Delivered at the Lunch Session of
The NC Alliance for Public Charter Schools 2015 Conference
March 6, 2015
Ronald L. Carter, President
Johnson C. Smith University
Thank you, Fred Grosse, for your invitation on behalf of the North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference to address this Lunch Session and for your generous introduction of me to your colleagues. You know that I enjoy engaging social entrepreneurs, and from all that you have told me about this Alliance under the leadership of Doug Haynes, you all are indeed risk takers for positive change.
A very good afternoon to all of you!
Some of you may have heard, I believe in following the Quaker admonition to speak truth to power. You here today have power – the power, as your chairman describes it, to be “a driving force behind making North Carolina a model state for innovation in public education by empowering all parents to decide the best educational opportunity for their children...” As such, you are in a unique position to impact the College of 2020: Students.
So I will be frank and honest with you: many of my colleagues find it surprising that, although I am the president of a historically black university, I am an enthusiastic advocate for charter schools. They are somewhat suspicious that charter schools are a way to avoid diversity and inclusion in education; that an increase in charter schools necessarily forces a decrease in the public school system; that in a quest for revenue and prestige, charter schools squeeze out needy students.
However, I have learned through my growing edge relationship with Elon Homes and Schools for Children and its Kennedy Charter School, now located on the JCSU campus, that this is not necessarily the case. Charter schools can no more be pigeon-holed than historically black colleges can. Each institution chooses its own unique path. Kennedy School, for example, has chosen to provide a special population of parents with educational choices for their children and to help strengthen a community, not segregate it. Other charter schools can choose similar missions. And, that is what I will speak about today.
Nevertheless, I think it is imperative that those in the charter school movement address my colleagues’ concerns. In today’s world of changing demographics, where in a mere five years, it is estimated, that more than half our students will be children of color, such a discussion is paramount.
I hope my comments today will help jump-start that conversation. For looking out on all of you today, I see the faces of forward-looking individuals who are willing to think outside the box -- people who smash molds and break from the usual way of doing things, seeking innovative solutions to our country’s problems in order to increase American workers’ global competiveness.
The entrepreneurs at Elon Homes and Schools in Charlotte have been doing that for more than 100 years. It started by providing a safe haven, life skills, and education to the children in their care by operating orphanages. Today, it is one of the largest foster care programs in the Charlotte region, plus offering a range of services to Kennedy School’s special student population.
In 1998, it established Kennedy Charter Public School as a way to serve students moving through the foster care system. But it evolved to respond to society’s changing needs, and today focuses on preparing specifically identified youth for college. Now only 10% of its current enrollment is in foster care or is homeless.
Its transformation parallels the transformation of Johnson C. Smith University into a ‘New Urban University,’ a term coined by Jake B. Schrum, now president of Emory & Henry College.
In Mr. Schrum’s words, a New Urban University “uses a variety of new approaches to provide a values-based liberal arts and career preparatory education in an urban setting for the mainstream American student.” And, as I mentioned earlier, that mainstream student is increasingly a person of color who often faces economic hardships. Mr. Shrum also describes a New Urban University as one that “educates the large percentage of the population for whom educational opportunities have not been equal.”
I did not realize how the mission-in-vision of JCSU could intersect with the goals of a charter school until I met Elon Schools’ president, Fred Gross. A few years ago over dinner, Bill Farthing, a former member of the JCSU Board of Trustees and now legal counsel to the board, introduced me to Fred. Within 30 minutes, Fred and I went into a deep discussion about educating the new demographic majority.
It created an ‘aha moment’ for me that, the work of our two institutions were not only complementary, but were ripe for a mutually-beneficial partnership. We share many of the characteristics of a New Urban University as described by Mr. Schrum: we are risk-oriented, entrepreneurial, and independent institutions; we emphasize service to the mainstream American student; and we deliver programs in new venues and formats.
It was a turning point conversation that led me to visit the Kennedy School, then located in south Charlotte, and it led straightway to an actionable agenda. In August 2014, the school opened its doors on the JCSU campus to 360 students, grades 9-12, and we look forward to welcoming K-8 faculty and students in June of this year.
