It’s National Charter Schools Week 2023! Today also marks the start of National Teacher Appreciation Week. What better way to bring both celebrations together than by highlighting a hardworking teacher at a public charter school? In this spotlight, the Coalition features Erika Harkey, a special education teacher at Community Public Charter School.
Erika and Ben Harkey enrolled their children, Arielle and Troy, at Community Public Charter School (CPCS) in 2020, just one year after the Gaston County charter school opened. That decision represented a leap of faith. Erika’s experience in education included work as a teacher in the state’s second largest school system, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). Moreover, CPCS, the charter school, was new and untested. The Harkeys’ local elementary school, on the other hand, was established—and walkable.
“We literally can see an elementary school out our window, and we share a property line with our public middle school,” Erika says. “Convenience-wise, you can’t get any better than that! So, it was a big decision to take them out.”
Philosophical differences over instruction fueled the decision to leave. “One of the biggest reasons was the public school was using this program called i-Ready,” Erika says. “The students were on screens a lot of the day. We just didn’t like that.”
Screen immersion was a poor fit for Troy, then a second grader. “We could see how our son was going down with his confidence level,” Erika says. “He could never tell us what he did.” Another red flag: A teacher left mid-year for CPCS, citing concerns about i-Ready. “I thought, ‘Wow, that is a big deal to leave in the middle of the year,’” Erika says. “That kind of clued me in.”
She quickly dove into research about schooling options, including CPCS. The next year, she and Ben enrolled Troy and Arielle at CPCS. Now in fifth and second grades, both children are flourishing.
Core Knowledge and ‘American values’
A K-8 campus, CPCS is a Title I school, with over one-third of students living in poverty. CPCS utilizes Core Knowledge in its curriculum, a content sequence that has shown great promise for spurring achievement. A new study from University of Virginia researchers found Core Knowledge had significant, positive effects on students’ reading achievement. (At one low-income charter school in the study, reading gains from Core Knowledge eliminated the income-based achievement gap. Read more from Fordham Institute.)
CPCS also features “American values,” according to school materials. Students recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily and take pride in the military, Erika says. They seek to model core virtues, such as respect, responsibility, and diligence.
From Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to a charter school
Two years after enrolling her children, Erika is now a full-time special education teacher at CPCS. “I taught in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for five years in a self-contained classroom, helping students with very high needs.” Erika says. She left CMS when she had her first baby, expecting to go back to work at some point. This fall, circumstances aligned for a return to teaching.
“My son is one of the kids; he has autism,” Erika says. “I could see that the team needed help and they were having a hard time finding special ed teachers. I have a little bit of experience in that!”
Her day-to-day work has changed somewhat. “It is resource level,” Erika says. “It’s not self-contained. I’m in middle school, so these are children that have relatively good behaviors. They just need some extra support within the room.”
Traditional teaching and local control
For Ben, the traditional teaching model at CPCS has been a key selling point. “You have a better sense of what students are learning day to day,” he says.
In addition, the charter school’s governance structure fosters access to leaders—and influence over decisions. “At CPCS, you also have more localized control,” Ben says. “We are able to Zoom into the board meetings, which are comprised of about a half dozen folks, most of whom I know. It’s not the red tape and bureaucracy that you have in your normal county school system. If you want to make a change, then you just sign up and bring it before the board, they vote, and there you go!”
What about a family’s option to choose a charter school? Public debate over school choice is often hypothetical. But personal investment changes the stakes. “When it’s your kid, it’s different,” Ben says. “You have a different set of eyes.”