Too many blacks. That's the rap against North Carolina's Healthy Start Academy, the first of 34 charter schools launched last year in the Tar Heel State. In just one year, the school on Durham's Liberty Street has wowed the parents of its 170 kindergarten-through-second-grade students with soaring test scores and 98 percent attendance.
The educational establishment is not amused. One hundred sixty-eight of Healthy Start's kids are black. Only two are white. Healthy Start's 98.8 percent black student body violates a Democrat-sponsored clause in the charter school law requiring that each school "reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition" of the district it serves. By this racial calculus, Healthy Start should be 55 percent white, rather than 1.2 percent. Although the school is in a nearly all-black neighborhood, and its staff has not discriminated against anyone, state officials could use this law to shut down Healthy Start and 13 other "insufficiently diverse" charter schools. The student bodies of 12 of these schools are more than 85 percent black, while only the Megellan Charter School in Raleigh is considered "too white," given its 90 percent Caucasian student body.
"We have encouraged the State Board of Education to enforce the law," says John Wilson, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's chief teachers union. "I think kids need to learn to share the experiences and cultures of all children in their communities," he adds, "and I think if a school ends up segregated, yes, it should be closed down."
While Healthy Start may not "celebrate diversity," it clearly values academic achievement. At a June 17 meeting for pupils and parents, Headmaster Thomas Williams unveiled his students' scores on the standardized Iowa Basic Test of Educational Skills. Last fall, Healthy Start's second graders scored at the 34th percentile on the exam. By May, they had climbed to the 75th percentile. First graders rose from the 21st to the 32nd percentile. Healthy Start's kindergarteners, meanwhile, rocketed from the 42nd percentile last October to the 99th percentile among 5 million students tested nationwide.
"When I announced these scores at an assembly, moms were crying," Williams recalls by phone. "Grandmas and grandpas were crying and yelling. Theirs were kids who never heard anything good from schools."
Lynette Cradle, a black parent, attended the event but didn't find Williams's announcement quite so startling. "I really wasn't surprised because of the volume of homework that came home with them every day," says the self-described stay-at-home mom. Her second grader, Jasmine, became the school's spelling bee champion at age 7. Five-year-old John Jr. just graduated kindergarten.
He is "reading things that I didn't think he would be able to read yet," Cradle says. "He's very in tune with what's going on. He talks about the ozone layer and Monica Lewinsky. They go from current events to colors and the months of the year. It's like a well-rounded education."
Thomas Williams--a blunt, straight-talking man--says Healthy Start belies left-liberal educational theories that attempt to explain why poor, minority children supposedly cannot learn in public schools. "We fly in the face of all the bureaucratic excuses," the headmaster says. "Seventy percent of our kids are on welfare. Of the 170 kids, 168 of them are black. A hundred and twenty don't have daddies. They are brought up by their mothers alone. They came to us far below grade level. So they have all the excuses for failure, don't they? In public school, they'd be put in a corner. `He's black. He's poor, so he has to fail.'
"Here we have proved that the excuses don't work," Williams continues. "The kids succeed. We have a strict discipline code. The kids wear uniforms. If they don't have daddies, we say to them: `OK: 2 + 2 = 4. Do you understand that?' We hold up a lantern of expectations. We say: `It's this high. Reach it.' And they do."
Healthy Start's students are making Olympic-class educational strides despite Spartan conditions. "We're in a church basement," Williams explains. Recess takes places in the parking lot of the United Church of Christ. Aside from this exercise period, "these kids don't get any natural light," Williams says. "We have 10 rooms divided by paper-thin walls. No public school would operate in this joint."
Indeed, Healthy Start's results compared to its budget capsize the argument that all a school needs in order to create bright students is yet another sandbox full of cash. Though they receive state funds, the independence, flexibility, and accountability that charters enjoy let them do more with less.
According to the John Locke Foundation, a free market think tank based in Raleigh, the Durham public schools spend an average of $8,000 per student annually. Healthy Start budgets $5,200 per pupil while providing an additional 24 days of classes each year. In news that should make the teachers unions nervous, Healthy Start's instructors are the best paid in Durham, starting at $30,000 for certified personnel, versus $22,000 for their public school counterparts. What Healthy Start lacks in counselors and psychologists, it pays in higher salaries for its nine certified teachers, four teacher's assistants, and four additional teachers who man the school's Opportunity Room and Skills Center. Both slower and faster children are given extra attention in these facilities.
Money aside, Healthy Start's teachers discuss the school with pride. "The thing I find most encouraging about this school is the leadership as well as the population that we are serving," says Helen Eagleson, 36. She is a first-grade teacher who previously taught in the Durham public schools. "A lot of the kids at Forest View [her last public school assignment] were from a higher income bracket. Parents could afford to put their kids into tutoring programs. I am working with kids now many of whom were given up on. Here I think we're making a real impact."
Eagleson specifically recalls one very quiet student. "She would never talk. Other kids told me, `She's shy. She's really quiet.' By the end of the school year, she was talking, carrying on conversations and introducing visitors to other people. Because you have people who care about these children, they feel that and respond. In the public schools, they're put in the corner or left out in the hallway. Here, every child is given individual time and made to feel important....Social and emotional growth is what I see here in the students as well as academic growth."
"When I got here, the students didn't know the alphabet and barely could write their names," says Jerry Broadhurst, 31, Healthy Start's lead teacher and instructor of a first-grade class. "To see their growth shows the importance of having the teachers and the parents working together. That has been consistent."