Charter school moves to Johnson C. Smith University campus

After years of working to prepare at-risk children for college, the leaders of Kennedy Charter in Charlotte have landed on a new approach: moving the school onto a university campus.

Kennedy’s high school students began classes last week in a building tucked onto the campus of Johnson C. Smith University. Kindergarten through eighth-grade classes will soon follow, when a new building finishes construction nearby.

The move marks a new chapter for a charter school created in 1998 to serve students moving through the foster care system.

The new model is becoming more common in Charlotte and around the country. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools opened up a new school this year at UNC Charlotte dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math. CMS also has schools on Central Piedmont Community College campuses.

But leaders of both Kennedy and JCSU say their project is different because of the population they serve. They say they hope the venture will elevate west Charlotte and become a model for preparing students who often lag behind in academics.

“We can really have a substantive discussion about what makes for college readiness because we’re all in this together,” said Johnson C. Smith University President Ron Carter. “We have the opportunity to look at a diverse group of students and see what it takes to get them ready.”

Incentive to move

Kennedy Charter is affiliated with Elon Homes and Schools for Children, a nonprofit that originally started as an orphanage in 1907 and is now one of the largest foster care programs in the region. The organization first explored a school to serve the students it oversaw in the mid-1990s.

The school eventually began to serve more students from the community and became a traditional K-12 charter school in 2012. Today, about 10 percent of its students are in foster care or homeless.

For years, the campus was on Sharon Road West near South Boulevard. But increasingly, the students at the school have been coming from west and northwest Charlotte. That provided even more incentive to move to JCSU.

“It brings us closer to the people we serve,” said Fred Grosse, president of Elon Homes and Schools for Children. “Now we’re going to be a neighborhood school.”

The school had more than 500 people attend its open house over the summer and has a wait list for the first time.

Life on campus

About 360 students have started school at Kennedy Charter this year. Each student has access to a laptop, and lunch comes in a hot-box container from JCSU. On Thursday, it was fried chicken tenders and cinnamon buns for dessert. Students grabbed a Styrofoam boxful and could choose any classroom they wished to eat in.

The relationship with JCSU goes beyond lunch and location. Carter has pledged the Kennedy students access to all areas of campus.

“I want to see them in our new STEM building and be in awe of what the educational experience can be,” he said. “I want them to see themselves in higher education.”

Gym classes have access to the track and a practice field. Juan Lascano, a science teacher, said he has access to lab space on campus and more chemicals and equipment then he’d normally have.

But several teachers said one of the biggest benefits is simply being near college students. The school has long struggled with academic standards. Less than 5 percent of students were at or above grade level on end-of-course tests in high school math for the 2012-13 school year, and 18.6 percent were in English, according to N.C. School Report Card data. The CMS average was 38.1 percent and 53.4 percent.

School leaders hope that a vision of what can come after public school education can help increase scores.

“I see the change in the students,” said Rolanda Sue, a Kennedy Charter chemistry teacher and 2012 graduate of Johnson C. Smith. “Their expectations for themselves have increased. They’re holding themselves to that college standard.”

Students, too, said they were excited about the move.

“I could see myself here,” said De’on Alex, 17 and a senior. “It makes me want to come to college even more.”