American Renaissance School - CHARTING A NEW FUTUREFeb 23, 2021 03:04PM ● By Kristie Darling
American Renaissance School is a shining star in the heart of Downtown Statesville. Throughout downtown and beyond, you’ll see positive signs that this unique K-8th grade center of learning is making a difference in the lives of our children, their families, and those who live, work, and play in our community. Stroll along South Center Street, for instance, and peek through a larger-than-life window into Savanah Wilkins’ middle school Art class. It’s filled with light, color, excitement, and industry. Steve Gay, who was hired as the first middle school principal over 20-years-ago was often heard saying, “We operate in a fishbowl downtown,” and that unique location has kept the excitement of ARS on peoples’ minds year after year.
Jim Duffey is American Renaissance’s executive director. We toured the school, and when we got to Doug Griffith’s history class, the room where Jim first started teaching middle school English in 1999, he said, “This room brings back great memories, and over time, every room has created special meaning for me, probably because I remember the amazing young people who worked their way through these halls, some who now teach here, some whose own children are enrolled today. This place inspires me every day.”
At its heart, American Renaissance School is a special cadre of dedicated educators who light fires within hearts every day. Their 585 students are the first-line beneficiaries, and ARS’ success stories spread throughout our community exponentially with every student who moves on to meet new challenges in the bigger world.
A BIT OF HISTORY
American Renaissance was founded as two schools: American Renaissance Charter School and American Renaissance Middle School. In 2008 the schools merged under one charter to form American Renaissance School. In its essence, ARS is an innovative downtown, arts-based, 22-year-old school that had its start when parents and community leaders wanted a new option for kids. To learn more, I met with Jim and several players in the school’s inception. They each tell a tale of a caring community that saw a worthy need and then just made it happen.
In 1996, Kate Alice Dunaway, a busy community volunteer, was asked if she’d been following the new charter school law that was about to pass? Well, that simple inquiry immediately led to, “I think we should have one, and I think you, Kate Alice, should write the charter.” Believing that opportunities come to us for good reason, Kate Alice wrote the charter. American Renaissance School, one of the first charter elementary schools in North Carolina, opened in August 1998. “I tied the application package with a purple ribbon, put it in the mailbox myself for good measure and later learned our application was the only one they’d ever received wrapped up like a gift…I have always believed this school is a gift,” she said.
On opening day in 1998, enrollment was 124. There were three kindergarten teachers for 36 five-year-olds. Our community was putting this new school together one piece at a time. Diane Hamby, a founding board member who worked extensively to expand ARS to include middle school, said, “We were creating something amazing from nothing. It was a challenge. We started hiring people before we even had job descriptions…we were just looking for good people who understood that their first job was to do everything it took to make the day successful. Parents and supporters built furniture…they painted it…they got us going.”
Steve Gay was hired as the first middle school principal. “I once heard American Renaissance School called ‘the best kept secret in Statesville,’” Steve said many times, “but with more people peeking in and asking questions, I do believe we’ve become Statesville’s worst kept secret…in a good way.” Jim Duffey was hired as an English teacher 22 years ago and is now executive director of the entire enterprise. Jim believed then, as he does now, that everyone involved—volunteers, parents, teachers, staff and administrators, our entire community—had to have faith this was a good idea that would work!
Today, the board is comprised of nine dedicated community volunteers. There are 65 on the faculty and staff, and ARS operates five days a week, 180 days each year, plus a summer care program for families who need it during vacation. ARS operates independently on its own schedule, separate but similar to I-SS.
WHAT’S A NORTH CAROLINA CHARTER SCHOOL?
Although the definition varies from state to state, generally charter schools receive public money, but they are not directly governed by the local educational agency or its board. There is no tuition. Charters operate with the same requirements of accountability, academic standards, and testing as all North Carolina public schools. Any North Carolina student can apply for admission.
Some differences are in leadership, management, and independence. Each school is governed by a local board of directors with the power and responsibility to set school policies, hire faculty and staff, set their own hours, and develop their own curricula. This all allows ARS to effectively and creatively target the unique needs of different types of students and provide opportunities for enrichment inside and outside the classroom. Teachers structure lessons and build relationships with students to support each child’s own capacity to learn and grow. One parent put it this way, “They’ve gone out of their way to work with my child…and let’s say that’s a strong task. Every time I think they’re going to give up, they come up with a new way to teach. This is the first school that took the time.”
