Back-to-School Q&A with Craig Smith
Hear what’s top of mind for this charter leader, principal, and charter parent
Craig Smith currently serves as the high school principal at Lake Norman Charter (LNC), one of the state’s largest charter schools. In addition, he is beginning his second term as a member of North Carolina’s Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission. This year, he’ll also serve on a new task force with the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, guiding changes to interscholastic athletic competition for the state’s public schools. He and his wife, Melissa, an English teacher at Lake Norman Charter, are also the parents of two charter school students.
Kristen Blair, the Coalition’s communications director, spoke with Craig for this Q&A at the start of the new 2023-24 school year. We share the full interview below, featuring Craig’s views on what works in education; how parents can position kids for school success; what to expect in high school athletics; and more.
You began your career in education as a teacher and coach, later working as a district school administrator. What led you to a charter school?
Craig Smith: My career started in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools at Hopewell High School in Huntersville: First year teacher, 22 years old, and fresh out of school! I started as a math teacher and coach and was able to have really strong support early on from administrators. I also began pursuing my Masters in School Administration. I always wanted to become a high school principal, but the support I received within that building helped me start my administrative pursuits sooner than expected. I began my administrative career at Hopewell High School as a dean of students. I then had the opportunity to go to Ashbrook High School of Gaston County Schools, where the principal had just been hired from his feeder middle school. I interviewed with him, and we absolutely clicked. I was able to spend four years with him as an assistant principal. Then, in a full circle moment, I had the opportunity to come back to Huntersville and serve as the high school principal at Lake Norman Charter. I’m now going into my ninth year. I’m very blessed and humbled that I get to serve in this role and community. I absolutely love what I do, even with the challenges that principals face.
My family is fully invested. My wife is a faculty member, and my kids are in school here—one in the elementary school, and one in the middle school. The Smith family is truly “all in” at Lake Norman Charter!
The Smith Family on August 10, 2023, the first day of the 2023-24 school year at Lake Norman Charter.
How have your experiences as a charter leader impacted your views about what works in education?
Craig: The greatest benefit [of the charter model] is being able to look at what decisions need to be made at the local level that directly impact our students and staff. That is huge. Part of the perk of a charter school is having flexibility and autonomy. We still follow what is required from a state and legislative standpoint, but we get to look at our three schools at LNC—elementary, middle, and high—and say, “What do we need to do to best serve our students?”
In other extremely large systems, what one school needs may be very different from what another school needs. To me, that’s the biggest difference, especially with my experience in traditional public schools before I came to LNC. When we make decisions for Lake Norman Charter, we’re looking at what is in the best interests of our students, our staff, our faculty, and our community.
In addition to serving as the principal of a charter high school, you’re also a charter parent. How do those dual roles inform and impact each other?
Craig: As a school leader, I also have the ability to walk the walk of being in the parent community. For me, the uniqueness is being in the high school role. Ultimately, the high school is where our students conclude their career. Now, I get to enjoy seeing our students starting their educational career, knowing they will eventually progress up to the high school. This will be the only school my kids attend throughout their entire career, God willing, and that’s extremely exciting—a rarity for most parents. A lot of parents don’t get to view their kids’ school experience with that type of long-term vision and expectation.
We’re on the cusp of another school year. What’s the best thing parents can do to prepare their students for success this year?
Craig: There are two main items. One is for families to put their trust in their students’ teachers, principals, support staff, and counselors. Ultimately, those educators want nothing more than for the students to be safe and successful. Know that with Lake Norman Charter—and with any school—the folks in the school community have made a choice to be there. That’s true from the parent perspective, but that’s also true for faculty and staff.
The second is to be a partner in that relationship with their students’ teachers. It’s a true partnership. There should be open dialogue, but with a positive, supportive relationship, while maintaining trust in the teachers, administrators, and school leaders. We all have our roles in the school community; working together cohesively in support of the school environment is what allows our students to thrive.
What are the opportunities and challenges ahead for North Carolina’s charter schools?
