Opinion: Daily Journal

Pressure to innovate helps prompt charter school’s success

When Sugar Creek Charter School graduates its first 12th-grade class this year, all 30 members will head to college. That’s not bad for a school that could have shut down in its infancy.

Sugar Creek’s most high-profile booster shared the school’s story with state legislators last week. Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot helped start Sugar Creek two decades ago, not long after a 1996 state law first permitted publicly funded charter schools operating outside the control of traditional school districts.

The new charter school aimed to help disadvantaged students who were struggling in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. But that outcome wasn’t guaranteed.

Vinroot recalls a conversation with school director Cheryl Turner in Sugar Creek’s early years of operation. “Our numbers were exactly like the poor schools at CMS — no different,” Vinroot said. “We had no gym. No playground. I said, ‘Cheryl, we need to shut this darn thing down. Why are we taking kids in our school who aren’t doing any better than anywhere else? We need to shut it down.’”

Turner asked for another year to find an answer. Now, after two decades of operation, a school that started with about a quarter of its students meeting grade-level proficiency has boosted that total to 60 percent. “We’ve come a long way,” Vinroot said.

“We’re not where we want to be,” he added, pointing to another charter school that has achieved student proficiency of close to 90 percent. Noting that 94 percent of Sugar Creek’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, Vinroot highlighted positive statistics tied to Sugar Creek student performance.

In 2016-17, 59.3 percent of Sugar Creek’s African-American students demonstrated proficiency, compared to 46.6 percent of African-Americans in the CMS system and 40.3 percent statewide. For Hispanic students, Sugar Creek’s 69.2 percent proficiency rate topped the 50.3 percent CMS mark and the 48.4 percent rate statewide. Among all economically disadvantaged students, Sugar Creek’s 65.4 percent proficiency compared to 46.9 percent in CMS and 44.2 percent statewide.

Vinroot identified no “secret sauce” that accounts for Sugar Creek’s success. “I don’t know of any particular thing that we’re doing, other than we have a great principal, we have a great faculty, and we won’t take no for an answer. And it’s working.”

Parental choice plays a positive role, Vinroot added. “We do tell them at the beginning of the year what our agreement is and what we expect,” he said. “They know that they have chosen us, and there’s some value in that, too, that a parent or a grandparent or an aunt or an uncle has chosen this school. … That’s a positive.”

Parents of 1,600 current students have chosen Sugar Creek, with another 500 students sitting on a waiting list.

Vinroot didn’t cite it, but the prospect of Sugar Creek shutting its doors almost certainly played a role in its later success. Had supporters not raised concerns about the lack of early progress, it’s hard to imagine a stepped-up effort to boost student achievement.

Traditional district schools rarely close. That’s especially true when their students perform at the same level as peers in similar settings.

In contrast, charter schools can — and should — close if they aren’t meeting their expectations. Vinroot explained that Sugar Creek’s early struggles prompted Turner to travel the country looking for new ideas. The school changed the operating plan it had used to secure its initial state charter.

Pressure to innovate led to innovation.

The school continues to make improvements, Vinroot said. Teachers have shared with him one of the characteristics they like best about Sugar Creek. “They said if we don’t like something and we report something’s wrong today, we report to Cheryl, and by the next day we change it. So we are flexible.”

Changes have continued at Sugar Creek, even after the school satisfied its most ardent supporters that the program was worth preserving. For example, what was once a K-8 school eventually added high school grades.

“Our decision to go to high school was not our decision,” Vinroot explained to lawmakers. “The kids talked us into that. We stopped at [grade] 8. High school is another kettle of fish. It requires gymnasiums. It requires lots of things that we just don’t have the resources for.”

For years, students advancing past Sugar Creek’s eighth grade typically returned to the traditional school district for high school. But some never wanted to leave, Vinroot said. “They actually came to our board meeting and put on the darnedest presentation and talked us into going to high school. And we did.”

Students who reach high school grades work with five full-time counselors. Counseling sessions build upon the character education that Sugar Creek incorporates into its K-8 program. But that’s not all. “They also talk about college and career exploration, college planning, financial literacy, and so forth,” Vinroot said.

Now the first graduating class will send each of its members to college. “Every one of them has been admitted,” Vinroot said. “Four or five of them have been early-admitted to Chapel Hill, which is my alma mater. My own children, who I thought were well-educated, didn’t have early admission. These kids are going to be all right.”

Meanwhile, Sugar Creek’s program is slated to change again. “Next year, when these 30 go off to college, and the next year when 55 to 60 [go] because the second class behind them is larger … these counselors will be communicating with these kids on a regular basis throughout their college careers,” Vinroot said. “We know it’s not simply going to be: Walk up, and sign up, and do your work, and become a successful college student.”

No one argues that Sugar Creek is perfect. No one claims its program could be duplicated throughout North Carolina.

But it’s hard to argue that this choice has turned out to be anything other than good for students who will head from Sugar Creek to college classrooms in the fall.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.