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Q and A with Cathy Sheafor

by Ty Shaffer

November 9,2010

Cathy Sheafor is the founder of Charlotte Community School for Girls, a tuition-free middle school in Charlotte’s South End for girls from low-wealth backgrounds. CCSG admitted its inaugural class this fall – 14 fifth graders drawn from more than 10 elementary schools across Charlotte. Sheafor is a graduate of Duke University and the Washington University School of Law.

When did you come up with the idea of starting CCSG?

I have dreamed about this school since I was a young adult. My husband and I were very fortunate to be involved with youth as swim coaches, and we saw what a difference a strong relationship and opportunity could make in their lives. And we’re both passionate about education. I’ve been the beneficiary of lots of educational opportunities that definitely made a difference in my life. So we hoped that we would be able to do [this] at some point in time. And in January of 2009 we agreed that I would try to stop calling it a dream and make it a reality. I spent a lot of time really focused on developing the prospectus for the school and articulating the ideology behind it. And in May I began talking to people about it. I met Mike Whitehead, who is an entrepreneur and owns his own business called Whitehead Associates, and he does leadership development. He invited me to join one of his leadership development classes. On the last day of that class in June 2009, I promised to a group of people that I’d only known for three days that I was going to open this school, and so I did.

Were there others in the class who announced similarly “big” promises?

Really not quite the same kind of promise [laughter].

I notice that you refer to the students as “scholars.”

There is an expectation from the moment a child walks in the door here that she will go to college, that she will excel academically, and that she’ll be able to pursue her dreams, whatever they may be. Calling them scholars is [part of] creating that expectation.

It’s also about shifting [existing] expectations. All of these children have come from the public school system. They all have very clear expectations about what a classroom will look like, what a teacher will look like, who’s called what. And when they enter this space, we want it to be different, we want them to understand that it’s going to be a new experience and that they don’t have to rely on those expectations. That it is going to different and exciting and innovative and motivating for them to be in this fresh, new environment.

Can you say a bit about the approach to educating young people here at CCSG, and whether you think it’s particularly appropriate for educating young girls?

Well I do think there’s a lot of value to single-gender education. There is a plethora of research that shows that girls explore leadership opportunities and certain subject areas more freely if they’re in an all-girls environment. So, that’s the single gender component – and we’re really not about the exclusion of boys, but the empowerment of girls.

We’re also experientially focused and community based. Those two things are also driven by a lot of research that shows that children learn 90% of what they do, and only 10-15% of what they read and hear, so we really should be educating them through experiences. I happen to have homeschooled my own children when they were in middle school, so I saw the value of experiential education firsthand while doing that. All of our curriculum is built upon the principle that children should be doing in order to learn. And then the community-based component is also heavily based on research that shows that relationships that are relevant to children’s lives are behind all of our main experiences with the most value. So we’re really trying to create those connections that low-income children wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to have. Both of those pieces are pretty critical components.

And then underlying the entire vision of the school is the idea that Daniel Pink put forward that we have to build a whole new set of skills in order to adequately prepare children for the workforce. Really he was talking about adults being adequately prepared, but we’ve taken that to being an educational principle, that there are six elements that will guarantee success and competitive ability in the workplace. So those principles that Daniel Pink put forth in his book A Whole New Mind are the underpinnings of the entire content of the curriculum.

What is the plan for these students after CCSG? Do you expect them to go back into the public school system for high school, or do you expect them to continue in private schools?

We really don’t have any expectation as to where they go. [Our expectation] is that they will be well prepared to go into whatever environment they think best, and we don’t believe that there’s going to be a single solution for every child that graduates here. So if boarding school is something that she wants, and thinks will be a good fit, and her parents think that’s a good fit, then we will help her with that process. If public school is a great fit, we’ll help with that process. If it’s a magnet school, or a private school, or a charter school, we want to respect the fact that every child has different, individual ideas, and we view it as our obligation to help her find the best fit for her.

There are fourteen students in CCSG’s inaugural class. Are you hoping to add around the same number every year?

A lot will be dependent on funding. Right now we’re in a one-room classroom, and we could accommodate 25 scholars plus staff, so there’s a possibility that we could stay in this space and add a small class behind. But that’s not ideal, and not what we’re looking for. So we don’t really know, and probably won’t decide that until sometime [from] December to March, when it’s time for us to [start the] application process. But the hope is that we’ll end up with around 100 students and go through the eighth grade. And if we decide that our model is successful and can grow, the likely growth would be to multiple locations, rather than growing the number of students in a single location, so that we’re continuing to build community in small, more individualized settings.

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