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Rowan-Salisbury school board members visit Raleigh charter school

RALEIGH — Sometimes the best way to learn is to experience something for yourself.

That’s the thought that led Rowan-Salisbury Schools to adopt a “go and see” mindset — where teachers, administrators and others visit successful schools.

Thursday morning, it was the Board of Education’s turn, as four board members piled in a van and drove to Raleigh for a tour of PAVE Southeast Raleigh, a charter school under the umbrella of New York’s PAVE charter management organization.

It’s not the first trip the board has taken, Chairman Josh Wagner said. Board members have been to see technical schools and well-known public and private schools.

“We can learn from everybody,” Wagner said.

Hopefully in the future, he said, board members will visit a variety of schools — in districts that are similar to Rowan-Salisbury and those that are vastly different.

At PAVE, there were a lot of similarities to be found. PAVE is a charter management organization that began in 2014 with a school in Red Hook, Brooklyn. PAVE Southeast launched in 2015 in Wake County, serving a small group of kindergartners.

The school added grades each year, said Spencer Menzel, development officer with PAVE Schools. This year, PAVE Southeast serves roughly 300 children in kindergarten through third grade.

Because of its location, roughly 85 percent of the school’s students receive free and reduced-price lunch, and about 95 percent of students belong to ethnic minorities.

“Which is a lot different than charters in other areas,” Menzel said.

PAVE Southeast is also slightly unusual for a charter, Menzel said, because it provides free breakfast, lunch and a snack to all students and provides free transportation to students who live in Wake County.

Thursday’s visit, made possible through Salisbury resident Jason Walser, included a tour of the school and visits to several classrooms.

“I’m looking for some innovation,” board member Jean Kennedy said, “… What are they doing that we’re not doing to get students to achieve?”

Throughout the morning, board members and Superintendent Lynn Moody compared notes with each other, matching best practices and observing how teachers tackle issues.

But some were looking at other factors.

“I want to know how they incorporate communities, parents,” board member Dean Hunter said.

As they toured, the group saw examples of blended learning, guided reading and other concepts they were familiar with in Rowan-Salisbury Schools. It left a burning question — what is different about PAVE Southeast? Could the school’s success compared to Rowan-Salisbury’s come simply from its flexibility as a charter school?

“I’m trying to figure out that magic stuff that makes it different,” Moody said.

During a Q&A session with Menzel and school Principal Ben Pierce and Academic Dean Lydia Cuomo, board members had a chance to delve deeper into the differences between PAVE and Rowan-Salisbury Schools.

The group discussed funding, testing and professional development. One thing that makes PAVE unique, Pierce said, is that the Raleigh location has an extended school year and school day. Classes run from 7:50 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, students go home early and the staff spends the afternoon in professional development.

“It’s not that what we’re doing here is the right way,” Pierce said. “It’s a different way.”

The differences have led PAVE Southeast to partner with other schools — public, private and charter — to share and collaborate.

Moody said the visit was eye-opening.

“A lot of times I think we say, ‘Well, we can’t because of regulations.” … So sometimes I think we tie our own hands,” she said.

For instance, there’s no state law preventing public schools like Rowan-Salisbury from extending a school day, but the district has balked at the prospect in the past because of funding.

“The million-dollar question is, ‘What are you doing differently that we can’t do?’” Hunter asked.

Walser said he thinks one difference is just the school’s culture. PAVE Southeast is small and all in one building. The staff is a tight-knit, cohesive group that would be difficult to replicate in a school district the size of Rowan-Salisbury.

“I think there’s a flexibility here by being small that we’ll never achieve,” he said.

The visit left the group with a lot to chew on.

“The more I visit schools, the more I know that the things we all know are best practices we’re all trying to do,” Moody said. “It’s just the tweaking. It’s finding that tipping point.”

Wagner said the board members will continue to visit other schools and see what they can learn.

“We need to continually reach outside of what we know and ask, ‘Are we doing all we can do?” he said.

Board members Travis Allen, Richard Miller and Alisha Byrd did not make the trip.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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