These NC charter schools show how to succeed with low-income students

Sugar Creek Charter School serves mostly African American students from low-income homes.
Sugar Creek Charter School serves mostly African American students from low-income homes. Observer File Photo

In June, Charlotte’s Sugar Creek High School, a high-poverty, all-minority school, will graduate its first senior class. Of the 30 seniors, all have been accepted by at least one four-year college. Three were accepted for early admission at UNC-Chapel Hill. Most of these students will be the first person from their families to attend college.

Public education examples such as this prove that a student from a low-income family can achieve academic success equal to that of his middle-class peers.

In North Carolina, Henderson Collegiate Prep, a charter school that has adopted the instructional model of New York/New Jersey’s extraordinarily successful “Uncommon Schools,” has 1,000 students in grades K-12. Despite the fact that 95 percent of these students qualify as “economically disadvantaged,” 89 percent test at or above grade level on year-end tests, placing Henderson Collegiate among the highest performing public schools in North Carolina.

Frank Martin

In Charlotte, Sugar Creek’s 1,600 K-12 students are 95 percent economically disadvantaged, but 63 percent test at or above grade level, well above comparable Mecklenburg County schools.

Three fundamental strategies are critical to these schools’ leaders:

1) Their administrators and teachers believe that every student will succeed;

2) The schools recognize that they must teach intangible life skills in addition to academic education, and they are adept at doing so;

3) Each of these schools places great emphasis on instructional excellence.

Accomplishing these strategies is not easy. Let me describe Sugar Creek’s journey.

Staffing the school with mission-driven administrators and teachers is the accomplishment of an exceptional leader. The school’s long-time director, Cheryl Turner, is obsessed with assuring that her students succeed; and she selects administrators and teachers who share her passion.

Only gradually did Ms. Turner realize the importance of life skills instruction. Observing behaviors and attitudes that conflicted with the school’s goals, she realized that although most of her teachers and all of her students were African-American, different life expectations and learned behaviors characterize the lives of children from generational poverty. She established Character Education as a core course in the lower grades. She began teaching Dr. Ruby Payne’s excellent Framework for Understanding Poverty, which explores the “hidden values” of generational poverty, to her teachers and later to seventh and eighth graders.

Turner also instituted a College and Career Readiness Program that features classroom discussions of real-life case studies, financial literacy training and external opportunities such as internships and summer study programs.

Developing instructional excellence is Sugar Creek’s last building block. An exceptional educator who directed a group of schools within Uncommon Schools, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, recently led a local workshop that was sponsored by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. All who attended, including a group of Sugar Creek school leaders, were inspired.

This summer, 10 of Sugar Creek’s administrators and curriculum leaders will attend training based on Bambrick-Santoyo’s book, Leverage Leadership. Next year, they will train Sugar Creek’s 140 member instructional staff.

As more and more schools focus on the reality that education, broadly understood, can end poverty in the lives of the students they serve, they will see the potential of public education to change communities.

Martin is chairman of the board at Sugar Creek Charter.