It’s a lot to juggle at once for the first public charter school to open in Haywood County, but SRCA Board Chairwoman Anna Eason said the board, teachers, staff and students are taking it in stride.
“Any organization has challenges when they’re new, but we’re looking forward to the coming school year,” she said. “We learned in year one we needed to do some things differently in year two and now we’ve learned a lot from year two we can carry forward to year three.”
During SRCA’s first year, classes were held inside Lake Junaluska’s Wilson Children’s Center while school leaders continued to look for a permanent campus. Once the school purchased modular classrooms and secured a land lease on Lake Junaluska Assembly property, teachers and students had more room to spread out.
“I'm very proud of our board, who has renewed its focus on our mission,” said School Director Ben Butler. “I'm also excited that we've been able to add key staff positions including an assistant director position to share my administrative load and a director of student services, who will focus on helping us develop extracurriculars and coordinate our field trips.”
Adjusting to growth
Even with their own classroom space, many teachers at SRCA are still adjusting to a curriculum they probably never taught before arriving at SRCA. While traditional public schools are required by law to teach the Common Core Standards, public charters are allowed to choose their own curriculum. SRCA went with Core Knowledge Curriculum — the standards being taught through Core Knowledge are similar to Common Core, but the way those lessons are taught can be much different.
Core Knowledge is a rigorous, content-based curriculum that emphasizes learning subject matter as a gateway to increased language skills. SRCA also uses Singapore math, which teaches students many ways to solve a problem to accommodate different learning styles.
“I love Singapore math — it teaches kids every way and lets them pick which way works best for their brain,” Eason said.
It may be better for different learning styles, but teachers are adjusting to teaching math in a whole new way. Eason said SRCA would be using a different Singapore textbook next year for middle school that is supposed to be more in line with the standards students are tested on at the end of the year — the same test students at traditional public schools have to take.
“This book will help teachers not have to fill in so many blanks before the test,” she said.
Test scores drop
SRCA’s overall proficiency scores, which are based on the end-of-grade testing, declined by 9 percent in year two. Only 62 percent of students achieved a passing proficiency ranking this year compared to the 73 percent who achieved a passing score last year.
Eason and Butler said they aren’t overly concerned about the dip in scores and are hopeful those scores will increase over time. They attributed the lower scores to the fast growth occurring in the student body and many of the students coming to SRCA for the first time have never been exposed to the Core Knowledge curriculum or the more hands-on learning approach at SRCA.
“We went from 226 (students) in year one to over 350 in year two and this year we expect to have over 400 so it is a lot of growth,” Eason said. “There was a huge learning curve from year one to year two — now we’re better prepared moving into year three.”
“Our growth definitely impacted our performance on the state tests. Over the long term, Shining Rock must become a rigorous and challenging school,” Butler said. “High EOG scores are not the holy grail of education, but over time our scores should reflect the fact that our students are being challenged and are growing.”
Adding a grade per year is definitely ambitious but it’s typically how other charter schools develop as well if they have intentions to be a K-12 school. The SRCA board wants students to be able to experience a different type of public education from beginning to end. Just as it is difficult to transition to a charter school, it would be just as challenging for an eighth-grade student at SRCA to transition back into the traditional public school for high school.
“We want to be different — we don’t want to duplicate what we already have here,” Eason said. “Some charters start with K-3, we started with K-6, which created a lot more challenges, but it’s nothing we can’t handle.”
Butler also acknowledged the challenges that come with an increasing student body every year, but sees things leveling off as SRCA reaches its current max of over 400 students with the addition of eighth grade.
“It's challenging to adjust to the increasing needs of our increasing student body,” he said. “This year, I think we have more realistic expectations of how to serve our families. Growth was definitely one of our biggest challenges last year.”
SRCA puts a lot of work into making sure its students have as many out-of-the-classroom experiences as possible throughout the year. This experiential learning component is what sets the charter school apart from the traditional public schools.
“Our Kindergarten classes already have eight field trips planned for next year,” Eason said.
The trips always coincide with a lesson plan whether it’s a class visiting the Knoxville Zoo to learn about animals, the Arboretum to learn about bugs or visiting a plantation in Charlotte to learn about the Civil War era.
Next year third-grade students get to go to the Atlanta Aquarium, fifth grade is going to Camp Daniel Boone and eighth graders are going to Washington, D.C., to study politics.
Of course coordinating and funding all these trips can get complicated and expensive. Parents are responsible for paying for the field trips but SRCA is constantly fundraising to defray the cost for all students attending.
SRCA is also promoting Jerimy Rinker to serve as the Experiential Learning Coordinator. Rinker has been with SRCA since the first year and has driven buses and coordinated field trips in addition to serving as the school’s athletic director. Eason said having a designated field trip coordinator would take some pressure off the teachers so they can focus on the curriculum.
Even when they aren’t taking field trips, SRCA students do a lot of their learning outside the classroom. Thanks to a $10,000 grant from Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, SRCA was able to install an outdoor classroom on its Lake Junaluska campus and hopes to add several more in the future.
Expanding to high school
The SRCA board is also discussing options for adding ninth through 12th grade in the future. There’s no more room for growth at the Lake Junaluska campus so administrators are looking elsewhere for a separate high school campus. But Eason said it’s tough to find a suitable building or developable land in Haywood County — it’s the same issue they ran into trying to find the right place for K-6 classrooms.
The board plans to form an exploratory ad hoc committee to look into options and hopes to make a decision by this fall.
If the expansion happens, Eason said the No. 1 priority has to be meeting the school’s mission of providing a rigorous curriculum and a focus on experiential learning.
“We’ve created a committee to clarify the vision with regard to the outdoor experiential learning and making sure teachers are utilizing Core Knowledge with hands on projects,” Eason said. “Everything hinges on facilities and making sure we can do a good job. We know not everyone will stay with us — some will want a different kind of high school experience. It might take us a while to get there.”
Even if SRCA does find a location for a high school, it can only grow one grade per year per state law.
By the numbers
Shining Rock Classical Academy, a public charter school in Waynesville, recently approved its 2017-18 school year budget of $3.2 million. The state does provide per student funding to charter schools but they do not receive funding for capital expenses like traditional public schools.
Current number of students on the waiting list for SRCA
• Kindergarten — 71
• First — 23
• Second — 28
• Third — 0
• Fourth — 22
• Fifth — 22
• Sixth — 32
• Seventh — 9
• Eighth — 3 spaces available