A Case For More and Different Charter and Magnet School Options in Charlotte
This article by Laura Lewin appeared in the For Your Consideration section in our November 28th e-Newsletter. For Your Consideration* provides an open forum for individuals to voice their opinions on various public education issues.
When my husband Marc and I got pregnant with our second child, we realized we would soon be outgrowing our home, and we would need to move to a larger house. The number one priority for both of us when considering where we would move was the local public schools. We wanted to find the schools that would be so strong and educate our children well, and we didn’t want to have to move again. We chose a neighborhood in South Charlotte near the Arboretum where our children could attend an elementary school, middle school, and high school with top test scores and a high degree of parental satisfaction and involvement. Little did we know that just a few years later our three children would be attending two different CMS magnet schools located on the other side of town! I never could have predicted that two of our three children would have needs and interests that would lead us to choose to forgo our fabulous neighborhood schools.
I should have heeded advice from my father: “I used to have six theories and no children…now I have six children and no theories,” and my mother: “You make plans and God laughs!” How could I have predicted that my middle child, my daughter, would get to second grade and literally be driven to madness by having to sit in a classroom for excessive lengths of time? Of course the length of time was not excessive for other children in her classroom or for her older and younger brothers. But my daughter, in an attempt to be a good student, listen well, and sit in her seat to do her work, developed full-blown Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) because of the anxiety it caused her to sit still. Finally one night in October of that school year she said to me between tears, “Why can’t I just go to school, and if I want to learn about bees I can just learn about bees? Why do I have to sit, sit, sit all day?” I said, “That sounds a lot like Montessori school.”
“There is a school like that?”
“Yes–your friends Ashlyn and Toby go to a school like that.”
“Could I go there?”
“Would you want to leave your friends and your bus stop and would you want to go to a different school than your brothers?”
(without hesitation) “Yes.”
“OK then, I will look into it.”
The next day I called a few friends whose children attended all three of the different public Montessori elementary schools in CMS and asked them if there was any way I could get my daughter into one of the schools. One of my friends told me that she knew of an opening at the school where her children attended, and one thing led to another, we visited and got accepted. My daughter has been attending Park Road Montessori school for close to two years and she could not be happier. She loves learning again, she is free of any OCD symptoms, and she has been since the day (literally the day) she started there. She is able to move freely about the classroom and choose when she is going to complete what work. I am always amazed by what she is learning. And her test scores were very high. In my enthusiasm to send all of my children to Montessori schools, I enrolled my two sons in the same school, and my older son did not like it one bit. He lasted about one quarter, and then went back to our public neighborhood school. I was reminded, again, that “one size does not fit all.” My older son graduated from our neighborhood elementary school, and when it came time to pick a middle school he chose Northwest School of the Arts because of his passion for musical theater, dance, and gymnastics. This school is not for everyone but he is thriving there and the environment is ideal for him.
I know that I am not the only mother who has struggled with trying to figure out the best school environment for her child. It is hard for us moms (and dads) when our child is in a school environment when he or she is not happy at best or suffering at worst. After all “a mother is only as happy as her least happy child.” I know from personal experience the relief that a mom feels when her child goes from a school environment that is not a good fit to one that is a perfect fit. I also have seen this from the other side as well–from my experience as a high school and middle school counselor in CMS.
When I was a high school counselor at Providence High School a few years ago, I was amazed at how wonderful a school it was–for about 80 percent of the students (this is my statistic based on observation). The students who fit in well at Providence thrived there, and it was amazing to see them doing so well. And the other 20 percent either dropped out, made it through unhappily, or developed some kind of coping mechanism–sometimes healthy, other times not so healthy. Whenever a student came to me and expressed dissatisfaction or expressed that they were thinking about dropping out of school, I would ask them if they had thought about other alternatives. At the time I did not know about many different alternatives, but I did know about a CMS high school called Performance Learning Center (PLC), and by the time I left Providence after only a little over a year and a half, 10 of my students had transferred to PLC. I am still in touch with two of my former students who transferred there, and both agree that PLC “saved their high school careers.” One is a junior at Western Carolina University, and the other is a junior at UNC-Greensboro. Both of them are thriving.
