Carter Community School

If charter schools were children this one would be my favorite. While the other FREE schools focused on academic excellence the Carter CS set out to serve "Special Education" students in Durham where the public schools were being criticized for underserving these students. The idea was to give parents an opportunity to build the kind of school they wanted, a better use of their time, talents and energies than suing the Durham Public Schools.

The school is fortunate to have had only two principals, both of them remarkable people. Becky Sterling (the first principal) and Anita Olinga were the founders of the school. Having heard about the Village and Orange charter schools that FREE opened in 1997 they were looking for help in writing a charter proposal. The FREE board agreed to submit a proposal based on an outline provided by the founders and the proposal was duly approved. Here is how page 8 of the "Mission Statement" opens......"Our other schools did not write preferences for “at risk” students. In contrast, the Carter Community School will focus on successfully integrating exceptional education and typical children in equal numbers. In Durham, exceptional education students have routinely had lower parental satisfaction ratings, higher per child expenditures and mediocre outcomes as assessed by testing and parent scores. This charter school will provide a free exceptional education alternative for students, parents and service providers. Families of exceptional education students will have increased opportunity for interaction, support and networking, thus empowering them to advocate for their children. Relations between children with disabilities and typically developing children will be enhanced, as will those of their parents, creating a more cooperative community environment."

The liberal Democrat founders were none too fond of FREE in general (mean spirited Republicans) and this camel in particular. They named the school after Jimmy Carter following a disparaging remark I made about the 39th president. They wanted to run the school with minimal interference from FREE. Thus it was that a fair and equitable agreement was drawn up to divide responsibilities. The founders would get 97% of the funding and FREE 3%.

The school struggled in its first year mainly owing to less than satisfactory buildings. No bank would lend money to the Carter CS and it might have gone under but for Anita Olinga who provided an unsecured loan. Fortunately her faith was justified. The crisis led to FREE being asked to provide more assistance given Louise Cole's talent for putting together building deals that worked to everyone's advantage. This one turned out to be the most complex FREE ever attempted.

The Carter CS was located in a low income neighborhood of Durham with a reputation for violence and drug problems. Duke university wanted to do something about this to improve the safety of its students. Most of the local residents did not trust Duke and some called it the "Evil Empire". Fortunately, the Self Help Credit Union, led by the amazing Martin Eakes is trusted by everyone in Durham so Duke loaned a few millions to the SHCU for urban projects adjacent to the old Duke campus. Martin is the only banker I know who regularly wears sneakers to work.

George Brooks was running the Mount Zion "Mega-church" in Greensboro. His younger brother Luther Brooks wanted to follow in his brother's footsteps by creating a Baptist Church in Walltown. The SHCU was ready to lend ~$1.2 million to help Luther set up his church. Interest rates were quite high in 1998 so $180,000 was needed to service the debt. Given that Luther could count on ~300 parishioners, it would have burdened each of them with $600/year.

While nobody would lend the Carter CS a dime, its income was about $2 million per year so it could afford to pay $180,000 in rent. The Durham Public Schools had closed a school at 1305 West Club Boulevard. Instead of the property being sold it was left vacant for the convenience of drug addicts.

With encouragement from Nick Tennyson, Luther Brooks refurbished the building using a loan from SHCU with his church occupying the upper floor and the Carter CS occupying the lower one. The St. James church was landlord while the Carter CS paid the rent. The building was opened in January 2000 in the spectacular church/auditorium, with Nannerl Keohane (Duke President) as the guest of honor. I will never forget the singing of the choir. This link is just a pale impression of what it sounded like that night! You would have to be there to appreciate the impact of thirty young people singing their hearts out. This camel was born in Wales where community singing is highly regarded.

Over the years Becky Sterling became a little more appreciative of mean spirited Republicans so when I retired from Duke university and the FREE board in April 2002 she hired me. My mission was to obtain a grant to support improved teaching of reading based on SBRR (Science Based Reading Research). The proposal submitted was approved in the amount of $200,000 per year for three years. This enabled Becky to hire better qualified reading teachers so my services were no longer required. Sadly Becky departed soon after owing to pregnancy.

There were many applicants for Becky's job but for me one stood out. Gail Taylor was a member of Grova Bridger's staff at the NC Department of Public Instruction's "Office of Charter Schools". Driving along route 70 together I asked her why she would give up a comfortable job at the "Pink Palace" in Raleigh to take a lower paying job at the Carter CS. Her answer convinced me that she would build on Becky's vision but by then I was no longer a FREE board member. I am thankful that the board made what I see as a great decision.

The huge Durham Public Schools administration could have made plenty of problems for the Carter CS. Instead they were highly supportive. While I have no certain knowledge of the reasons for this I like to think that Carter's efforts to help "Special Ed" kids were appreciated. Ann Denlinger had a tough time as the superintendent of the DPS but her staff went out of their way to help the Carter CS.