A look at the three new charter schools that have formed in Lee County since 2018, which this year will educate roughly 12 percent of K-12 students in our area.
By Gordon Anderson | Photos by Matt Ramey
To some, they’re the future of choice-based public education and offer students and families alternative curricula and more options for learning. To others, they’re a drain on North Carolina’s already taxed traditional public schools or even a Trojan horse for the privatization of education. Whatever your opinion of charter schools in North Carolina — the reality is they’re an ever-increasing fact of life in Lee County.
When Central Carolina Academy opens its doors to students on Aug. 15, it will become the third operational charter school in Lee County, joining Ascend Leadership Academy and MINA Charter School of Lee County. The three schools will educate more than 1,300 students — a far cry from the approximately 9,200 Lee County Schools will serve this year, but also not an insignificant number (it bears noting that the charter school population doesn’t come entirely from Lee County, because any student in North Carolina is eligible to attend any charter school in North Carolina).
Charter schools are public and open to anyone — tuition free — as long as they qualify for enrollment via lottery. Unlike traditional public schools, they’re outside the umbrella of the state’s 115 public school districts and instead are overseen by local governing boards, which are in turn accountable to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
They also receive all of their funding directly from the state — based entirely on enrollment — and don’t require any local resources the way traditional public schools do (charters also need to come up with their own funding for capital costs, one of the reasons critics cite concerns over privatization). Additionally, operational funding being based on enrollment has led to some tension between charters and traditional public schools over the years, with the accusation that charters “take money” traditional public schools having been made.
Shawn Williams, the lead administrator at MINA and a former chairman of the Lee County Board of Education, sees it differently.
“Some people see charter schools as a threat,” he said. “But really we’re about the same thing — how can we all come together for the betterment of the community? The money follows the kids, and if the kid makes it through the lottery, they belong to [MINA]. I have the same responsibility to that child as any public school does.”
The rise of charter schools locally has been a relatively recent phenomenon. Lee County had a charter school, Provisions Academy, which operated from 2000 to 2010 before shutting down. That was prior to a 2011 piece of legislation enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly which removed the statewide cap on charter schools — back then it was 99.
Today, there are more than 200 statewide, and it’s estimated that more than eight percent of North Carolina’s students attend one.
Provisions Academy aside, the recent rise in charter schools locally began with Ascend Leadership Academy, which opened in 2018 in a modular building near the N.C. 87/U.S. 421 split on the south side of Sanford. That year, it served just sixth and seventh graders and began adding a class each year. In the 2022-23 school year, it will for the first time feature a senior class. The campus has since expanded into a new construction multi-story building complete with a gymnasium.
“As an advocate for school choice and families, I wanted people to be able to do what’s the best fit for them,” Justin Smith, a Sanford native who is the school’s managing director, said of his motivation to start the school.
Smith is a 2000 graduate of Lee County High School who worked at traditional public schools before making the jump to charters at Durham’s K-12 Voyager Academy, where he spent seven years as an administrator becoming familiar with the concept of charter schools.
“A lot of the methods and ideas we use here came from [Voyager],” he said. “For me, [the motivation] was having a school of choice in my hometown and bringing the things I’d learned back here.”
Smith said Ascend’s model is built around project-based learning, which is “designed to give real world experience.”
Giving an example, he described a science project in which students tackled a real-world issue of water pollution, identifying a local stream with pollution issues and researching proposals to mitigate that pollution. The project was judged by local Soil and Water supervisors.
“We could have easily done it as a PowerPoint presentation, but it was better for our kids to do it in a way that engaged them deeper and made the stakes higher,” he said.
Additionally, digital media is a focus at Ascend. Smith cited a video editing project in which work was submitted to C-SPAN for judging as another element of the school’s “real world experience” approach.
Ascend will serve 570 students in the coming 2022-23 academic year.
The next in the parade of local charter schools was MINA, started by Williams in 2018 as a year round, K-5 school that has added a new grade in each of its subsequent years. Williams is a former chair of the Lee County Board of Education and said his experience there showed him the need to address a community of children he felt weren’t being served as well as they could have been.
“I wanted to help a community I felt wasn’t being served, and that was educationally disadvantaged students,” he said, explaining that term covers students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, English language learners, and students with disabilities or individual education plans and the school’s admission lottery is weighted toward those children. “Our real focus is to stop the school to prison pipeline. What makes us unique is we know every child isn’t going to college, and so we’re focusing on trying to create good citizens and scholars ready for the workforce through a vocational education or the arts.”
Williams is also proud that MINA fills another need in Lee County, which is to repurpose existing buildings that may have fallen into disrepair. The campus occupies part of the old Kendale Plaza shopping center, specifically the southern portion which in recent years had fallen into disrepair.
The school’s subsequent renovation of the property is impressive, with many of the hallmarks of any other public school on display — including a gymnasium, a playground and more. Plans are in place for the campus to eventually expand into another portion of the old shopping center which previously was home to the old Kendale Cinema.
“One thing we do is we relieve the (traditional) public schools of the tax burden that comes with having to build another school,” he said. “That’s what the partnership should be. We’re in here for under $5 million. Think of what it takes to build a new county school.”
MINA, which opened its inaugural year with 252 students, will serve 502 this year.
