For the last six years, I have studied and analyzed the most effective public charter schools across the country. This analysis has lead me to conclude that there are six common characteristics that all schools share:

  1. Clearly defined mission and purpose.
  2. Expanded professional development opportunities for teachers, staff members, and community stakeholders.
  3. Emphasis on a safe environment, conducive to student learning.
  4. Active and engaged relationships with school parents and community members.
  5. Overall student achievement through clear systems for academic prevention and intervention (closing the achievement gaps).
  6. Effective processes to recruit, hire, and retain dedicated, mission and value-oriented members within the learning organization.

When selecting a school to host our monthly regional charter school principal consortium meeting, these were the characteristics we looked for and found in Cape Fear Center for Inquiry (CFCI).

In October, fifteen school leaders visited Cape Fear Center for Inquiry (CFCI) in Wilmington, North Carolina for a day of collaboration and leadership development.

Let’s discuss why CFCI is one great school everyone should visit.

Clearly Defined Mission and Purpose

CFCI was founded nearly 20 years ago and currently serves over 400 students in grades K-8. Their mission states, “Cape Fear Center for Inquiry is committed to promoting students’ abilities to think and

Outdoor learning space

Outdoor learning space. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller.

create in personally meaningful ways through an inquiry-based, integrated curriculum in a nurturing and empowering environment.” As my business partner, Geoff, mentioned in a follow-up session, within this school, one cannot help but notice immediately intentional and purposeful action towards inquiry-based instruction. This was evident not only in the classroom, but during outdoor play as well. Thanks to the help of parent volunteers, the school designed and built multiple outdoor programs such as: a floating dock in a retention pond to observe wildlife, gazebos in the courtyard, and an area where students could explore nature while safely climbing trees.

Expanded Professional Development Opportunities

CFCI staff

CFCI Faculty and Staff. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller

At CFCI, the mission of thinking and creating in multiple ways does not stop with the students. We learned that teachers volunteer to lead weekly staff meetings (Distributive Leadership). Each staff meeting and professional development activity on campus is a model of the school’s education program. During the summer months, the administration provides in-house care for the children of staff. This allows staff members to collaborate and expand their already rich curriculum without worrying about the additional expenses of childcare. The Exceptional Children’s Coordinator (Lori Benazzi) has created a regional consortium for other EC charter school staff members in the Southeast area of the state to collaborate and grow their programs. Lastly, because the instructional focus of CFCI is based on inquiry and feedback, the staff is 100% responsible for the development of instructional curriculum as well as the teacher feedback and evaluation system. School Director Lori Roy noted that the education plan had been spelled out so clearly that each grade level was responsible for demonstrating multiple ways to meet the teaching objective.

Actively Engaged Relationships with School Parents and Community Members

Based on the education plan, all grade levels participate in community-based field trips as well as invite guest teachers into the classroom. External partnerships include local museums, the Cape Fear River Watch, University of North Carolina of Wilmington, the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Halyburton Park, and Thalian Hall, just to name a few. In addition to the external partnerships, the school has created an Alumni Connection group that follows the path of CFCI students after graduation and beyond. Learn more about CFCI’s practices and partnerships by clicking here. In addition, all of the outdoor learning programs are developed in partnership with an outdoor education space grant (UTOTES) that CFCI received. Through their support, they discovered that the space they had was perfect to create outdoor ecosystems and observation decks.

Floating dock

Floating dock. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller

Provide a Safe Learning Environment

CFCI adopted a Responsive Classroom Approach during their founding years and has developed this practice over the last decade. The Responsive Classroom Approach believes that in order to be successful in and out of school, students need to learn a set of social and emotional competencies (cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self control) as well as a set of academic competencies (academic mindset, perseverance, learning strategies, and academic behaviors). We noticed many intentional settings and opportunities to help encourage cooperation and self-control (for example, tree climbing and other outdoor play/learning activities). The school has maintained a strong student attrition rate over the last three years, losing less than 10 students during the 2016-2017 school year (<3%). With low attrition, the school can maintain relationships with current students and ensure resources are focused on what is most conducive to student learning. The school’s Exceptional Children Department has a less than 8:1 teacher-to-student ratio, which allows each teacher to connect and collaborate with general education peers.

Achievement for All Students through Systems of Prevention and Intervention

As one of the top performing schools in the region, CFCI initiated a new data-driven benchmark system at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year. The community initially opposed spending additional time on testing, but school leadership and teachers agreed that they needed an additional, consistent data source. While remaining aware of the effects over-testing can have on their students, CFCI is  using their Fall benchmark test results to identify individual student gaps to modify their approach.

Recruit and Retain Effective and Dedicated Staff

The key to improving a school is to invest in those most responsible for carrying out the school’s plan. What I love about CFCI’s teacher development plan is that it mirrors the school’s education philosophy. All new teachers are assigned a mentor when they join CFCI. In addition, their growth plan begins where they are. One member of the school’s leadership team noted that when she joined CFCI as a veteran teacher, she felt very lost at the beginning. With the support of her mentor and school leadership, she set small goals that she could meet quickly and receive plenty of feedback. This took a great deal of pressure off of her. CFCI invests heavily in professional development that focuses on the key indicators of the school’s success. These indicators are focused on developing a teacher’s ability to lead a responsive classroom and understand how to differentiate and model creative thinking and learning.

When you start an organization, make sure your goals are clearly defined and you are able to remain consistent with them. This will allow you to be the best school leader you can be, while attracting the team members and clients that will help you reach your mission.

This blog was written by Dr. Thomas Miller, former charter school principal, state consultant with the NC Office of Charter School, leadership coach, speaker and trainer. If you would like to learn more or join the Regional Charter School Consortium, visit our web site by clicking here.

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