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Meet the education superstar behind Charlotte’s newest uptown school

Mary Moss Brown standing in the still-under-construction uptown campus of Charlotte Lab School in First Ward.
Mary Moss Brown standing in the still-under-construction uptown campus of Charlotte Lab School in First Ward. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

When Mary Moss Brown moved to Charlotte a few years back, she says she couldn’t find a school that was right for her two young children. So she decided to create her own.

That’s a little bit more realistic when you’re a well-known figure in the national education scene.

Moss Brown is probably best known as a founding co-principal of NYC iSchool, a high school in lower Manhattan that spearheaded the state’s 21st century school initiative and drew attention at the federal level. The Teach for America alum has since trained principals for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Her latest creation is Charlotte Lab School, a small charter campus at Ninth and Brevard streets that’s becoming an anchor in the redevelopment of First Ward.

Before it even opens, the school has been lauded as a “breakthrough model” and received more than $350,000 in grants.

The vision is to create “what elementary school needs to be,” Moss Brown said. The secret sauce comes in the nine-week projects students will work through with organizations outside the school – which she calls a “challenge-based model.”

For example, one of the first tasks for first-graders will be designing the school’s playground. They’ll meet with urban planners, designers and architects to learn the math and science behind it. Then they’ll have to pitch their ideas.

Fourth-graders will have a hand in designing the school’s lunch menu, learning biology and nutrition in the process.

“They’re learning the kinds of skills that most kids don’t get to learn,” Moss Brown said, such as how to send an email to ask for something. “Kids are capable of doing so much more than we give them credit for.”

Whether it’s the academic plan or Moss Brown’s reputation, Charlotte Lab appears to have swayed the city’s parents. Even as the charter school market becomes more saturated, the school will open in August beyond its original capacity, with 300 students in kindergarten through fourth grade. More than 150 children are on the wait list for kindergarten alone, with between 40 and 60 more hoping for a spot in each grade after that.

Forty percent of the inaugural crop of students are minority, with 60 percent white students. About a quarter are classified as low-income.

Moss Brown says she wants those percentages to be more even, but it’s a decent start in a district largely divided by race. Only 20 of the 164 schools in CMS are between 40 percent and 60 percent white.

She said she’s working with the state Department of Public Instruction to see whether she can institute a weighted lottery to have more balance between low-income and affluent families.

The school building itself is still under construction across the street from UNC Charlotte’s uptown location. It will be a focal point in First Ward Park, part of a redevelopment that ultimately hopes to be the town center for that part of uptown with new retail, offices, two light-rail stops and hotels.

Developer Daniel Levine said he wanted to work with Moss Brown because of her track record.

“The vision she has for this school fits in with what we all hope First Ward can become, which is a great urban neighborhood which serves the educational needs of the center city and hopefully can attract more families,” he said.

Dunn: 704-358-5235;

Twitter: @andrew_dunn

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