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Shining Rock focuses on year two improvements

fr shiningrockWhile Shining Rock Classical Academy students are already out of class enjoying their summer vacation, school leaders are busy assessing the charter’s first year and already planning for students’ return in August.

It’s been a whirlwind first year for Shining Rock as the founding board has dealt with the challenges of finding a suitable facility, implementing a curriculum that’s new to students and most teachers, finding reliable transportation to get kids to class and trying to become an accepted part of the Haywood County community. 

Despite all the setbacks and hardships, SRCA Board Chairwoman Nancy East said she couldn’t be more pleased with the charter’s first year. 

“Our first year exceeded my expectations in terms of our staff and school families.  Our teachers were taking a risk working for a new school, but they jumped in headfirst with a positive attitude, despite facing all the challenges and uncertainties we were confronted with at the start of the school year,” she said. “They are a joy to know, and their dedication to our school and students inspires me every single day.”

 

Finding a facility

Shining Rock’s lease on the Wilson Children’s Center at Lake Junaluska expired May 24 — two days before students were supposed to be dismissed. So as teachers packed up their classrooms, students got to enjoy outdoor programming at the Waynesville Recreation Center.  

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The Wilson Center was SRCA’s last resort to house classrooms last year, and they were happy to work out that deal with the Lake Junaluska Assembly after several failed attempts to purchase property for a permanent site. SRCA leaders agreed the space was cramped, with two teachers often trying to teach two classes in the same space. School Director Ben Butler said there were pros and cons to having up to 40 students and two teachers in a classroom.  

“The biggest challenges have been related to facilities. Classrooms were crowded, but students and teachers compromised and worked well together,” Butler said. “The ancillary benefit of shared space is that our teachers have developed very strong teaching bonds that are built upon trust and respect.”

Starting in August, SRCA will have more space and a permanent campus on Lake Junaluska property right across from the lake on Dellwood Road. The Assembly granted SRCA a five-year lease with an option to renew for another five years — the only catch is the school can’t build any permanent structures. Shining Rock plans to purchase modular classrooms like many other start-up charter schools in the state. 

Butler said there would be advantages to teachers and students having more space, but he doesn’t want his staff to lose that team approach to teaching. 

“With teachers in their own classrooms, the benefits will be improved management and a more controlled space where teachers can deliver content,” he said. “What we have to guard against is allowing our teachers to become insular… both students and teachers will be more successful when everyone works together to achieve more.”

Tight quarters may have created a tight bond between students and teachers, but East said it’s not a situation SRCA wants to have long-term. Each classroom teacher will have their own classroom next year, with much more space than they’ve had this year.  

“Interestingly, many of our teachers have expressed a desire to continue to team-teach as much as possible, since they had such a positive experience with it this year,” she said. “They likely wouldn’t have discovered that had they not been in the situation we were in, so there were certainly silver linings to a less-than-ideal learning environment.”

But purchasing the modular structures has not been a smooth process either. Earlier this year, Shining Rock entered into a lease agreement with MSpace to provide it with several used modular classrooms to the tune of $360,000 paid out over five years. While Shining Rock has already given MSpace a $50,000 down payment for the buildings, the company is now facing financial difficulties and might have to liquidate all of its assets.

Without a clear response from MSpace about if and when the company would be able to release the modular building to SRCA, the school board decided to pursue other options in the meantime. The board decided to purchase brand new mods from another company instead of waiting for the used mods from MSpace. 

Late Tuesday afternoon, SRCA confirmed that the school signed a $925,000 contract to purchase for new modular units from a different company. So how is SRCA paying for these contracts without receiving state funding for capital projects like traditional public schools do? 

Team CFA — a national network of charter schools that helps start-ups with curriculum, grant funding and financing — supports SRCA. Challenge Foundation Properties, an extension of Team CFA, has provided Shining Rock a line of credit for facility construction. After the issues with MSpace, CFP increased Shining Rock’s credit limit to $2.9 million in order to purchase the new modular facilities. In the meantime, SRCA’s school board approved hiring local lawyer Burton Smith to help the charter school in recouping its down payment from MSpace for not honoring its contract.  The board approved allocating up to $2,500 for Smith’s legal services but didn’t anticipate needing to spend that much before the issue is resolved.

 

Test scores

While the modular mess was disappointing for board members, CFA’s Director of Data and Instructional Technology Kristen Rodriguez recently presented the board with some positive news about SRCA students’ test scores. She gave a report on SRCA’s MAP test results, which show how students performed in math and reading at the beginning of the school year, the beginning of the second semester and at the end of the year. 

Students showed gains across the board, but Butler said the scores aren’t where he wants them to be yet. 

Kindergarten students came close to SRCA’s goal of having 80 percent of students scoring at or above grade level. About 77 percent of kindergartners scored at or above grade level for math and 79 percent for reading. About 93 percent of fifth-grade students scored at or above grade level in reading, but only 62 percent scored above grade level in math.

