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What It Takes To Open A Charter School

This is the first in a two-part series that takes a closer look at the charter school movement

Big changes are underway for charter schools in North Carolina.  Last year state lawmakers lifted the 100 school cap.  And now 25 groups are scrambling to open charters in time for next school year.  Seven are in the Charlotte area.  That same law made it easier to close a charter school by requiring they meet certain academic standards.  The state closed one charter this summer and more could close next year.  

We'll look at both sides of that.  This first of two stories, examines what it takes to start a charter school. 

Imagine starting a school from scratch.  There's a whole check list of things you need.  But the first is motivation because this is hard work.  For Linda Cruz, that came with a son who was having a difficult time in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. 

"He really, really started to struggle with some social issues and some academic issues. And we learned that the public school was too large for him," says Cruz.     

She moved her son to a private school with smaller class sizes.  That experience clinched what Cruz says she had been noticing as a teacher at Providence High School and in tutoring programs she ran, that traditional public schools aren't right for every kid. 

So she said, "Hey, I'm going to start a charter school."  With the help of two friends, Cruz put together a 97 page application to the state, a process all charters have to go through.

"Really, it required that we metaphorically set up a school and take it from the beginning to the end," says Cruz.  "We worked long hours with that application and during those times, I wanted to throw my hands up in the air and say, 'Forget it.  This is too much.'" 

But Cruz stuck with it.  They came up with Charlotte Choice Charter.  The school would be located on the city's west side and is designed for kids who struggle academically.  The curriculum includes your usual reading, writing, and arithmetic, but it also emphasizes character development. 

A state council that includes charter school administrators, board members and a school superintendent vetted the application.  CMS weighed in on it.  And this month the state board of education gave its stamp of approval.  But now comes the execution. 

"I have so many things that I have to check off of my list.  I have a couple planners and another notebook," says Cruz.

The hope is a year from now Charlotte Choice will be an elementary school that serves 216 students and, a few years later, a middle school.  That seems hard to believe.  Just like most charters scrambling to open next year, Cruz has to find a building, come up with money to renovate it, hire a staff and market the school to potential students and parents.  Those are all issues the school's board is tackling.  The board meets weekly.

"I just want to do a roll call for all of the board members who are in attendance," says Cruz, the board's chairman. 

There are a couple educators, a counselor and a finance person at this meeting.  Most boards don't have family members, but this one includes Cruz's son and a few people from her church. 

The group is working on marketing.  But they've got a dilemma.  They don't have any money to pay a graphic designer.  The school will get about $6,600 per student that would otherwise go to CMS, but not until Charlotte Choice actually opens. 

"I don't want to go knocking on someone's office door and I don't have a business card or a website to refer them to.  Those are the two things we have to have," Cruz tells the board.

So they're trying to get businesses to work for them on credit and they're also looking for grants and donations. 

One of the big start-up expenses is renovating a building.  Charters in North Carolina don't get any public money for facilities.  So what you have to do is be good at seeing the potential. 

A realtor takes the group through a half-vacant strip mall off of Freedom Drive.  She shows them a property that used to be a drugstore.  It's one big, rundown space.  The ceiling has water stains and several floor tiles are missing.  The rent is $7,200 a month. 

"It needs some work, but obviously you're going to have a lot of work to be done to create the classrooms and everything that you'll need.  Just look past the cosmetics," says the realtor.    

But cosmetics are important, especially when a parent is choosing between a schoolhouse with a playground and one in a strip mall. 

So what makes Cruz think she can have success where CMS hasn't? CMS has a central office that lends schools a lot of support.  Charlotte Choice is doing it on its own. 

Cruz says the flexibility to choose a curriculum geared to low-performing students will help.  But more than anything, she's convinced the school will cultivate a family setting that puts students at ease and gets parents involved. 

"Sometimes families and students can get lost in a huge school setting and certainly it can be intimidating for some parents.  With a smaller school setting parents might feel a lot more free and a lot more comfortable," says Cruz. 

Cruz clearly has a vision, but she wants advice from someone who has been there.  She and her board visit Sugar Creek Charter School just north of Uptown Charlotte. 

From the outside, it's not much to look at.  The school's in an old Kmart building that could use a paint job.  But inside, the hallways gleam, the classrooms are homey, and there's even a cafeteria and gym.  Nancy Lewis is giving the group a tour.  She's the office manager, but this is what that means in a charter school. 

"I do the payroll.  I do all the child nutrition.  I do all the student data entry.  Oh, I do all the HR, I do all the insurance," she tells the group. 

Nearly all of Sugar Creek's 900 students are from low-income families.  In 2001, only a quarter of students were at grade-level.  It's taken a while, but the school now has a proficiency rate of 80 percent.   

"You got to have people who know what they're doing.  Because if you don't, you're going to mess up," says Lewis.

Finding those people is Charlotte Choice's next challenge among many others.  Linda Cruz knows they have a lot of work ahead of them.