This is the final installment in a three-part series about Renaissance West, an attempt to revitalize a west Charlotte neighborhood through an education village approach.
When Dwight Thompson, principal of Renaissance West STEAM Academy, pulled in around 8 a.m. the morning of July 3, two of his second-grade teachers were already headed inside.
“We didn’t have to be here today,” Sharon Schuster said. “But we want to do what’s best for our students and we know that’s preparing, planning ahead, being intentional about what we’re going to bring to the table and bring in front of them.”
Schuster has been teaching for 29 years. She came to Renaissance West last year. That morning she was joined by Aisha Banks, a 13-year veteran who’s starting at Renaissance West this year.
Both worked for Thompson when he was principal at Tuckaseegee Elementary. When he moved to Renaissance West, it desperately needed experienced faculty. Thompson placed both of them in teacher leader positions — jobs that provide higher pay for teachers who have a strong track record on student achievement and take on extra duties.
Schuster says the pay is nice, but the real draw is Thompson.
“He values the role of a teacher,” she said. “He sees the role that we can play as leaders within our grade levels, across the school.”
A lot is riding on Thompson’s ability to help his elementary and middle school students master reading, math and science. He says he’s making progress on hiring teachers.
“Renaissance West has really struggled with stabilizing as a staff over the years. So I think that’s going to be very promising for our kids,” he said in July.
Thompson is the third principal at a school that’s a big player in creating a cradle-to-career support system, working with community partners who have spent about $95 million so far.
For the first time in its history, the school has realistic hopes of getting off the list of schools rated F for low pass rates on state exams.
A Surprise from CMS
The Renaissance West Community Initiative comprises neighborhood, business, government and philanthropic groups who support an early childhood education program, services for parents and extras for the school. It’s supposed to be a partner in charting the school’s path.
But in the middle of the last school year, a surprise announcement came. Crystal Hill had just been tapped as interim superintendent when she revealed a long-term plan for reorganizing schools. It included removing the elementary grades from Renaissance West and turning it into a middle school.
Hill, who had joined CMS from Cabarrus County just a few months earlier, didn’t consult with the Renaissance West Community team. Executive Director Mack McDonald said he understands there are concerns about some of the other combined elementary-middle schools in CMS, “but ours is different. It’s a neighborhood community-supported school that we really need to remain as a preK to 8, because our concept works best that way.”
Renaissance West is a member of Purpose Built Communities, an Atlanta-based network trying to revitalize 27 neighborhoods across the country. They do it through mixed-income housing, high-quality schools and other community support programs. McDonald’s group is what Purpose Built calls “the community quarterback,” charged with making sure all the public and private partners work together over the years — and even decades — it can take to bring change.
In Charlotte, that means constantly rebuilding relationships with superintendents. No superintendent has stayed for three years since the partnership began in 2009.
Soon after her January announcement, Hill put changes at Renaissance West and dozens of other schools on the back burner. She had scheduled a meeting with the Renaissance West team for May 19 but had to cancel. That was when the school board held a special meeting to hire her as superintendent.
They finally met in August, and Hill says she’s still not ready to talk about her long-term plan for the school. As for McDonald, “my ask was for stability. You know, we’ve been devastated with change.”
Lots of Partners Involved
The Renaissance West project involves a lot of moving pieces, and the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted more than just schools. For instance, its Howard Levine Child Development Center, which provides high-quality subsidized care. closed for almost a year when community spread was highest. The center changed operators, re-opening two years ago under the management of Dixon Academy.
McDonald says the center is still not operating at capacity – not for lack of demand, but because of teacher shortages. The center expects its teachers to have early childhood licensure and/or education degrees, which puts it in competition with public prekindergarten programs.
“It’s just a crazy, competitive market for qualified teachers,” he said.
The city of Charlotte has also seen leadership and policy changes. For instance, the Charlotte Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative is now putting $109 million into six “corridors of opportunity.” Renaissance West is part of the West Boulevard corridor.
And in 2017, United Way of Greater Charlotte launched a “United Neighborhoods” campaign that’s taking something similar to the Renaissance West model to more neighborhoods. United Way is headed by Laura Yates Clark, who was the first CEO of the Renaissance West Community Initiative.
Clark is realistic about the lack of dramatic results at Renaissance West so far. She says this kind of investment takes time and faith.
