PEAK Board Members

Founding board members of Asheville PEAK Academy (left-right): David Robinson, Catherine Lordi, Tiffany King-Iheanacho, Libby Kyles, and Joe Lordi. Back row: Gene Bell, and Mychal Bacoate. Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

The Story Behind Asheville’s PEAK Academy Charter School

PEAK Board Members
Founding board members of Asheville PEAK Academy (left-right): David Robinson, Catherine Lordi, Tiffany King-Iheanacho, Libby Kyles, and Joe Lordi. Back row: Gene Bell, and Mychal Bacoate. Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

Continuing a legacy of stellar educational initiatives in Asheville’s African American Community.

The history of Asheville’s African American community is steeped in a tradition of valuing education. In continuing this legacy, a group of community leaders recently announced plans for the Asheville PEAK Academy, a proposed charter school aimed at Asheville-area African American and otherwise educationally disadvantaged students.

The Urban News discussed plans for the school in a teleconference with Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the NC Association for Public Charter Schools, whose role she describes as being “to increase opportunities by supporting charter schools across NC through legislative advocacy, public education, and support through a variety of means.”

Editors also met with the proposed school’s founding board members, of whom five are Asheville natives—almost all of whom are or have been educators or school administrators themselves.

Local Leadership, Education, Experience

Gene Bell served eight years as chair of the Asheville City School Board and spent 25 years with the Asheville Housing Authority, where he became well versed in the lack of opportunity barriers facing low-income families.

Libby Kyles, CEO of the YWCA of Asheville, is an Asheville native who taught in the public school system for almost two decades and cofounded YTL Training Programs, a nonprofit focused on supporting the social, emotional and academic development of youth.

Joe and Catherine Lordi spent seven years in the Mississippi Delta area under the Teach for America program: Joe taught second grade and was the principal of a middle school in Shelby, Mississippi; Catherine taught for seven years in a Title I school there.

David Robinson began his career in education working with special needs children in the Greensboro, NC school system and coaching middle and high school basketball; now, while working at Eaton Corporation, he coaches at Valley Springs Middle School.

Kyles, Robinson, Catherine Lordi, and Mychal Bacoate (North Carolina State University—Biology major) are Asheville natives, along with Tiffany King Iheanacho, the fifth generation of her family to live here (though she grew up in NY, she is a graduate of NCA&T and Western Carolina University). All agree that socio-demographics significantly influence a student academic achievements and should be structured with each child in mind.

Background Problems vs. Better Practices

Despite decades of erratic attempts to narrow the achievement gap in Asheville schools, the difference in reading and math levels between white and minority public-school students has actually increased, to the point that in 2015 the achievement gap was the highest of any school system in the state. Studies show that children with access to books and whose parents, church leaders, family, and friends value education, succeed at higher rates than those who don’t have those advantages. Families that hold high expectations for their children’s achievement see better outcomes.

Cultural Segregation, Diminished Expectations

Yet even the most aspiring families are held back by financial and societal constraints. Children who aren’t surrounded by print books might want to read eBooks, but cannot if high-speed Internet access is unavailable or financially burdensome—or if several family members have to share a single laptop computer, tablet, or smart phone. And when African American children do start school, they rarely see teachers, administrators, or other leaders who look like them—making supposed “teacher role models” seem alien. After even a few experiences of raising a hand and being ignored or dismissed, a child loses faith and begins to question his or her own self-worth.

Libby Kyles explained Asheville’s PEAK Academy’s approach to that problem. “One thing that will be different is the way that we will cultivate our teachers. We plan to create a culture of learning that begins before students ever enter the building. Teachers will have required reading like Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain and will be trained in mindfulness and resiliency practices. This will equip teachers to better read body language and make connections with students. Building relationships will empower teachers to discover what motivates each student.”

Tiffany King Iheanacho adds, “The way the teacher responds and engages students is impactful. So when we look at candidates we’ll be asking, How relatable are these educators to the students? Do they have the needed cultural competency?

“Children recognize mistreatment. We have to create a culture where teachers understand the students they’re serving, and give them the ability to empower and motivate students,” she says. “All students will be welcome, but we’re intentional about serving students who have been underserved in our current educational institutions.”

NC Access Grants

NC Access Grants, established to support public charter schools, have helped make state charter schools more accessible to students of color while also raising standards for their performance. Requirements under the program include a transportation plan and the provision of a school lunch. The Asheville PEAK Academy plans to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, as a way to reduce the stigma of certain students receiving free meals based on income.

Also required is professional development: not just teachers, but school leaders have to go through development programs. Schools approved for a grant must also conduct a weighted lottery to increase outreach toward and enrollment of educationally disadvantaged students. Currently 21 charter schools in the state use a weighted lottery to increase accessibility to such students.

According to Dillingham, who herself was a public school teacher for many years before becoming an advocate for charters, what makes the proposed Asheville PEAK Academy unique is that it is intentionally targeting at-risk students in the Asheville area.

The Need is Unquestioned

The school is envisioned to begin with K-2 and add a grade each year until it is K-8, at which point its goal will be to have approximately 400 students enrolled.

The founders plan to intensively market the school to Asheville’s African American community. They are, in Gene Bell’s words, “trying to help kids who might not otherwise get help.”

He explains why the group’s outreach efforts will be aimed directly at the African American community:

“The educational system is designed for middle-class white people. The system is almost identical to what it was in 1953. Tests are designed for middle class white kids—SAT and other tests. This is true across our society: the playing field is not level,” said Bell. “Why would the school system—any school system—be different? It’s run by the same people.

