It’s safe to say that few 15-year-olds are as happy about going back to school as TaDarian Morrison and Kyle Davis were this week.
When they reported to Sugar Creek Charter high school on Wednesday, they embarked on a venture that very nearly didn’t happen. They and their classmates made sure it did.
Expansion often brings behind-the-scenes drama for charter schools, which get public money for education but none for facilities. The story behind Sugar Creek’s new building in a former church on Old Concord Road has more than its share.
Sugar Creek charter opened in 1999 with grades K-5 in an old Kmart on North Tryon Street. After a rough start and addition of some grades, the school built a strong reputation as a K-8 school serving mostly low-income and minority students.
When the board started talking about adding high school, longtime Director Cheryl Turner was wary. That’s a big academic and logistical challenge. But she and the board eventually agreed to move ahead. The school got state approval to expand. Last year TaDarian, Kyle and other students who normally would have scattered to other high schools stayed on as ninth-graders at the old building.
The plan was to build a $7.2 million addition at the North Tryon shopping center to make room in coming years. But several banks said no to lending the money, and the board didn’t have any deep-pocket donors, says board Chair Frank Martin.
Without more classrooms, the school couldn’t add 10th grade in 2015, let alone become a K-12 school. In December, with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools magnet lottery approaching and no solution in sight, the board reluctantly voted to pull the plug on Sugar Creek High. They helped their eighth- and ninth-graders apply for new schools.
TaDarian and Kyle, like many of their classmates, had been at Sugar Creek since elementary school. They consider it a family.
They had learned about political engagement in eighth-grade civics. TaDarian started a petition, with about 100 students signing. They asked to be on the agenda for the next board meeting.
Kyle remembers working hard to write his speech, then choking up when he stood in front of the adults. He crumpled the paper, started crying and said he was going to speak from the heart. “I’ve been here since I was a child,” he recalls saying. “I don’t want to leave my family behind.”
Board members started working their contacts – YMCAs, CMS and churches that might have a building. If the high school was going to land a new home, it would have to happen fast. In January, they located the former University City Church, about 3 miles from their current site.
Self-Help Credit Union, a Durham-based nonprofit that promotes economic opportunity and community development, came through with a loan. Movement Mortgage, a Charlotte-based faith-driven lending company, provided $200,000 in equity to help Sugar Creek buy the adjacent gymnasium. The total for the church, gym and almost 11 acres of land came to $4.6 million – far cheaper than what the board had planned to pay for expansion.
Sugar Creek gets about $8,200 per student in state and federal money, and the mortgage payment comes out of that, Martin says. It’s less than 10 percent of the total budget, he said, and a larger student body helps spread the costs around. Sugar Creek expects to grow from 1,150 students last year to 1,400 this year and 1,600 in 2017, when the high school has its first graduating class.
Tuesday evening, Kyle and TaDarian walked proudly through the doors, seeing their school for the first time at an open house. Wednesday they were back for the first day of class as 10th-graders.
“Little things do make a big difference,” TaDarian said. “If you speak out, anything can happen.”