GREENSBORO — Two new charter schools have the go-ahead to open in the city next year.
One’s a learning-by-doing school aiming for downtown. The other is literacy-focused, planning to rent space from a church farther south. And leaders of both plan to offer meals and bus rides for students — not a given among North Carolina charters.
Next Generation Academy and the Experiential School of Greensboro are the only charters that gained state board approval to open in Guilford County next school year, though not the only teams to try.
If both open successfully and no other local charters close, it will bring the total number of charter schools in Guilford County to 11. And they’ll join a bit of a charter boom. While no new charter schools opened in Guilford this academic year, five have sprouted since 2012, the year North Carolina scrapped its 100-school cap on charter schools statewide.
Charter schools in North Carolina are tuition-free and publicly funded, but not controlled by local school districts. Instead, they are founded and created by nonprofit organizations with their own board of directors who receive a charter from the state to operate. They get flexibility on some typical major requirements for public schools, and in return some extra accountability from the state about meeting certain goals.
“I liked the creativity and the lack of bureaucracy the charter schools allow,” said Sam Misher, board chairman of Next Generation Academy. A retired Guilford County Schools principal, Misher served Northern Guilford Middle, Allen Middle and Smith High, among others.
He said he started going to charter school conferences and learning more about them shortly after he retired. Then, he said, he and others with similar interests came together to form the board for Next Generation. They got final confirmation in August that they’d been approved by the state to open in 2018-19.
They plan to rent a space that used to be a church school from World Victory Church at 1414 Cliffwood Drive. The space already has amenities like a cafeteria and a playground, he said.
While charter schools don’t have attendance zones like regular public schools, Misher said they are especially targeting recruitment in the 27406 zip code, which includes much of eastern and southern Greensboro.
Misher said he will transition to the executive director role for the school’s first couple of years and then transition out of a leadership role. They are looking to hire a principal to direct the school’s day-to-day operations.
They’ll emphasize literacy and helping students learn and progress at their own pace he said. The first main push is to get students reading on grade level by third grade. They’ll start as a K-2 school, with 100 slots per grade, and add a new grade each year, with eventual plans to be a K-8 school.
Some other expected features include teacher assistants available in all kindergarten classes, art, PE, music, Spanish and a K-2 reading specialist, according to the school’s brochure. They also plan to have a staff member, “whose primary focus is to monitor all students by visiting homes to establish a strong connection between the home and the school.”
Teaching students through direct experience is a long-time passion for teacher Melissa Bocci, currently employed at a private school. Now she and her fellow board members at the Experiential School of Greensboro see an opportunity to create a whole school built on that concept. Bocci is the school’s initial director.
Where most traditional schools end a unit of instruction with a quiz or a test, Bocci said theirs will work differently.
Students will be doing projects directly applying their lessons and will be evaluated on how successfully they are applying concepts and skills in those projects, she said. In math, for example, if they are studying units of measurement, students will be literally measuring. The school may not have to give traditional grades, she said, depending on what they hear from the state.
They want to make downtown their classroom, partnering, for example, with the Elsewhere Museum on South Elm Street, and making use of downtown amenities like the children’s museum and LeBauer Park. And, she said, they’ll look for service opportunities to give back to the community.
The plan is to open as a K-6 school and eventually be K-8.
Their planned, although not entirely finalized, location is a space in the former Dorothy Bardolph Human Services Center at the corner of Washington and Church streets. The building is now owned by developer Marty Kotis and has a giant lollipop painted on it.
Inside, they envision large open classrooms, where multiple grade levels can split up at times and recombine at others.
Outside, there’s a space where they see putting in platforms of various heights, and bringing out moveable 1-foot square blocks and other materials. The idea is to allow students to re-shape the space each time they play.
Bocci said charter schools don’t get money from the state until and unless the students come — the money follows the children. So right now, that’s the scary part, she said, adding they are hoping to find sponsors to help them pay to do all the things they need to do to get ready.
The exciting part, she said, is seeing many years of hard work among team members pay off — with a vision that finally has state Board of Education approval to become a reality.