“I sat on the school board for eight years, so I had a birds-eye view. What I experienced on the board were the same disparities I see in our current society. African Americans are redlined in housing, redlined in business, in society, so why would schools be different? I don’t think it’s fair to expect that when children get to school it’s going to be an equal and level playing field,” said Bell.

PEAK’s Plans

Not only will the teachers reflect a different kind of training, the very atmosphere of the school will be designed to appeal to its students. There are only a few schools where something is reflected of African American culture. Part of creating a lifelong learning experience is when children see themselves not just on the walls but throughout the curriculum, not as adjuncts but as an integral part of that learning environment.

“It’s a ‘Love and Logic’ approach,” says Catherine Lordi. “Teachers will be meeting every child at the door, asking, How was your night, What’s new? What will matter is that the teacher will see children for who they are and where they are coming from.

“If the child is entering the classroom with problems, the teacher will identify that by making a genuine connection with each child before the day even begins. Teachers will have supports in place to remediate that issue so students can move into their day with a clear head and a real purpose.

“We will not lower our expectations for a child because of where they come from. We plan to meet them where they are, make sure each child knows he or she is loved and supported, and give them the confidence and motivation to reach their full potential.”

Reinventing school

Some nontraditional, but tested, instructional methods used in charter and private schools include seminars in which students pose open-ended questions; collaborative study groups; and project-based learning in which the children work and learn as a team. Such methods allow for learning that is facilitated by teachers but student led, and where competition is outweighed by cooperation.

According to preliminary plans, the PEAK school day, even for kindergarteners, will be eight hours, compared to six or seven in most facilities. Also, because charter school calendars can extend past the 185 days of instruction required of public schools, PEAK may run longer through the year. Dillingham noted that students studying longer days or hours gained 40 days in math achievement testing and 28 days in reading achievement.

Goal-Based Curriculum

“The key is that the curriculum will be goal-driven,” said Catherine Lordi who spoke about the need to tailor the curriculum and the teaching to the students needs rather than teaching to the test.

“We—teachers—have to understand where the students are in their own lives, what their goals are, and how they will get there. And we have to build around their goals. If families are involved, everything can be transformed. The curriculum will be driven by where students are and not by a standard set of lesson plans. We’ll have to be constantly receiving data, knowing where they are and what they need.”

The Urban News asked about the availability of print and eBooks, and of access to personal tablets or other electronic devices, which most middle-class children own but are not affordable to lower-income families. Dillingham explained that “the availability of those at this time is not determined,” but suggested that Access Grant funding could provide for those materials and tools.

Timeline and Process

The PEAK Academy earned its first stripes when it was approved in Round One of applications on January 13, 2020. Nineteen applications had been submitted in August; over the next three months the Charter School Advisory Board reviewed all 19, held a short interview with each applicant, and then invited several of them for in-depth, follow-up meetings. Asheville PEAK Academy received unanimous approval as one of seven applicants to be recommended to the State Board of Education.

Those receiving final approval will enter a year-long planning period with oversight from the Charter School Advisory Board and state Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the school would plan to open in the fall of 2021.

Who Will Teach?

According to studies cited by Dillingham, seeing African American teachers in their own schools improves the dropout rate among black children by 29%. Given the experiences of the seven leaders of PEAK, she continues, “They understand the importance of that. When they interview teachers there will be a weight given to teachers with experience in working with intellectually diverse students. They want teachers who will enrich students, and that means teachers with diverse experiences.”

NC charter schools have the flexibility to have 50% of teachers certified, with others being subject-matter specialists without certification. Sometimes a noncertified professional in a field is a better teacher than a trained, certified educator. So a charter school might bring in an attorney, an engineer, or another subject expert who can bring something to the classroom that otherwise would not be allowed; the school can then provide professional learning opportunities to help that person work towards certification.

Teachers of color in the area see this as an opportunity to reach students who seem to be falling behind year to year. Statistically, while black students in NC are equally likely to attend charter or district schools, the state’s charter schools have 30% more black teachers than traditional institutions, and some have reported measurable academic gains when the population of teachers reflects that of students.

The state’s 2019 charter school annual report says that terms of individuals’ growth among educationally disadvantaged students attending charters, 44% met growth goals v. 5% in district school, and 55% exceeded growth goals, v. 9% in district schools.

More Segregation, or Less?

One broad criticism of charters is that they lead to more segregation. In part that happens through cultural norms: white and middle- or upper-middle-class families are more able to arrange schedules, transportation, even the time to pursue applications to charter schools, than are families of limited means, those working multiple jobs, or those who place less inherent value on the importance of education. So Asheville PEAK Academy will have plans in place to help support families who want another option for their children through the application and enrollment process.

Additionally, Dillingham says, “There is a long tradition of residential segregation throughout the state. How much a parent can afford to spend on a home leads to education differentials. The good news is that charter schools transcend geography; no matter what neighborhood you live in, your child can attend the school of choice.” Subject to the lottery, of course.

Where Do We Go From Here?

How does NC compare to the rest of the country, overall and in terms of targeting African American and low income students?

The educational system is at a unique nexus that goes far beyond its original design, and that is by embracing the culture of all children it serves and thereby advancing the cultural capital of society.

If schools fail to meet this challenge, African American children will continue to achieve below their Euro-American counterparts. In short, educators, counselors, administrators, and policymakers attitudes must change. This will not be an easy chore, for it will require constant metacognitive processing, akin to rewriting the script while participating in the play.

But in the eyes and hopes of its founders, Asheville PEAK Academy is poised to change the narrative for children of color in Asheville.

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