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The Funding Debate: A Tale Of Two Schools

Not all schools are equal when it comes to public funding. Districts across the country spend more on schools that have a large percentage of low-income students. In CMS, the funding for some schools is more than double what other schools receive for each student.

But that doesn’t necessarily translate to academic success.  WFAE set out to find out why.

To borrow from a classic, let’s call this a tale of two schools.  One is highly successful.  One is improving, but still struggling.  Tina Yulee sees the difference every day.

“I’ve got one at a high-performing school that’s succeeding and then I have two at a low-performing school that are struggling,” she says.   

Yulee’s two sons go to Ashley Park, a pre-k through 8 school, in west Charlotte. She also takes care of her niece who attends the high-performing and lower-funded Beverly Woods elementary. 

“The differences in the school to me are night and day,” says Yulee.   

Needless to say, she has a lot of questions.  For one, she can’t figure out what Ashley Park does with all the money. 

“Well, where’s it going?  I mean, where’s it going?”

Ashley Park receives about $8,000 per student, whereas Beverly Woods receives $5,400.  The idea is that students at Ashley Park have greater needs.  This is a sensitive issue.  Many parents in lower-funded schools in northern and southern Mecklenburg County believe that gap is too wide and their schools aren’t getting their fair share. 

At Ashley Park, 95 percent of students are from low-income families and the school is nearly all African American.  About two-thirds of kids are at grade level.  That may not seem like something to brag about, but five years ago only a third of kids were. 

“This work here is about the educators having to do it all themselves, not because our parents aren’t engaged.  They will support us in every way they can.  They have limited resources to do that,” says Principal Tonya Kales.    

Some of Ashley Park’s funding covers costs parents pay for in more well-to-do areas.  Things like agenda books that each child has to track their grades, or technology like SMART boards and software.  And a lot of the money goes to training her teachers because keeping kids focused here can be tough.

“When you are coming from high-poverty communities and neighborhoods where you have a lot of issues around evictions, around power being turned off, around no food in the house, around a lot of violence, then that impacts who you are as a kid and you bring that into the schoolhouse,” Kales says.    

So last summer Kales had many teachers attend a one week training to help them engage kids who cope with these challenges.  And she’s sending a team of teachers to a national reading conference in San Antonio and a discipline conference in Las Vegas.  Ashley Park also gets a couple extra teachers with its funding. Kales makes no apologies.

“That money is about creating equal access to resources that other kids within CMS have.”

Like those at Beverly Woods elementary.  Tina Yulee sees how that works.

“If their children are going there, they’re going to make sure that school has what it needs.  And they raise thousands of dollars.  And we don’t have that same thing at Ashley Park school,” says Yulee.   

The principal at Beverly Woods elementary wouldn’t talk to us.  So we found a similar school. 

At Hawk Ridge Elementary in Ballantyne students perform really well.  About 95 percent of kids are at grade-level.  Hawk Ridge gets about $4,300 per pupil.  But that’s not the whole story.  You see a lot of parents here.  They’re helping out in the classrooms.  They’re eating lunch with their kids. 

The PTA budget ranges from $20,000-$60,000 a year.  It pays for things like SMART boards, and iPads for teachers.  In addition, parents pay for kids to go on field trips like opera or ballet performances uptown or spending a couple nights at Camp Thunderbird on Lake Wylie. 

At Ashley Park there are no field trips.  There’s no PTA. Principal Kales doesn’t dwell on that. 

“There is a difference, there is a difference.  It doesn’t mean my children don’t get a quality education at Ashley Park, because they do.  But their exposure to the world as a whole, their exposure to activities, resources, is just very different from what my kids are able to do here,” says Kales. 

Making that difference less noticeable is one aim of Project LIFT.  That’s the philanthropic effort that funnels millions into west side schools like Ashley Park.