Eric Frazier

A strong charter school shows the way

Donald Trump’s choice of billionaire charter schools advocate Betsy DeVos as his education secretary is shifting the national dialogue from whether charters will expand to how well or badly the expansion will be managed.

Trump is proposing a $20 billion expansion of charters and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. Skeptics of the independently run, taxpayer-funded schools look at DeVos’ aggressive advocacy efforts in her native Michigan and worry we’ll add quantity rather than quality.

We certainly saw some bad charters sprout in North Carolina after the legislature lifted its 100-school cap on charters in 2011.

Charlotte’s StudentFirst Academywas closed in 2014 amid reports of undocumented spending, poor academics and staffing issues.

But if we’re on the cusp of a national charter surge, I hope it brings more of what I saw during a visit last week to the well-respected Sugar Creek Charter School just north of uptown.

I saw a school whose 1,400 students are virtually all minority and low-income. Many are raised in single-parent homes or by a relative who isn’t the biological parent.

And yet, nearly 60 percent of students pass state end-of-grade tests in reading and math, according to the school’s 2014-15 report card.

At other local public schools serving similarly disadvantaged children, it’s not uncommon for fewer than 40 percent to pass those tests.

Skeptics say charters score higher because the lack of school lunch programs and bus transportation keep the neediest families from enrolling. That doesn’t fly at Sugar Creek; both benefits are offered.

Director Cheryl Turner says there’s no magic bullet, other than refusing to accept poverty as an excuse for failure. In addition to teaching academics, the school preaches life skills such as acting responsibility and with integrity. Breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty is a core school goal.

A big task, but Sugar Creek seems up for it. I saw classroom after well-ordered classroom, all filled with focused students. If it’s possible for a campus full of kids to hum with quiet efficiency, Sugar Creek certainly did that morning.

Turner told me having the flexibility of a charter school is very helpful. But she said Sugar Creek succeeds because of the focus and determination of its kids and staff, not simply because it’s a charter.

“To me, it’s not that charters are the answer to the world’s problems. Good education is the answer to the world’s problems,” Turner said. “And anywhere you get that, that’s going to work.”

I hope that truth isn’t lost in the coming national push to add charters. Yes, Sugar Creek is a strong charter. But it’s also simply a strong school.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com.

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