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State OKs two new Movement charter schools as the Charlotte network revamps its plans

Movement School Eastland
Movement School
Movement School Eastland.

Movement School, a Charlotte charter school network with big ambitions for expansion, got state permission this month to open new schools in Gastonia and Greensboro in 2025.

Members of the newly-empowered Charter Schools Review Board spent two and a half hours at the November meeting wrestling with Movement’s proposed changes. Board members said they admire the staff and the program’s goals — it’s designed to provide better academic options for low-income and minority students.

But they also voiced concern and confusion about plans to drop an approved school in northeast Charlotte, eliminate the middle school at its Freedom Drive campus and make changes to management and governance.

“You do lose a little credibility when you come back and you decrease grade levels and you take a school that was opened and now you’re taking it back,” said review board member Eric Sanchez, founder of Henderson Collegiate charter schools.

And they noted that there still isn’t much academic data for a program that opened its first school in 2017. Movement currently has four schools in Charlotte, with plans to expand to Atlanta, Charleston and an area of central North Carolina that extends from Raleigh to Greensboro.

“I know what we’re trying to do is bold, right? And it’s hard,” Movement Foundation Executive Director Tim Hurley told the board. “It’s taken everything we have. What I want you to be very comfortable with is our level of partnership and transparency. We are a different type of organization.”

Opening a charter school requires a big investment of public money. For instance, the new elementary school in Gastonia is budgeting for about $990,000 in state and local money the first year, with 120 students. That’s expected to grow to $4.5 million in public funding by the fifth year, as grades are added and enrollment reaches almost 600. Public spending is expected to be slightly higher in Greensboro, with about the same number of students.

The Movement Foundation, which channels some of the profits from Movement Mortgage, invests $500,000 in start-up money for each school, as well as buying property and building or renovating facilities for new schools.

Despite the concerns, the board — made up mostly of charter-school operators from across the state — unanimously approved everything Movement asked for.

“It’s either going to be one of the best things that’s ever happened for low socioeconomic students, or it’s going to be one of those things where we went way too fast,” said a board member whose identity wasn’t clear from the audio stream.

In the past, the state Board of Education had the final say on allowing new charter schools to open, but this summer the General Assembly gave that authority to the review board.

Expanding and contracting

The first Movement School opened in 2017, on Freedom Drive in west Charlotte; that campus now has an elementary and a middle school. Then came Movement School Eastland in 2020, Movement School Southwest in 2022 and Movement School Northwest in 2023, all elementary schools in Charlotte.

In December 2021, Movement Mortgage announced plans to invest $100 million to open 100 schools over the next 10 years, reaching as far as Texas. But Movement School CEO Kerri-Ann Thomas told the review board that’s no longer the plan. Now, she says, Movement plans to focus in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, opening clusters of six schools in areas that can be supervised by one superintendent.

“We were trying to go all over the map. If you want us we’re coming, right? And now we’re like no. We want to hone in on these three states,” she said.

Movement has gotten approval to open elementary schools in Atlanta and Charleston in 2024. North Carolina has also approved three additional schools — in Raleigh, west Charlotte and northeast Charlotte — that have been delayed.

Hurley, who chairs the Movement School board, told the review board that the slowdown came from the struggle to find sites.

New Movement School Gastonia site
Google Maps
New Movement School Gastonia site.

“We could not find a facility that we could purchase and renovate for $12 million,” he said. “We tried; we could not do it. And so now we’ve increased our target to $15 million. As you know, construction costs have come up.”

Hurley said Movement plans to withdraw its approved application for a northeast Charlotte school because it wants to focus on Gastonia, where the foundation has bought a former grocery store in the southwest part of town.

Thomas added that she has seen economically disadvantaged families moving from Charlotte to Gaston County. The Gastonia school will be part of the greater Charlotte hub.