Craig: The opportunity is through ongoing collaboration. There’s a lot of school-to-school collaboration that occurs. As they grow, charter schools can tap into high performing, very successful, well-established charter schools. We want to see other charter schools succeed.
In addition, there’s a lot of opportunity for collaboration across charters and traditional public schools. Some of the closest, strongest network relationships I have with other principals in North Carolina are in traditional public schools. We’re all in the interest of educating students, and we all want our students and schools to be successful.
The greatest challenge sometimes is from the legislation coming out of Raleigh. The Coalition has been huge in having a voice there and enabling folks to have conversations directly with General Assembly members. Once lawmakers have the conversation with an educator or a lobbyist representing charter schools, you see the lightbulb go on. So, that’s an ongoing challenge—that decisions made by non-educators, who may believe they’re writing strong legislation, can actually be problematic or harmful for schools.
What do parents need to understand about the state’s charter movement, and how can they contribute to charter sustainability and success?
Craig: If a family has made that choice to send their student to a charter school, part of the commitment is they’re deciding to be involved in the school and whatever that school needs—whether that’s being involved as a volunteer, or through community organizations, or making a financial investment. When a family makes the choice to be a part of that respective charter school, they should also make a commitment to be an active, involved, and engaged supporter to what the school needs to grow and be successful.
You serve as one of two charter representatives on the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission. Could you share more about PEPSC’s role and how its work could impact the teaching profession and charter schools?
Craig: When I was nominated, I was the first charter school representative on the commission. Now that Madison Edwards [a teacher at North Carolina Cyber Academy] has come on board, we have two charter voices. Not only that, but we are also two voices as a principal and a teacher. A lot of the members of PEPSC are outside of the school-based staff. Having two representatives for charter schools who are also inside the school building is huge.
The experience with PEPSC has been unique. Over the last calendar year, the Pathways to Excellence [a proposed model for teacher compensation and licensure reform] was highly publicized and garnered a lot of attention, both positive and negative. It was eye-opening to see how the processes work. We as a commission make recommendations to the State Board of Education, but ultimately the State Board has the responsibility to vote in favor of what’s presented. Sometimes it also takes legislators in our General Assembly being on board for any change to actually occur.
You’ve been tapped to serve on a new task force of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA). Could you share more about what parents and other charter stakeholders can expect with changes to athletic competition?
Craig: The amendment that was approved in the spring by the NCHSAA membership—which required a three-quarters of total ballots for affirmative vote—basically changed the language in the bylaws that allows the state to move from four classifications to seven. It had been written in policy that the state had to remain at four classifications. Through the successful passage of that bylaw amendment, then-Board President Rob Jackson recommended that a task force be created. While realignment occurs every four years in our state association, this will be the first time that we’re looking at a realignment from four classifications to seven. Not only are we looking at where schools will fall in those seven classifications, we are also identifying how conferences will be created. So, this will be a new venture.
I’m absolutely honored that I was asked to be a part of that task force. I’m really excited to connect with other task force members and work with board members and association staff. There has been a lot of conversation and dialogue statewide already. Some folks have strong feelings about where charter schools fall when it comes to various classifications and conferences, so our charter school membership should feel good that they have charter school representation on this task force. I’ve already engaged in dialogue with a lot of other charter school members over the past year. I will do my best to ensure that charter schools continue to be treated fairly and equitably when it comes to athletic involvement in our state.
Do you have a sense of the timeframe for changes to high school athletics?
Craig: The 2023-24 school year is year three of our current four-year alignment. Historically, year three is when the work is done to identify what the proposed new realignment will look like the following four years. And then year four gives schools the opportunity to potentially appeal if they’ve been put in a classification that they feel is inappropriate—or if they want to appeal a conference that they’re proposed to be in. It’s an every-four-year process.
So, 2023-24 will comprise the work of the task force and 2024-25 will be the final year of the current alignment. Then, 2025-26 would be when [new changes] will be put into place. It’s a lengthy process, especially due to the bylaw amendment of moving to seven classifications from four. Our first meeting is later this month and some of the additional items we will tackle this year include the future make-up of the Board, classes by sport, and playoff structure.