But ours is not just a tenant-landlord relationship. It is fast becoming a multi-faceted partnership, creating win-win situations in a multitude of ways and on a variety of levels, creating a paradigm of what a “new urban” charter school can accomplish beyond its classrooms.
For one thing, Elon discovered that most of the Kennedy School students lived in the area near JCSU. By moving it close to their students’ homes, it has become a true neighborhood school in the best sense of the word. When we held an open house for parents interested in the school in the summer of 2014, more than 500 people showed up. The school now has a waiting list for the first time, and currently going through 1,500 student applications to fill 442 student seats.
Thanks to a $1.655 million grant from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, our partnership is now able to take advantage of the University’s state of the art science center to enhance K-12 students’ interest in science and technology, and help prepare them for postsecondary education not only in STEM disciplines but any discipline that requires solving tough problems. Kennedy’s faculty will also benefit from access to the center, for in this 69,000 square foot research facility they will receive training and hands-on experience in advanced STEM topics and instruction methodologies.
Our partnership doesn’t end there. Graduate students from our School of Social Work volunteer at Kennedy to conduct research and complete projects as part of their course work. The Kennedy students benefit from this attention – and from being around both graduate and undergraduate students in a campus setting.
This partnership is not just a win for JCSU and the Kennedy School. It is also a win for the residents of the Northwest Corridor, Charlotte’s predominately African-American area where JCSU is located. And, it is an area that is in dire need of more schools. A few years ago, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board, in a questionable cost-cutting move, decided to close a number of schools. Most of them were located in the Northwest Corridor and other predominately black neighborhoods, where, because of years of benign neglect, the schools were run down and lacked the infrastructure for the latest teaching technology.
As a result, the Northwest Corridor lost important assets that make an area attractive. Most concerning, parents lost choices when it came to educating their children.
But now, with the presence of the Kennedy School, that trend is being slowed down and stopped. Furthermore, with other efforts underway, many of them with the support and/or leadership of JCSU, the trend is actually being turned around. For example, the University successfully lobbied for the construction of a streetcar that will run through the Northwest Corridor and has recently opened a 126,000 sq. ft. mixed-use retail-residential complex and an arts factory off-campus. Kennedy students can take advantage of the Arts Factory where dance, theatre, graphic design, and painting are taught.
JCSU also directly supports CMS schools in the area. For example, we have conducted cutting-edge research on family engagement in the Northwest Corridor. We also offer a Saturday Academy for CMS elementary schools students, and our students tutor in a number of Northwest Corridor schools, many of them as part of our Charlotte’s Web Technology Mentorship Initiative.
Kennedy School has not yet been on our campus for a full academic year, but the initial results are heartening and exciting. Its partnership with JCSU – although unique in many ways – is scalable, and I hope it will serve as a model for other joint university-charter school endeavors across our state. For a community to be healthy, it must offer a variety of educational experiences that attract a strong middle class to create social capital that leads to upward mobility.
When it comes to education, there should not be an “either-or” choice among traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, and even home schooling. That’s an unnecessary false conflict which all of us here today must work to destroy.
Charter schools hold great promise, especially for students living in urban communities. It is one of the reasons it is so important for us to debunk the myth that charter schools are just a way to re-segregate public education. In fact, they give all parents – black, white, Latino, Asian – choices. They provide options for special kinds of students and those who need a particular kind of focus.
But, we must also discuss and dialogue about other issues facing charter schools, particularly the challenges they face in the areas of finance and governance. Charter schools – just like new Urban Universities -- must be entrepreneurial and flexible, revising their business plans to support their value proposition – which must also be regularly re-examined and revised to meet changing community needs.
As can be seen from the experience of the JCSU-Kennedy School partnership, the potential of what charter schools can accomplish is only limited by our inability or unwillingness to approach problems unconventionally, think innovatively, and act boldly.
And by addressing problems, thinking, and acting in those ways, we are also serving as valuable examples for our students and teaching them lessons as important as anything they learn from a textbook.
Thank you all for what you do, and God bless your growing edge!