Charlotte Business Journal
August 16, 2013
Laura Clark is the first executive director of the Renaissance West Community Initiative. And she acknowledges she could face a daunting task.
The Charlotte Housing Authority spun off the initiative last year as a nonprofit to coordinate the redevelopment of the former crime-plagued Boulevard Homes community on West Boulevard.
The housing authority was awarded a $20.9 million HOPE VI grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2010 to replace the public housing site with a mixed-income community anchored to educational facilities The new $75 million, 41-acre community, dubbed The Renaissance, is under construction.
It will feature 224 apartments, 110 rental units for senior independent living, a community center, a child development center and a charter elementary school that’s holistically connected to youth and adult development programs as well as health and wellness services.
Clark will oversee the educational and services aspects of The Renaissance.
She previously was director of The Larry King Center for the Council for Children’s Rights, a nonprofit child advocacy agency. Before that, she was director of evaluation and community impact for the United Way of Central Carolinas Inc.
Clark also is an adjunct faculty member at Queens University of Charlotte and holds a master’s degree in clinical/community psychology from UNC Charlotte.
She recently spoke with the Charlotte Business Journal on the challenge of creating a school from scratch and the responsibilities that lie ahead for the Renaissance West Community Initiative.
How was the initiative formed, and what’s its role?
The Renaissance West Community Initiative was created out of funding from the federal government. That was the HOPE VI money. The housing authority was awarded almost $21 million to revitalize Boulevard Homes as a mixed-income housing community along with supportive services and programs for families and a comprehensive educational continuum. So Renaissance West was formed as part of that to oversee the implementation of all the educational elements and the supportive services and programs.
That was created by the Charlotte Housing Authority?
Yes. It’s a separate 501(c)3. There’s a nine-member board of directors. We’ll be looking to add to that over the next year or so, but right now it’s nine.
Will you be hiring a staff?
It’s an army of one right now, along with my fabulous board. We’ll be hiring staff. The first hire will be the school principal. There’s going to be a K-8 charter school on the property, and we’ll start serving students in 2015.
But our principal will be hired this fall because of training and planning for the school here. So we are going to go ahead and move forward on that.
The training is at the Charles R. Drew Charter School in Georgia?
Yes. The whole community is being modeled after East Lake in Atlanta, which was a very successful comprehensive community redevelopment. It’s about 15 years in now. And the centerpiece of that initiative is the Drew charter school. There are multiple cities now across the country working to replicate that community revitalization model. And we are one of those network members.
In Atlanta, they formed a consulting arm called Purpose Built Communities. And Purpose Built is now working with those of us around the country that are trying to do this. But we would be the first city to actually replicate the charter school model in its entirety. This principal will go through a yearlong fellowship program at Drew, really learning that model and how to run a school based on that model, and then (the principal) will come back to Charlotte to do planning for our school.
When do you start the hunt for a principal?
The official process will probably start (this month). But we are looking for somebody who wants to come in and lead a school that’s part of a broader community initiative. So this isn’t really “status quo” running a school. This is seeing the school as the centerpiece and the heart of the community.
How does a charter school work in comparison with a private school or a public one?
A charter school is a public school, but it is set up so that you have more freedom and flexibility outside of the public school system. So sometimes the public school system is limited in things it can do, and a charter gives you a little bit more flexibility around how you design the curriculum, who you hire for certain positions — those kinds of things.
After much thought and research, the board decided that it wanted to pursue a charter school. We will apply for the charter and hopefully be awarded it to start serving students in 2015. A significant portion of the funding for a charter school comes from the state, just as it would for a public school.
Does your board act as the school board?
No, actually there will be a separate charter school board formed and a separate 501(c)3 for the school.
In the beginning, it will be kindergarten through third grade?
Yes. And then we will start adding on each year. By 2020, we will be K-8. The capacity is right about 900 students.
Is it too soon to talk about how many teachers?
We’re working through all that right now — what we’ve got to have staffing-wise, what that looks like as we scale up.
The other thing we are considering: On the property is going to be a child development center. We are looking at the possibility of combining those two properties so the educational continuum is all on one place, which I think has some nice synergy to it. It shows how committed we are to early-childhood education as well. As part of that, we are looking how you stage the school for opening it. We don’t have all the answers to that yet. It will most likely be a multi-story building.
And the child development center is from infant to pre-K?
The child development center will be for zero to 5-year-olds. Thompson Child and Family Focus is going to be the provider. It has 100 years of history in our community doing wonderful things for children, child development centers being one of them.
It will be a high-quality, five-star center. And we’re also in conversation with Central Piedmont Community College around its early-childhood training program. They already have a partnership with Thompson, and so we’re looking to see how that might be augmented to include our site almost as a lab school.
What benchmarks are you establishing?
Success looks like we have children that are coming out of eighth grade prepared for lifelong success and prepared for either careers or college. Success looks like families having what they need to move up and out of poverty.
This initiative is really about breaking down the walls of generational poverty. It’s about saying, if we put everything in place that families need — so we have a great educational pipeline, we have great care coordination for families, we have other ancillary programs like the YMCA, like Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation, like CPCC, and we have stable housing — can we see a long-term change?
Can we see a long-term change in this community? And can it spur further economic development back down the corridor as well.
So our benchmarks are associated with all of those things.
Are families maintaining stable housing? Are students prepared for school? Is that child development center really getting them ready to be successful in school, and then, are they maintaining that success? And are families able to reach economic self-sufficiency?
I think those are the things we are holding ourselves accountable for. But all of that said, this is a long-term initiative. I am not making promises that within two years or three years we have all of this done or figured out and it’s all perfect. It’s not going to be.
This community needs a lot of support, and it’s going to take time.
Susan Stabley covers growth, the environment and residential real estate for the Charlotte Business Journal.