At PAVE Southeast Raleigh Charter School, kindergartners analyze Langston Hughes poems, answer questions in complete sentences and “kiss their brains” when they answer correctly.
The school of mostly minority and low-income students in its first year of operation is already in an expansion mode. It has received State Board of Education approval to nearly double its enrollment of 120 students to 230 for the next school year. Now serving kindergarteners and first-graders, PAVE also has big plans to be a 750-student, K through eighth-grade school by 2026.
The school’s popularity – enrollment applications for this school year were nearly three times the available slots – is fueled in part because it provides students bus service and free and reduced-price lunches to those who qualify. Charter schools receive public funding but are exempt from some requirements traditional public schools must follow, including transportation and participation in subsidized meal programs. .
Thus far, PAVE has avoided the financial and management problems of some North Carolina charter schools. It’s too soon to say whether it will encounter the struggles that many charters that serve low-income students have had in meeting academic benchmarks. But PAVE leaders are confident the Raleigh school will succeed.
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The local school has the support of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based PAVE Schools, which targets neighborhoods where students struggle academically. PAVE’s original charter school is in Brooklyn, and the Raleigh school’s principal and at least one teacher previously worked there.
J.B. Buxton, former deputy state superintendent for education and adviser to former Gov. Mike Easley, is chairman of PAVE Southeast Raleigh’s board.
“Frankly, we knew there was a lot of need when we submitted PAVE’s charter. There’s been an increasing demand beyond what we might have expected,” Buxton said.
“I think for families looking at education options and trying to understand their kids, they are seeing a school focused on taking kids who may be behind,” he said. “They are feeling good about what they see at this school. Then add in the free transportation and then no hurdles when it comes to food services – that takes away some access issues that keep families from these schools.”
PAVE leaders asked the state to increase the school’s enrollment because of the waiting list and also the potential to acquire a long-term facility, Buxton said. Currently, the school rents space on South Wilmington Street that can handle next year’s increased enrollment but not beyond.
The State Board of Education approved the request because the school met certain requirements under state law, including commitments for 90 percent of the requested growth.
“They met the basic qualifications,” said Deanna Townsend-Smith, lead education consultant for the state Office of Charter Schools. “They are living up to what they set out in their charter.”
Critics of charters say the schools divert funding from traditional public schools and are not accessible to everyone.
In North Carolina, charter schools are less diverse than traditional public schools. Student populations at charter schools are 15 percent more white and 49 percent less Hispanic, according to the 2015 annual Office of Charter Schools report. Individual charter schools also tend to be mostly white or mostly minority.
At PAVE, all but seven of the students are black or Latino. About 85 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
The 158 charter schools in North Carolina are supposed to make an effort to have a student population that reflects the community, but there is no official consequence if they don’t.
“I feel inspired by our mission – make a world-class education available to every student,” said PAVE Southeast Raleigh principal Ariana Kanwit.
A North Carolina native, Kanwit returned from the charter in Brooklyn – PAVE Academy Charter – to lead the Southeast Raleigh school. Initially, she and her team went door-to-door to recruit students and tell the community about the PAVE way.
“We are very clear that this is a rigorous program and that we are preparing students for competitive high schools and universities,” Kanwit said.
Rosetta Johnson’s son Wesley is a kindergartner at PAVE. She said she chose the school in part because it keeps families involved and creates a “close-knit community.”
“The Wake County Public School System wasn’t connected to the families,” Johnson said. “And I wanted a school that knew about and understood African-American culture. I don’t feel like I got that with my older children that went to public schools.”
More than a school
Each classroom has two teachers and a university name for inspiration. The two kindergarten classes are N.C. State and University of Georgia.
Students are greeted by name as they arrive each morning. They recently celebrated “kindness week,” and every act of kindness was granted a heart for the kindness tree.
PAVE stands for Perseverance, Achievement, Vibrance and Excellent character. When students stand up to answer a question, their peers send rays of support, pointing spirit fingers in their direction.
Last week, a kindergartner wore a pink crown that read “perseverance champ.”
The flexibility of teaching style and constructive feedback are major benefits, said first-grade teacher Ben Pierce, who transferred from the Brooklyn school with Kanwit.
Last week, Pierce and some of his colleagues spent an afternoon observing another school and learning new techniques for teaching students with learning disabilities.
“I enjoy being able to serve at a place that can tune to best practice,” Pierce said. “It makes me want to come to work every day.”
He hopes PAVE becomes more than a school. He wants it to be a an “open-community institution” that works with parents to help their kids learn, and a school that offers after-school and athletic programs.
“This area already has a strong sense of community, and we’ve had a positive response from families,” Pierce said.
Sherena Baptiste, whose child attends kindergarten at PAVE, said she appreciates the school’s teaching methods.
“They really want the kids to use their brains and think about what they are doing as opposed to just giving them the answers,” she said.
Knopf: 919-829-8955, @tayknopf