At first glance it’s hard to tell Sugar Creek Charter School in Charlotte is in session or that it exists at all. It’s the bevy of large, bright yellow school buses that give it away.
Located in the confines of a nondescript former K-Mart store in an old strip shopping center, this unique charter school has renovated the large former retail space into a successful inner-city learning environment serving 675 disadvantaged students, 99 percent of African American heritage, in grades K-8.
The high level of intellectual activity and engagement at the campus may seem out of place, since 90 percent of the students live in poverty and receive a free or reduced lunch.
But leaders of the groundbreaking school, with a motto, “Where strong minds and strong character are valued and nurtured,” urge students to reach those goals every day.
The proof is in the results. Sugar Creek Charter School has a proficiency rating well above the state average, scoring a 73.2 performance composite on the latest annual ABC test.
CEO/Director Cheryl Turner said the school continually achieves because it is built upon two pillars. One is character education and the other is academic.
“Social skills, manners, conflict resolution, drug prevention, national and community citizenship, outreach, community service and refusal skills are a part of our formal curriculum,” she said. “We can’t make an assumption that the kids know the rules or the right behavior when they enter our school, because most of them don’t. What we do teach them is a common value system here as we build team norms.”
Making sure the first pillar was securely in place did not come easy. At first, the school leadership found there was a great chasm between students and teachers. Now all teachers, including substitutes, and the entire staff go through rigorous “Framework for Understanding Poverty” training and staff development.
“We figured out there was a mismatch between the teacher’s perception of reality and our students perception of reality,” Turner said. “Although most of our teachers are African American, they are from middle-class backgrounds and our students are from poverty.”
They found the students needed to know the adults cared about them as individuals. Once that was established, the children began performing in the classroom in order to make their teachers happy.
The results were amazing.
“We have developed a genuine community here,” Turner said. “People trump programs every time.”
On the academic level, every student is tested and placed according to his development on the date of initial enrollment. She said most of the kids arrive with an oral language deficit and need to be placed in fluid groups so they can receive individual instruction.
“We customize each class for our students,” she said. “We have found targeted instruction, along with graphic and visual organizers, help our students do better. We teach higher learning thinking skills. We have to have the mind-set that we can do this, that it can be done.”
In addition, four curriculum specialists always are on hand to review lesson plans and help teachers make real-time instructional decisions and provide relevant resources.
Turner said each day of the extended 190-day school year is packed. Their school day is also longer than the traditional public school schedule in order to support a 45-minute intervention block, which further enhances educational concepts the students are learning.
Sugar Creek Charter School recently received a $400,000 grant for a three-hour after-school program targeting the lowest performing students. The program uses hands-on projects and activities, including creating recipes for nutritional snacks, taking special field trips, and participating in recreation.
The school also has a rock climbing wall to help instill confidence, coordination, and thinking skills during activity periods.
Program Director Frank Martin said the 200 students in the after-school program entered with learning deficits and need additional support to apply what they have learned during the regular school day.
“If the child’s not learning, then we’re not teaching,” he said. “We need to learn to do it better and more effectively. We use a lot of creative approaches that are working.”
Each level of student achievement is celebrated openly. Students’ work is posted on bulletin boards along the hallways.
Student Jaquita Moore, age 13, has attended the school during her entire academic career.
“I like the school,” the seventh grader said. “There’s a lot of education going on here and it has taught me a lot. I’ve accomplished a lot from being here and I’m glad I don’t have experience the violence in the [traditional] public schools. I don’t think I would have learned as much there.”
State Sen. Eddie Goodall, R-Union, president of the North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools, notes that the new Republican majority in the General Assembly has made eliminating the state’s cap on charter schools (now fixed at 100) a priority. Ending the cap would allow programs like those at Sugar Creek Charter School to be replicated throughout the state.
“This charter school has made all the difference in the world to the families that send their children there,” he said. “It’s taking a population of high risk, at-risk students and making them successful. It’s a model school and can be replicated, but the charter system also gives each individual school the license to make modifications or use another learning system when they feel the need.
“That’s the great thing about charter schools, they are not one-size-fits-all,” he added. “They are all unique and individual in the community in which they serve.”
Goodall vows to continue pushing for additional financing that would allow other quality charter schools to open throughout the state.
“A large segment of North Carolina has said they want more charter schools and they demonstrated that on election night,” he said. “We are going to create the infrastructure to get more charter schools off the ground.”
Karen Welsh is a contributor to Carolina Journal.