After spending some time exploring the start-up struggles of StudentFirst Academy, a charter serving disadvantaged kids in west Charlotte, I swung by the other end of the charter spectrum this week.
Pine Lake Preparatory School is an established charter with strong academic results, located in Iredell County between Davidson and Mooresville. Most of the 1,700 students are white, and few live in poverty. When people complain that charters are publicly-funded private schools, this is the kind of school they're talking about.
|Terrill at Pine Lake Prep's new art building|
Chris Terrill, who was hired as head of school in 2012, invited me to visit and hear his thoughts on North Carolina's charter system. His previous experience was with charters in Florida, a state many N.C. leaders look to for models of school reform.
In Florida, Terrill said, charters could use race as a factor in lottery selection to get closer to the area's demographics. Here it's luck of the draw -- and with 550 children applying for about 50 kindergarten seats next year, there's a lot of luck involved with getting in. He says the racial makeup of Pine Lake -- 89 percent white, 5 percent African American, 4 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian -- is pretty close to that of the surrounding area. The school offers busing from "depot stops" in Huntersville and Mooresville to give opportunities to families who can't drive their kids, he said. Pine Lake doesn't participate in the federal lunch program, he said, but low-income students admitted through the lottery can get aid for lunches and field trips.
Pine Lake pulls about half its students from Mecklenburg County, with the rest coming from Iredell-Statesville, Mooresville, Cabarrus and Catawba. For most, he said, Pine Lake provides an alternative to crowded district schools, not failing ones. When Pine Lake opened in 2006, CMS had neglected to keep up with north suburban growth. North Mecklenburg High was the state's largest school, with some 3,100 students sprawling into trailers, and Torrence Creek Elementary was overcrowded as soon as it opened. While 1,700 students is hardly a small school, Pine Lake covers K-12, which means 125 to 140 students per grade level. Many parents see it as a safer, more personal environment, Terrill said.
Coincidentally, I had also spoken with state Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville this week about the state's school calendar law. Jeter has three children at Pine Lake, and he said crowding at Torrence Creek prompted the move.
Both Jeter and Terrill said they see charters as a supplement to traditional public schools, not a substitute. As Jeter put it, "charter schools should be the icing on the cake; they shouldn't be the cake."
Terrill, whose wife is a principal in Cabarrus County Schools, said the ideal situation is when charters spur innovation in school districts. He cited Iredell-Statesville Schools' decision to create an International Baccalaureate magnet at Mount Mourne Middle School, less than a mile up the road from Pine Lake.
Terrill says he's watching with hope and trepidation as North Carolina revs up an expansion of charters, with much of the growth centered around Charlotte. His first experience with Florida charters came when he took a job with founders who had more ambition than expertise; he says he found himself running seven underfunded, low-performing charters. He had moved to a much better setting when Pine Lake recruited him, he said, but he saw how easy it is to get into trouble. If the state can't provide supervision and support for its growing roster of schools, he said, start-ups may fail and hurt the charter movement, the district schools that take those students back and the families who vest their hopes in the school. "While I am a charter school proponent," he said, "I cannot support the effort of every charter school."