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Innovative school programs highlighted at school district size study committee

Former Charlotte mayor and Sugar Creek Charter School co-founder Richard Vinroot, seen here speaking in 2017 at the John Locke Foundation, talked about the charter school at an April 4 legislative committee meeting. (CJ file photo)
Former Charlotte mayor and Sugar Creek Charter School co-founder Richard Vinroot, seen here speaking in 2017 at the John Locke Foundation, talked about the charter school at an April 4 legislative committee meeting. (CJ file photo)

The Joint Legislative Study Committee on the Division of Local School Administrative Units took a detour from talking about district size to explore innovative programs across the state.

The study committee is looking at the impact of a school district’s size on its performance, and whether it would be beneficial to split up large districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools or Wake County schools. Both CMS and Wake County schools serve more than 100,000 students. The average number of students in districts statewide is about 12,000.

During the last committee meeting, co-chairman Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, expressed a desire to look at what other counties are doing to improve academic performance.

Only a handful of legislators attended the Wednesday, April 4 meeting, which featured speakers from CMS and school districts in Buncombe, Lenoir, Surry, and Vance counties.

Vance County Superintendent Anthony Jackson highlighted the improvements in his district, which he attributed to Advance Academy, an alternative high school for at-risk students.

“We know this program has had a significant impact on improving the overall district graduation rate,” Jackson said. “We now have options to have kids who have run into the wall to have options to continue their education but also pay penance for whatever those choices that were made in the school setting.”

Over the past three years, graduation rates have risen while dropout rates and long-term suspensions have decreased. Jackson credited these outcomes to Advance Academy’s flexible calendar, social and emotional support, credit-recovery programs, and personalized pathways to graduation.

“I constantly say to my students that if you continue hitting the same wall, don’t blame the wall,” Jackson said. “We try to give them the tools to make better choices and have them understand that we don’t believe we can leave any student on the edges.”

CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox spoke of how ProjectLIFT, a public-private partnership, helps students in his district.

Wilcox said the program focuses on four areas: talent, time management, technology, and parent and community involvement. But Wilcox noted the participants haven’t seen the gains in student achievement they expected.

“What we thought when this project began is that we were going to simply be able to change the learning outcomes of kids quickly, but we found that the work was much more complex, much more difficult than many believe it is,” Wilcox said. “It is simply not going to be solved by putting more dollars at it.”

Although funding is a necessary component of school performance, Wilcox said dollars alone aren’t enough to push great schools to even higher levels of achievement.

Richard Vinroot, former Charlotte mayor and co-founder of Sugar Creek Charter School, showcased the success of the charter school in CMS despite high levels of poverty.

Sugar Creek is a K-12 school with more than 1,600 students. The school serves mostly African-American students and 94 percent of the students qualify for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. Despite the poverty-related challenges, Sugar Creek is performing better than its neighbors. The school earned a C from the N.C. school report cards for 2016-17 while meeting growth benchmarks.

Vinroot said the goal of Sugar Creek is to end generational poverty by providing a comprehensive education plan and personalized learning structure.

“We believe kids in poverty can have the same sort of lives and success as kids who are not from poverty,” Vinroot said.

Several of the programs faced similar challenges including tight budgets and full capacity. Speakers said these programs would need additional money to expand.

“Funding is always an obstacle when you are trying to do innovative programs outside the norm,” Surry County Superintendent Travis Reeves said.

Brawley emphasized that no draft legislation will come from the study committee, only a report explaining the committee’s findings. The next meeting is tentatively set for April 11