“Neighborhood investments like this fail as often as they succeed,” Clark said. “But what else is working 100% of the time? I mean, I’d rather take an approach that centers community, centers the residents, is holistic and treats people like the whole human beings they are. I just think that has a better shot than this piecemeal approach we keep trying.”
Annual School Performance Grades Matter
The other United Neighborhood projects are not paired with schools. And it’s that piece of the Renaissance West project that brings an intense focus to each year’s results. A state report card summarizes data on each public school, including an A-to-F performance grade based on test scores.
So far, to Principal Thompson’s frustration, Renaissance West STEAM Academy’s grade hasn’t changed: “Five years as F,” he notes.
That’s not necessarily a big deal to school families. Arielle Porter, who lives in Renaissance West housing and has three children at the STEAM Academy, says she’s aware of the grade. But it doesn’t mean as much as what her children experience.
“My kids been getting the help they need. And they work with your kids one on one,” she said in August.
Mary Davis, a CMS bus driver who has three children at Renaissance West, says the school is making progress. She notes that students now fell behind when schools shifted to remote learning during the pandemic.
“I think these kids will be fine. Within time they will indeed catch up,” she said.
But McDonald, the Renaissance West CEO, says there are families who worry about the low scores.
“You have parents that have the means and the wherewithal, they start looking at their options,” he said recently. “Instead of being in the neighborhood school they’ll do magnets or they’ll do charter schools and they’ll do different kind of things.”
Improvement in the school’s academic performance could bring families back to their neighborhood school and re-energize donors and business partners, he says: “When the school is successful then our investors start to see the value of continued investment.”
Principal Thompson has seen the preliminary results of last year’s exams, and he’s optimistic that the school’s grade will improve. A school doesn’t jump from an F to an A or a B in one year, but Thompson says any change would bring a jolt of energy.
“That is a very big celebration, because I think this school has experienced such a lack of success,” Thompson said.
He can’t reveal details until the state posts test results and letter grades next week. Districts have to check their numbers for errors, and the state calculates a growth rating for each school that depends partly on how students around the state did, sort of like grading on a curve.
Continuing the Work
Over the summer, the YMA and Freedom Schools held summer programs at Renaissance West to help elementary students build reading skills for the coming year.
Two other groups, Youth Development Initiatives and STARS, held a program for students who had just finished eighth grade at Renaissance West. The teens got paid for attending sessions to prepare them for high school. That work doesn’t affect Renaissance West’s grade, but family advocate Alisa Jones says it’s part of the long-range effort.
“It’s not just about them being able to get the test scores here,” she said. “it’s about them being successful from here, throughout the rest of their lives. They have a lot of life left, so we just want to make sure that they’re equipped.”
Nicole Tuttle works at Charles Drew Charter Academy, the Atlanta school that’s the model for Renaissance West. She advises Renaissance West as part of the Purpose Built network and she says the Charlotte school is seeing early indicators of change: Better student and staff attendance, for instance, and the emergence of a stable, experienced faculty.
“So those are indicators that say the ball is moving in the right direction,” she said in May. “And I think we will be seeing improvements in achievement.”
This week about 700 students returned to Renaissance West STEAM Academy — which, for the foreseeable future, will remain a pre–K-8 school. Volunteers from Bank of America and Greater Mount Sinai Baptist Church joined school employees in welcoming students and families with music, cheers and high fives.
One of Thompson’s goals for this year is helping his faculty do more to live up to the STEAM label by incorporating more science, technology and arts into lessons that connect to all their subjects. He knows it won’t be anything like what he’s seen at Drew Charter Academy, which has had years more time and a huge private investment.
“They had almost 14 electives or specials for them to choose from at the elementary level. So you had architecture, you had engineering, you had all these arts-based experiences,” he said. “They had these huge rolling carts right outside the classrooms. So as they were building or creating something within the classes, they were able to access that easily.”
At this point, it’s still baby steps, and mastering the basics has to come first. But as all the experts say, transforming a school and a community is work for the long haul.
This story was produced by WFAE with support from the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative. WFAE and Qnotes are part of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative (CJC), launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with funding from the Knight Foundation. The CJC strengthens the local news ecosystem and increases opportunities for engagement. It is supported by a combination of local and national grants and sponsorships. For more information, visit charlottejournalism.org.