Despite the fact SRCA’s students didn’t meet all their goals, Rodriguez said the overall scores were impressive for a first-year charter school, especially a school under CFA’s umbrella. 

“Overall we prepared kids for next level,” she said. “This is the best a first-year school has done in our network.”

Butler attributed the lower math scores in most grades to the Singapore math curriculum, which was very foreign to students and teachers during the first year. 

“The Core Knowledge Curriculum and Singapore math were new to almost everyone in the school, so the fact that our first-year scores are good shows how hard our teachers and students worked,” he said. “However, we are just starting a very long process. My goal for MAP testing is 80 percent proficiency and 80 percent growth. These are lofty challenges, but I believe we can succeed.”

While they may not have met their goal in the first year, East said she was pleased with the results, considering many students had never been exposed to this new style of teaching and learning. 

“Our school is made up of kids who had largely never been exposed to a classical model of learning or the Core Knowledge Sequence, plus they were exposed to the inherent challenges of being part of a first year school,” East said. “Because of that, I didn’t have high expectations right out of the gate, but after learning how well we did compared to other schools, I feel confident in our ability to improve them and do even better next year.”

 

Enrollment

Shining Rock’s enrollment fluctuated a bit during its first year. The state funded 227 students, but SRCA had 223 students on the first day of class, a maximum of 238 during the year, and ended the school year with 226 students. Some of those students moved, while others returned to the traditional public schools. 

With the addition of new classroom space this fall, SRCA will add seventh-grade classes to its campus. The school began its enrollment process back in March with a random lottery drawing for classes that had more student requests than space available. Charter schools are tuition-free and must provide education for all students, but they do have a cap on how many students they can enroll every year based on their charter with the state. 

Butler said 132 students were accepted into the lottery and all grades have a waiting list except for seventh grade, which has five openings. 

“We are in the process of taking in applications from our new families and will continue to update our numbers as parents confirm,” he said. 

Even though the initial numbers look promising, there is no way for SRCA to know how many students it will have until the first week of school. Parents can fill out an application packet and return it to the school, but there is nothing keeping them from changing their mind at the last minute. 

With more than 100 students on the waiting list, Butler told the board he doesn’t think SRCA will have any problem being at its full capacity of 352 when it opened its doors in August. 

 

Planning for next year

The SRCA board was already dealing with changes for next year at its last meeting in May. Due to the hold-up in getting the modular units, board vice chairwoman Anna Eason said the school calendar had to be adjusted for next year. SRCA had planned to start classes in early August, but because the modular units probably will not be installed and ready until Aug. 22, classes have been pushed back to Aug. 24. 

“The last day of class will now be June 2,” she said. “We only added four days to the calendar even though we started two weeks later.”

Transportation is another issue being worked out. During the first year, SRCA purchased three used buses to transport students to and from school and to field trips. Transportation Director Jerimy Rinker said one of the buses was “smoking like a chimney” and probably wouldn’t be able to run next year. Since the goal is to have a back-up bus available for every bus on the road, he suggested the board purchase two more buses for next year in case the other two used buses fail. 

With a current budget surplus of $80,000 and perhaps even a $124,000 surplus by the end of the fiscal year, board treasurer Torry Pinter said the board might be able to pay for buses out of the current budget. The school board also passed a $2.48 million budget for 2016-17 based on enrollment of 313 students. About $1.7 million will be funded from the state and Haywood County will be contributing $623,000, or about $2,022 per student. 

After taking a month off to refocus, East said the SRCA board members would be holding a planning retreat in July where they can map out goals and vision for next year. 

“For me personally, I’d say one of my biggest goals is to increase our extracurricular and sports offerings, since I know that’s important to many of our parents,” she said. “I’d like to offer alternative sports as well, such as a rowing team. One of our parents rowed for Princeton and has proven to be a wonderful resource to get us started on that path.”

The school’s focus on outdoor experiential learning is another program East would like to see expanded next year. Students had the opportunity to do a lot of their learning outdoors and on field trips. East would love to take middle-schoolers on a backpacking trip next year. 

“There is so much to be learned on a backpacking trip, when you are only carrying the essentials of what you need to survive,” she said. “I see it as a wonderful teaching tool in many ways, especially for that age group.”

When reflecting on the first year, East is reminded of a Japanese proverb that has become a mantra for her through the journey: “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”  

“When I reflect on all the challenges we’ve faced and how we’ve successfully navigated through them, it’s very fitting,” she said. “My ultimate wish is that our students will learn from our journey too, appreciating that a cause as special as our school is worth putting your heart and soul into, no matter how many times you’re knocked down before you succeed.”

 

 

Shining Rock Classical Academy’s projected enrollment for 2016-17
Grade           Projected          Wait List
K                   47                     30
1                   44                     30
2                   48                      8
3                   46                     11
4                   46                     19
5                   48                      8
6                   48                     12
7                   43                     (5 slots available)

 

Shining Rock Classical Academy growth
Percentage of students who met their year-end growth target on MAP testing
MAPtesting

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