Central Carolina Academy is the most recent local addition to the charter school roster, and will serve sixth-through-tenth graders, like the other charters adding a grade each year to include high school juniors and seniors. A replication of Chatham Charter School in Siler City, the school’s model is built around college and career preparedness through partnerships with institutions like Central Carolina Community College. Like MINA, CCA also repurposes an old building, in this case the old Pantry corporate headquarters on Douglas Drive.
“With Lee County being so rich in business and growth, we know there are organizations out there looking for skilled employees, and we feel like this school will be a great component of that,” said John Eldridge, superintendent of CCA and Chatham Charter. “When we approached this with the leadership at CCCC, they told us, ‘Here are the areas where we’re having trouble finding people. Why don’t you use these as your pathways?’”
Those “pathways,” or educational trajectories for students at CCA, will include bioprocessing, building and construction, health sciences, and technology.
“For us, it’s about complementing what’s already here,” said Beth McCullough, CCA and Chatham Charter’s executive director of communications and collegiate partnerships. “Lee County is just such a great place to come to.”
CCA will begin with 288 students, but has a maximum capacity of 664.
Administrators at each of the schools agree that they all have different missions, or “niches,” and pointed to that fact as a strength of the charter school model.
MINA, for example, with its focus on educationally disadvantaged students, employs a model of “restorative justice” Williams says “holds everyone in the school accountable. We’re firm believers that it’s not always the child’s fault,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the whole community that hasn’t stepped up.”
He also noted the school’s STREAM approach to education — STREAM stands for science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, and math — as a unique element not often found elsewhere. He said there is a particular emphasis on the arts at MINA.
“The arts save a lot of children,” he said. “It can give them purpose. We need some more Picassos. If they can play an instrument, or dance — if they can succeed in those classes, they can succeed in general education.”
Smith at Ascend said charters and traditional public schools may have “different objectives” in terms of how to educate, but also that he believes all schools have the same motives and goals.
“We’re all in it for the same reason,” he said.
Eldridge and McCullough at CCA both come from a traditional public school background, largely in Chatham County (Eldridge was a regional superintendent in Guilford County Schools as well). They each said they believe there’s room for everyone in this new world of public education.
“At heart we’re traditional public school people,” McCullough explained. “We both worked in the public schools in Chatham County and we’ve always had a great relationship. It really is just about the fit — for the students and for their families.”
Some charter schools, both across the state and nationwide, have come under criticism for various issues. Williams was quick to point to the difference between independent charter schools and those operated by what are called charter management organizations (CMOs), organizations which run several charter schools, usually for a profit. Each of Lee County’s charter schools are independent.
“Our heart is really about the kids, and we don’t necessarily need that extra layer,” Williams said. “This is not to say the public schools anywhere are failing or bad, but there is a need in Lee County and other communities, and that is the pockets of kids who for whatever reason are not being served. There is a demand out there, and charters help fill that gap. And because each of us are all unique — we have certain targets we’re going after — we’re all able to meet those demands.”
Of course, telling the story of Lee County’s (and North Carolina’s) increase in charter schools isn’t possible without discussing the work done in traditional public schools, which also over the past couple of decades have offered an increasing number of “choice” options in their own right.
Dr. Andy Bryan, Lee County Schools’ superintendent, cited the district’s International Baccalaureate (offered in just 33 high schools across the state), Lee Early College, the two traditional high schools’ eight career academies, Tramway Elementary’s year-round program, W.B. Wicker Elementary’s magnet program, and dual-language immersion programs across the district as examples.
“We strive to serve the whole child and provide real opportunities for everyone,” Bryan said.
FROM THE EDITOR
One of the common complaints we see on our message boards when stories go online about the significant growth Sanford and Lee County are experiencing and expecting to experience concerns schools.
How are we going to educate this influx of children? Aren’t we experiencing a teacher shortage as it is? The answer to that second question is “yes.” We are absolutely experiencing a teacher shortage, and it’s not just in Lee County. The problem is more significant in elementary schools across the state, and nobody is able to hire enough substitutes to get through a school year.
But back to that first question — as many as 6,000 new homes are either in development or planned, and that will certainly mean more children entering our public and private schools.
We are advocates for public education in Lee County. Our children attend local public schools and our friends’ children attend local public schools. So news of three new charter schools in Lee County in the last four years — the third (Central Carolina Academy) set to open this fall in the old Pantry headquarters near the intersection of North Horner Boulevard and U.S. 1 — could easily rouse concern in the most ardent public school supporters who feel these schools could be taking away from our traditional public system.
It’s true — students and teachers are leaving the two big high schools, three big middle schools, eight elementary schools and our specialty schools to attend Central Carolina Academy, MINA Charter School and Ascend Leadership Academy. And it’s true — these schools receive public funding, yet are operated by non-profit boards of directors. They are held accountable by the state department of public instruction, but operate with freedom from many of the regulations that govern state district schools. So there’s worry. Or at least, the door is cracked for skepticism.
The goal of this month’s cover story (Page 14), however, isn’t to criticize these schools before they’ve had a chance to grow and acclimate. Instead, we view this as an introduction to Lee County’s three charter schools — sharing their purpose and their goals. Many parents in Lee County are “testing the waters” on these new schools, and we’re not here to judge those decisions.
Rather, we see the silver lining in “school choice” in Lee County, because if the population does jump as predicted, we’re in a position to handle the influx, in part, because of these schools.
The next few years will reveal if these are good for our area. And like we do for our public schools, we’re rooting for their success.