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Community Charter School growing

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte’s Community Charter School, one of North Carolina’s oldest charter schools, is on the move.

Opened in August 1997, the school has relocated to new quarters that more than double its space, and it expects its enrollment in the new school year to grow to 150 students from 105 in the most recent school year.

And Community Charter, which offers classes in kindergarten through fifth grade and has served students from seven nearby counties, plans in the 2007-08 school year to add a sixth grade.

Operating with a budget that will exceed $1 million this year for the first time, the nonprofit school has received as a gift from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools the former Morgan School at 510 South Torrance St., less than a mile from its current facility.

Under state law, local school systems that own surplus property should make it available to charter schools whenever possible, says Dennis LaCaria, Community Charter’s school manager.

And because state law bars charter schools from receiving state funds for transportation or capital expenditures, he says, Community Charter borrowed $930,000 from BB&T to renovate its new 17,200-square-foot facility.

To provide collateral for part of that loan, the Charter School Development Corp. in Washington, D.C., purchased a certificate of deposit from BB&T and will withdraw money from it as Community Charter pays off the loan.

The school, which charges no tuition and receives about $15,000 in donations from its parent-teacher organization, also plans to launch a capital campaign this year to raise money to repay the loan.

Designed to serve as a model that can be replicated by public schools, Community Charter uses “open” classrooms.

With tables, chairs, sofas and bean-bag chairs replacing traditional furniture, each classroom combines two grades, such as kindergarten and first grade, or first grade and second grade.

And the curriculum is “emergent,” designed with student input, integrating all subjects in curriculum projects and centers, and aiming to connect students to the community through field trips and service-learning, LaCaria says.

“We start from wherever the child is and take them to wherever they need to go,” he says. “It forces the teacher to look at that group as a group of individuals, rather than by grade.”

And the strategy is working, he says, with 92 percent of fifth-graders performing at or above grade level as measured by the state’s end-of-grade testing.

Those results reflect improvement among students individually and for the school overall, LaCaria says.

The new school, to replace Community Charter’s long-time 7,600-square-foot quarters in the Great Aunt Stella Center at 926 Elizabeth Avenue, opened in 1925 as an elementary school, and half-a-century later served as a school for unwed pregnant teens, and then as an alternative school for children with behavioral problems.

The school is named for Morgan Myers, the daughter of John Myers, who built the Myers Park neighborhood and planned and built the Cherry community in which the school is located.

The Cherry community, designed to give free blacks a residential option outside downtown tenements, included the school, a commercial center and a church, and a trolley line to take black domestic workers to Myers Park, LaCaria says.

To recognize the role the school played in the city’s history, he says, it will be renamed The Community Charter School at Morgan.

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