I was transferred to Carmel Middle School in October 2010 and I met a group of 400+ 6th graders. Even though I wanted to stay at the high school level and I was disappointed about having to move to a middle school, I quickly realized it was a good place to be. I immediately took to my students and fell in love with them over a three-year period with them–I moved up with them to 7th and 8th grades. I also found Carmel to be a fabulous school and very well run. But again I concluded that only about half the students truly thrived at Carmel. More than one quarter of my students failed at least one or more classes every quarter for all three years I was there. That is more than 100 of my students in just one grade. Other students were passing but not thriving in many other ways. I did not fault the school–not at all–but I do believe that large schools can not possibly meet the needs of all students. I am 100 percent confident that if my 200 students who were not thriving at Carmel could have transferred to a different kind of school environment (possibly more hands-on, maybe vocational education, maybe one of the many other kinds of learning environments out there) then ALL of them would thrive. But instead, 200 of my students thrived, and 200 did not. You can guess which group will have a higher high school graduation rate, and level of happiness, and life satisfaction, and be more productive members of society.
You may ask where I am going with all of this? Because of what I have seen in my professional life as a school counselor and my personal life as a mom of three very different children with very different learning styles, interests, and needs, I think there is a strong, strong case for more and more varied magnet and charter schools in Charlotte (and the region and all over, really). Some detractors of charter schools might say that we are indulging kids by catering to their learning style–why can’t they just learn to fit in to the school where they are? I would argue that when a child is in a learning environment that is not the right fit for them they suffer. And this suffering often leads to them hating school/learning and often results in them dropping out of school. The suffering also leads to mental illness, physical illness, and unhappy family lives. Additionally when kids are unhappy in school they often act up and make it more difficult for other children to learn. They engage in bad behavior outside of school as well.
Kids have an instinct to want to learn and they innately love learning–I would argue that this is true for all kids. But being in the wrong school environment crushes kids and kills this instinct.
The solution? Continue to provide more magnet schools and charter school options to meet the children where they are–instead of continually trying to put a round peg into a square hole. Northwest School of the Arts, Charlotte Secondary Paideia School (the charter school where I work), Entrepreneur High School (vocational education and college prep–opening this fall)–these are all examples of where schools are doing this. I know in my own school, Charlotte Secondary, we provide a small classroom environment and hands-on Paideia instruction, and lots of personalized attention. We tend to attract a lot of neighborhood kids who live in East Charlotte, as well as kids who live all over the area whose parents are just seeking a smaller learning environment for their kids who really want to learn but don’t like all of the social and other pressure of a large school. We are adding on a high school next year that will be very much hands-on. So often we teach our kids “from the neck down” and that just does not work for everyone. Our school works really well and kids and teachers are — happy. When teachers are happy they love teaching and appreciate their students; when students are happy they enjoy learning. Sometimes I feel badly saying that knowing that all schools–especially schools where there are 1200 kids in a middle school and 2200 in a high school–cannot possibly provide that kind of personalized attention to a vast majority of their students. But I do know that many students do thrive in a large school environment. And many do not. One size does not fit all.
Sometimes it is really easy to identify that your child is unhappy, but it is really hard to figure out what all of the options are. In an effort to try to inform parents and students about what public middle school and high school options are out there, Charlotte Secondary, along with the Levine Jewish Community Center and MeckEd, are having a program this Sunday December 2nd called One Size (School) Does Not Fit All. The program is going to be at the Levine Jewish Community Center and we will introduce representatives from 20 different public magnet and charter middle and high schools in the Charlotte area. Each representative will speak for three minutes to let parents and students know about where their school is located, what grades it serves, what kind of student would be a great fit, the application process, etc. After representatives speak, we will open up the program to questions and answers and the school representatives will stay afterwards to answer questions. The program will also be followed by a half-hour session on how to start a home school and a half-hour session on how to start a charter school (sponsored by the NC Association of Charter Schools). The program is free and open to the public, but we need RSVP’s so we don’t go over capacity. Please RSVP by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
If I had to do it again, would I still move to the same neighborhood? Yes–though I do daydream about moving closer to the schools where my kids attend–I could probably save an hour of time each day in my car! We really like where we live, and we have really good friends on our street. My oldest son did go all the way through our neighborhood elementary school (well, except for that one quarter where I moved him–and he is still angry with me about that!), and he had a really good experience. And the housing prices did well in our neighborhood–most likely due to the good schools! But my eyes are now open to all of the individual learning needs and interests of both my children and my children at the schools where I have worked. If I could build a school environment that would be perfect for each and every one of them I would! But I don’t have to–there are so many different options already available out there–and thankfully as the charter school movement matures and as CMS adds more magnet schools–there are more options to come.
*Please note the views expressed in For Your Consideration are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of MeckEd.
Do you have a comment? Please post your response below:
About the Author:
Laura Lewin is the director of curriculum, high school, at Charlotte Secondary Paideia School. She is also the coordinator of the One Size (School) Does Not Fit All event.