Hurley said the chain hopes to open schools in Raleigh and Greensboro, launching a central North Carolina hub. The goal is to open one of them in 2025, depending on where Movement can find a site first.

Giving up on middle school

Before discussing the new schools, the review board heard Movement’s request to revise its charter for the Freedom Drive school to eliminate grades 6-8. The school has been adding grades each year, and this year has its first eighth-grade class.

Thomas says many students leave after fifth grade because their families want the extracurricular options that larger traditional middle schools offer.

“That was a lot of the feedback that we got from our families: We don’t have sports, we don’t have football and we don’t have basketball and we don’t have these things, and that’s something that they really do have a desire for,” she said.

Kerri-Ann Thomas.
Movement School
Kerri-Ann Thomas.

There’s still demand for middle school seats, Thomas said, but the turnover defeats the purpose of easing the sixth-grade transition. She said Movement has decided to add pre-kindergarten to its elementary schools in hopes of laying strong academic foundations for students to move up.

“We’re trying to place our bet where a lot of people aren’t placing their bet right now, which is in the pre-K world. We know that the achievement gap starts at the age 3,” Thomas said.

K-8 and K-12 schools are common among charter schools, and several review board members questioned the wisdom of giving up on middle school.

“I don’t think there’s research that suggests that you can build a K-5 student up enough to take them the next seven years and close the gap. I think the evidence is contrary, especially in middle school,” said Sanchez, whose Henderson school spans K-12. “And I’m just surprised that a place with the minds, the money, the resources that you guys have that you haven’t decided, ‘Hey, this is mission-critical.’ ”

Despite the reservations, the board unanimously approved Movement’s request. Current fifth-graders will transition to a yet-undetermined “partner,” which Thomas said could be another charter school or a Charlotte-Mecklenburg middle school. Current middle school students will stay at the Freedom Drive school until the last eighth-graders advance in 2026.

Better hope for success?

The low-income Black and brown students that Movement targets tend to perform poorly in traditional public schools — and often in charter schools as well. Movement got its first test scores in 2021, when the Freedom Drive school had students old enough to take state exams. Last year Movement Eastland also had third-graders who took state exams.

Those students have outperformed schools with similar demographics in CMS, but still have relatively low proficiency levels. For instance, Black third-graders in CMS had an overall proficiency level of 41.7% in CMS, compared with 51.7% at Movement Freedom and 48.1% at Movement Eastland. For economically disadvantaged third-graders, proficiency levels were 40% for CMS, 46% for Movement Freedom and 50% for Movement Eastland.

Hurley told the board he knows it’s a risk to approve so many new schools when Movement is relatively new. But he said the network has a curriculum that works and can recruit teachers and administrators who understand the Movement approach.

“We have kids every day who wake up and their parents say, ‘What’s my options in these schools?’ And yes, it’s a risk to say yes to us, but the alternative risk, the safe one, is they have no other options in this place” — or the only choice is neighborhood schools that he described as “subpar options.”

Management and governance

Most of North Carolina’s 211 charter schools are run by an independent board that oversees just one school. A few for-profit chains have a handful of schools under one board, but review board members said a statewide Movement board would be something new. Hurley said the network might create a second board for the central North Carolina hub once it’s up and running. He said the Charleston and Atlanta schools have separate boards.

Hurley also told the review board that the Movement Foundation has just incorporated a charter management organization, or CMO, which could take over administrative and support functions as early as the coming school year. He said it will charge an 11% management fee, which will cover some costs that are currently in school budgets, such as salaries for the superintendent and a compliance officer. The foundation will subsidize some of the management expenses, he added.

The review board will have to authorize the use of the CMO, and some members voiced concerns about approving new schools before they have seen that piece. They also questioned the potential for conflict of interest because four of the seven current board members are affiliated with the Movement Foundation. One member quipped that “Movement” seemed like an apt title given all the changes afoot.

But after all the doubts were aired and the questions answered, the 10 members united to give Movement the go-ahead.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.