“We’re a public school, but our advantage is that if something isn’t working, we can change it overnight to get the best results for our students. We can make adjustments based on parents’ feedback or teacher input. We call the shots,” Jim explained. “With the pandemic, the value of local decision-making at ARS rose to the top. Our Covid response started early 2020. Our board, teachers, parents, and administrators have worked hard to address every challenge to keeping kids safe, keeping them learning. Currently we include remote and in-person learning, plus a hybrid of both. Google Classroom, Canvas, and other applications help teachers make this happen. Kids have a pretty good grasp on all this—they can explain it to their parents. Most important lesson for us? Being prepared for what comes next in this new teaching environment is critical.”
WHAT IS AMERICAN RENAISSANCE SCHOOL?
“Amazing Downtown Community School” doesn’t do this place justice. You really have to walk its halls, talk to its people, and engage with its students to get the Big Picture.
Where to start…
Jim Duffey’s director’s office is one flight up from the old Carolina Motor Company’s main entrance on East Broad Street. 400 kindergarteners through fifth graders share this historic building with him and other ARS staff. Everywhere you look, there’s evidence that this school is filled with activity, sights, scenes, sounds, and artwork that bring learning to life. It is possibly one of the most creative spaces in all of Statesville.
Jessica Duncan is K-5 elementary school principal. It was an instant response for her to tell me “It’s the kids, of course!” that are her favorites at ARS. “And our families, plus I love our Music Festival, and the slide.” (You must visit and try Big Red, the slide, to know what Jessica’s referencing.) I visited most of the 26 elementary classrooms on a virtual Wednesday, so students weren’t about, but teachers, teacher aides, and staff were working. Every nook and cranny of this elementary school is full to overflowing with equipment, games, art, technology, cubbies, workstations, gathering circles, and a big spirit of “Learning Is Fun!”
I asked Jim about the school’s library, and he reminded me that along with using the media center, students regularly line up and hike over to Iredell County Public Library, a few blocks away. “Our kids’ presence downtown is something we’re known for, and I would say, loved for,” he said with a smile. “The students, of course, benefit in many ways—being active together outdoors, getting to meet our neighbors in shops and businesses up the street. Kids are beginning to understand they’re part of a bigger world, the place where they live. They’ve met the mayor, the city manager, the chief of police and recognize them on the street. It’s hands-on-learning at its best.” And it’s a two-way street. Downtown business owners, shoppers, visitors, and residents realize that watching a parade of little kids on a regular basis is really nice.
ENHANCED LEARNING, EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING
From kindergarten through graduation, the arts are used as a tool for learning academically and learning about life. The middle school foyer is basically one big art gallery, filled with student, teacher, and community artists’ work. “Our teachers in social studies, science, math, and language arts teach creatively through the arts,” said Andrea Leluika, middle school principal. “They’re trained in methods that give kids the knowledge they need with a deeper understanding of their subjects, Kids get more opportunities to interact, share, and help each other learn. We’re intentional about working across the curricula to teach children the best we can and create life-time learners and lovers of art. We often see students perform beyond middle school level.”
Mr. Duffey explained it one step further, “We know that If a kid leaves here a great artist, but can’t read or write, we’ve done him a disservice. Our kids learn all the regular and required subjects, plus they understand the principles of art and design, Spanish, how to read music, and useful life skills. Many of our students graduate with high school credits and a desire to keep learning.”
Experiential learning is key, and the school prioritizes those opportunities. Students enjoy field trips to places like the state capitol, Old Salem, science museums, NYC, and the Outer Banks, plus student presentations and performances, concerts, art exhibits, fun contests and competitions, group projects, student council, yearbook, chorus. Steve Gay often said, “You can’t measure that on end of year tests.” The school partners with businesses around town to help teach kids. “The Iredell County Sheriff's Department brought their mobile classroom for exploration. The Quilt Shop taught kids how to sew—they made pajama pants and a big quilt,” Jim said. “When most kids’ idea of making something is Minecraft, just getting them doing something like sewing, that’s huge.”
SUPPORT AND GUIDANCE
Tai McMiller is the school’s counselor. “Not everyone had a great experience in school…we try to ease as much of that as we can by listening and talking to students and parents,” she said. “We guide kids from all angles—self-esteem, developmental, social and emotional learning; we work on feelings. Getting them helping others is important.” Tai manages the student leadership program, the backpack program, a clothes closet that helps provide uniforms, and community outreach like collecting food, clothes, and toys to share.
