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Almost 15 years ago, Charlotte’s civic leaders and neighborhood activists created the Renaissance West Community Initiative with the vision of revitalizing a west Charlotte neighborhood through an education village approach. This initiative is part of a national movement — and represents one of Charlotte's most ambitious efforts to break the cycle of poverty.

The long view on a tough challenge; school bond campaign picks strategists; plus, a little esperanza

Principal Dwight Thompson welcomes families and students to Renaissance West STEAM Academy on the first day of school Monday.
Ann Doss Helms
Principal Dwight Thompson welcomes families and students to Renaissance West STEAM Academy on the first day of school Monday.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

I’m not sure when Arthur Griffin started urging me to look into Renaissance West STEAM Academy, but it feels like it’s been on my to-do list forever.

I met Griffin in 2002, when I was the new education reporter for The Charlotte Observer and he was chairman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. We’ve both watched countless efforts to create equitable opportunities for Black students emerge and fizzle — a huge frustration for Griffin, who grew up in segregated Charlotte schools and spent decades trying to improve conditions.

Griffin said Renaissance West reminded him of Project LIFT, a massive public-private partnership to turn around schools in west Charlotte. It got $50 million in investment and attention from across the country when it debuted in 2012, but ended in 2018 with the schools and many of the low-income Black students they served still struggling. “Here’s another Project LIFT thing, with the greatest intentions and hopes and we’ve just sort of been dragging our feet,” he said of Renaissance West.

On paper, Renaissance West, a pre-K-8 public school, was definitely a failure. The vast majority of students weren’t passing state exams. The school has gotten an “F” on North Carolina’s school report cards every year since it opened in 2017. But there’s always more to a story than those letter grades show. And I knew I couldn’t tell the story of Renaissance West without looking at the broader effort to reshape the community it’s part of — and the Atlanta project that inspired it.

I started doing interviews and making visits in November, working it in around other education coverage. My editor, Greg Collard, brought in the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative to finance the Atlanta trip and share the story with a wider audience. Griffin, meanwhile, joined the Renaissance West Community Initiative board in hopes of making a difference, but resigned after being elected as a Mecklenburg County commissioner in November.

WFAE started airing my three-part series this week, titled “Renaissance West: A slow rebirth.” Fair warning: I didn’t find any villains to expose, and there’s no miracle ending to make you stand up and cheer. Instead, it’s a look at the tremendous persistence that’s required to counteract deeply entrenched problems. And with the 2023 test scores and school performance grades coming out next week, there’s hope that Renaissance West’s string of “F’s” is about to be broken.

On Thursday we’ll do a Charlotte Talks segment with some of the key players, a chance to go a bit deeper. I hope you’ll follow along and let me know your thoughts and questions.

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At Esperanza Global Academy, a new start and bienvenidos a todos

Esperanza Global Academy Principal Angela Grant
Ann Doss Helms
Esperanza Global Academy Principal Angela Grant shows off the new school's two mascots, a jaguar and a butterfly.

Monday was a day for new beginnings, as the majority of North Carolina students returned to classes. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools held its back-to-school briefing last week at Esperanza Global Academy, where workers were hustling to get the building and grounds ready for opening day.

It’s a new neighborhood school in east Charlotte. “Esperanza” is Spanish for “hope,” and “global academy” refers to the location in the heart of Charlotte’s international community. More than half the students will come from homes where English isn’t the first language, and the school will be well staffed with Spanish speakers.

The school mascot is actually two mascots: A jaguar and a butterfly. “The jaguar symbolizes confidence, power, courage, and patience. Our jaguar always travels with his friend, Mari the butterfly. A butterfly is a symbol of hope and immigration because they travel far and wide to find new homes that are safe,” explains Principal Angela Grant.

It’s a lovely reminder that for all the divisions roiling the adult world, educators across our region are doing their best to welcome all the students who walk through their doors.

CMS bond campaign picks political strategists

Bond referendum about page
CMS is already posting bond information, while consultants will create a campaign urging voters to approve the bonds.

The Charlotte Regional Business Alliance has picked three consulting firms to run the campaign to sell Mecklenburg County voters on approving $2.5 billion in school bonds in November:

  • Jim Blaine of The Differentiators, a Raleigh-based firm run by people with ties to North Carolina Republicans. Blaine is former chief of staff for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.
  • Morgan Jackson of Nexus Strategies, a longtime consultant to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, also based in Raleigh.
  • Douglas Wilson, founder of Alexander Wilson Consulting in Charlotte, who also has a history of working for Democratic campaigns.

Past CMS bond campaigns have been conducted by Charlotte PR firms. Using Raleigh-based political consultants is a twist — and one that the alliance isn’t ready to explain just yet. Communications Director Tanya Mendis said only that there are three consulting firms and said more information will come after Labor Day. The specifics, which were confirmed to me by two people in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, were reported last week in Business North Carolina and The Charlotte Ledger.

The story behind 'Public School Strong'

People wearing "Public School Strong" T-shirts
People wearing "Public School Strong" T-shirts lined the front row at last week's public hearings on CMS 'parents' rights' policies.

You may have seen people showing up at CMS board meetings in light blue T-shirts labeled “Public School Strong.” I got curious about what’s behind the label.

Public School Strong is a project of HEAL Together North Carolina, which stands for Honest Education Action and Leadership. That’s a national movement created by Race Forward that came in direct response, the group says to "attacks on Critical Race Theory.” Race Forward is a group with offices in New York City and Oakland, California, that works to “dismantle structural racism by building collective community power and transforming institutions” The HEAL Together pledge calls for commitment to fully funding public education and working toward equity, racial justice and a “just, multiracial pluralistic democracy.” It also calls for fighting back against divisive and harmful narratives “about people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, people who are disabled, and other marginalized people; or false narratives about the work of equity, inclusion, and justice.”

In North Carolina, the Education Justice Alliance and Down Home North Carolina created the state’s HEAL Together branch and the Public School Strong project. The Education Justice Alliance, based in Wake County, is focused on issues related to racism, inequitable discipline policies and “a culture of punishment and criminalization.” Down Home organizes in small towns and rural communities, with dues based on whether members self-classify as working class, middle class or wealthy. In this region, it’s active in Cabarrus County.

An introductory page about Public School Strong, posted May 30, cites Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s recent warnings that public education is in a state of emergency, with public schools underfunded while the GOP-dominated General Assembly prepares to expand public voucher money for private schools. And it specifies that Public School Strong is pushing back against groups like Moms for Liberty that are “pushing book bans and trying to erode our trust in public education.”

So: If you’re keeping track of combatants in the culture war, that’s the story behind the blue T-shirt brigade.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.