Maiden Voyage

Published 8:29 am Thursday, August 28, 2014

Principal Nick Shook (left) and Executive Director Kashi B. Hall pose outside one of the modular facilities that will house Heritage Collegiate Leadership Academy, the first charter school in Bertie County. Staff Photo by Gene Motley

Principal Nick Shook (left) and Executive Director Kashi B. Hall pose outside one of the modular facilities that will house Heritage Collegiate Leadership Academy, the first charter school in Bertie County. Staff Photo by Gene Motley

WINDSOR – It looked like a typical first day of school, because it actually was.

Usually the looks of anticipation and anxiety are mostly on the faces of the students, but at one Bertie County school that group also included the teachers, the administrators, and even the support personnel.

Welcome to opening day for the Heritage Collegiate Leadership Academy (HCLA), the first charter school in Bertie County and one of 26 new charter schools opening in the state.  Bertie is also one of three counties (the others being Harnett and Halifax) that are seeing their first charter school openings in North Carolina.

The school represents a seven-year effort by founder and executive director Kashi Bazemore Hall, a Bertie native who is making a return to education administration with the opening of the new school.

“It was hard to sleep last night,” said an ebullient Hall seated in her office Tuesday morning, which is part of three modular units that comprise the school grounds located off County Farm Rd. north of Windsor and adjacent to the Cashie Convention Center.  “I had to force myself to go to sleep I was so excited.”

Hall brings charter school experience from having worked with other programs in New York State as well as KIPP Pride in Gaston.

“Charter schools have been prevalent in urban communities for many years and school choice should be available for all children.  It helps increase property values and improves education for all and everything I’ve done has been in bringing a charter school to this community and serving northeastern North Carolina,” she said.

Kindergarten began at Heritage on Monday while the other three grades that will be offered during the school’s inaugural year of operation (first through third) experienced school for the first time on Tuesday.

The school’s 210 student population hails from not only Bertie, but also Hertford, Gates, Chowan and Martin.  The logistics of providing transportation for the students to the school in the early going has been daunting, but Hall soldiers on; including using private vehicles as “school buses” in some cases.

“My father is one of the volunteers,” she mused. “He has an eight passenger vehicle and has been one of the one when you talk about teamwork making the dream work. I think our staff and volunteers exemplify what that’s all about because one person couldn’t do it alone.”

In the two weeks leading up to opening day, Hall says she gave her staff what she’s termed, ‘Charter School 101’.

“I wanted to help them understand what makes us different from traditional schools,” Hall said. “I know having been a traditional teacher and administrator it’s a big adjustment.  The charter section requires a lot more grit and flexibility; you can expect to pick up a broom, drive a bus, to do whatever it takes to create and sustain an environment of success.”

The staff at Heritage is a mixture of first-year teachers as well as education retirees talked into returning to the classroom.

“My vision for this school was more seasoned, retired educators,” Hall contends. “You walk through these halls and you see retirees that I had to convince the need for this venture. Some of them were my teachers, so I knew their reputation.  Here we have a one-to-one ratio: for every beginning teacher you have a seasoned mentor teacher they’re learning from and the mentor teachers are learning from the beginners because many of the practices, technology are helping them and it’s helped present a level of diversity.”

Hall also credits the parents of the children, ‘founders’ she calls them, with the students and staff.

“Our parents have been so incredibly supportive,” Hall maintains. “Our outreach programs were very well attended, sometimes standing room only; and you have such diversity. Looking at the close-knit nature of our school community is what it takes to get kids on a path to college.”

Hall is already thinking of the next year, and the next, and so on as part of a three-year plan.

“We’re hoping to convert the Cashie Convention Center and to add on a gymnasium, and perhaps to even keep these buildings,” she reasons. “One day we may have a nice pretty facility with all kinds of technology access but today our ‘nice pretty facility’ gives our students a place where they can learn and be successful.”

Hall calls the overall plan a blended learning model.  The Academy has already received 60 desktop computers from Duke University with 100 more to come, and the SAS Institute in Cary has donated 25 laptops.

“When the model is in full implementation,” Hall says, “the way it will look is kids will spend a part of their day in traditional instruction and then the other part of their day using computerized instruction.”

The Academy’s World Language Program for the first year is all computerized, offering Spanish to Grades K-thru-2, and the option of Spanish or Mandarin Chinese for the 3rd-graders.  It’s a program called Middlebury Interactive, an interactive researched-based vocabulary program implemented in private and charter schools across the country.

“They have an opportunity to have conversations with people who are native speakers of the language and we’re going to be doing pen pals,” she explains. “It’s exciting to think how technology is opening the world for a child who may have never left this region of the state.”

While the school’s technology is school-based in the future, Hall envisions e-readers, tablets, and technology that students carry home through BYOD (bring you own device).

“For today we just want our kids to understand what it means to be an HCLA scholar,” she says, “getting them to understand the rules, routines, and procedures used at this school.  The first two weeks is getting the kids to know that this is a different kind of space and that they are safe to be themselves and to grow; and then in week-three we will begin to fully implement our program.”

FormerBertieCounty assistant superintendent Nick Shook is principal of HCLA and he says the school is in collaboration with traditional public schools.

“We have a piece to play in education children,” Shook said. “Our doors are open to Bertie County Schools, they’ve extended their hand to us and we’re here to be transparent. We’re working together with a common goal of education for BertieCounty.”

HCLA has extended hours with much of the time flexibility due to the transportation logistics for its students.  Children arrive at 7:15 a.m. and have breakfast with the school day beginning at 8 and ending at 4:30 in the afternoon.  There are a dozen core teachers (four retirees, three with 17 years of classroom experience, and five with less than five years experience), and four elective teachers (physical education, fine arts, health, and computers).

“And we have a large number of part-timers and volunteers,” said Hall. “If you saw us in action you’d think we’ve known each other all our lives. We have a staff who really wants to be here and implement this model successfully.”