Exceptional children require exceptional support. Focusing on these children, ARS offers EC programs that range from separate adaptive learning classrooms to regular services that are provided through an inclusion model. Speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and vision impaired programs fill a critical need in our community.”
Katie Madison’s three children attend American Renaissance. “I chose this school because I needed an alternative for my daughter with Down syndrome,” she told me. “What I have discovered is that all my girls are getting the best education they can right here in Statesville. I appreciate everything that comes with local decision-making—parents’ concerns and suggestions are heard and discussed—mine have been numerous times. Our children are always the first consideration, and even just a little thing like how nice it is for our family to spend time downtown with our kids for school and events is special. I think it’s a win-win for everyone.”
A UNIQUE PLACE FOR LEARNING
Jim Duffey’s daily schedule begins with “Hi there!” and “Good morning!” to students at the door when they arrive or virtually on Zoom. It’s part of the culture. “We’re not just a school in the community, we are a school and a community,” he said. “We exist so that our students will thrive while they’re here with us and after they graduate. We communicate with parents every way we can, especially during the pandemic, to keep them up to speed about their children, our teachers, our challenges, and successes. We celebrate success together.”
Joseph Bathanti and his family had moved to Statesville for his position at Mitchell Community College. “For three years, we’d been homeschooling this precocious kid, and American Renaissance was as much an experiment for us as it was for him,” Joseph told me. “These young, fire-breathing teachers had a hands-on approach to teaching, and Jacob just flourished. He loved having more freedom and developed leadership skills he didn’t know he had. Jacob and his friends became more socially aware as citizens of the world. ARS was a godsend for us—it was just what we all needed.” Mr. Bathanti is a professor at Appalachian and was the seventh North Carolina Poet Laureate. The school didn’t miss a beat inviting him to do workshops and readings. “This is what a well-rounded education looks like. We’re life-long supporters, very grateful this school came along when it did.”
STAYING UP TO DATE
Parents, students, and prospective families can access a wealth of information, from board meeting minutes to The Student Handbook online at www.americanrenaissanceschool.org and https://www.facebook.com/american.renaissance.school. Assignments, grades, opportunities, are easily accessed online. The faculty/staff directory is online. They want you to contact them if there’s anything you need to know or, especially, if there’s anything they need to know from you. Good communication goes both ways.
EXPANDING INTO A NEW BUILDING
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that more families apply for admission than can be enrolled. ARS’ supporters, board volunteers, parents, faculty, and staff have seen a critical need, and like they did two decades ago, they went to work finding a solution. “We announced plans for our permanent new building last year, and now, after some Covid delays, we anticipate groundbreaking this April and moving vans arriving around June of 2022.”
The new Tradd Street building will allow more students to enroll and learn in a modern, vibrant environment. There will be more classrooms, a spacious, flexible multipurpose area, and a much-needed gymnasium/auditorium. Spaces designed specifically for Arts programs, classrooms, and labs to grow the STEAM Initiative that focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math will be included. The building will be designed in a way that preserves the charm and history of ARS while also providing a best-in-class, safe learning environment in the middle of downtown Statesville.
APPLY NOW…PUBLIC LOTTERY IS MARCH 10TH
American Renaissance School recently renewed their charter for another ten years, and the opportunity is right now for parents to enter their children in the admission lottery. This year, it will be weighted for diversity to create greater opportunities for low-income students and the capacity to enroll more students with limited English proficiency or disabilities. “We believe that diversity is a critical component to a quality, well-rounded education. A huge part of this transition is the ACCESS grant of $750,000 we received from the State of North Carolina. It will help us improve instruction, expand our offerings, and move forward,” Jim Duffy said. “We hope to identify new students who otherwise might not see ARS as an option. We will still be a relatively small, downtown, community school, but we’ll be able to accomplish so much more and impact so many more.”
The addition of transportation service, by way of a partnership with ICATS, will help parents tremendously. All-in-all, these expansions and improvements are designed to make the next three decades at American Renaissance even more exciting. It’s hard to imagine how things could get more exciting but believe me…they can!
Open enrollment ends March 5, and the public lottery is March 10.
Enrollment applications and lottery details are at http://www.arsnc.org/enrollment.