lifted its 100-school limit in 2011. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools recently projected that combined public school enrollment in Mecklenburg County will grow by about 3,200 students next school year, with almost 2,700 of the additional students opting for charters.

Quigley and other speakers described the independently run schools as the best hope many students have for high-quality public education.

Victoria Bennett, a 2009 graduate of KIPP Gaston, said poverty was rampant and school quality low in Northampton County, near the Virginia border, when her parents enrolled her in the charter school in fifth grade. The KIPP chain focuses on getting low-income students of color into college, using long hours, highly structured lessons and teachers who are always on call for their students.

“When my mom and dad split, I called my teacher,” Bennett said. “They were a part of my family.”

The first in her family to go to college, Bennett graduated from UNC Chapel Hill and Duke after winning a Robertson scholarship, which provides a full ride for students to attend both schools. She’s now in law school at N.C. Central University.

“Our school provided a life of choices, because without choice you don’t have a life,” she said.

Alexis Hess talked about how Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Rutherford County prepared her for success at Belmont Abbey College and Wake Forest University’s medical school. She said she learned Latin, Greek, rhetoric and logic, as well as the value of arts, science and language.

“I was inspired to seek education, rather than job training,” said Hess, who graduated from the charter school in 2008.

The Raleigh-based alliance is preparing to merge with the Charlotte-based N.C. Public Charter Schools Association.

“We have just begun the journey,” said alliance board Chair Lisa Gordon Stella. “We will be better together than we have been apart.”

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

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