By Ivey Schofield
Sherry Kennedy sat on the floor in the hallway at Thomas Academy, helping a student work through a math problem. The boy had gotten overwhelmed in class and needed a break.
Kennedy worked with him one on one until he was ready to rejoin his peers. Five minutes later, he was back in the hallway.
Most of the roughly 90 students at Thomas Academy, a charter school in Columbus County that serves students in grades six through 12, have been suspended or expelled from traditional public schools, or they are in custody of the Department of Social Services due to abuse or neglect. The school, connected to the Boys and Girls Homes of North Carolina, says it takes a therapeutic approach to teaching kids who have experienced trauma.
“They feel cared for,” Kennedy said. “School is supposed to be a safe environment.”
By the state’s standards, however, Thomas Academy is failing. Only 12% of students at the school passed state exams during the 2021-2022 school year, compared to 51% statewide.
But test scores don’t show the whole picture or account for all of the school’s challenges and the hardships its students have endured, leaders say. More than half of the students are economically disadvantaged, more than the state’s rate of 39% during the 2020-2021 school year. Some have a history of behavioral issues, including running away.
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The state awarded Thomas Academy a grant of more than $77,000 to create and implement an improvement plan.
The plan‘s goals include weekly reviews of students’ learning and a guarantee that all students will graduate prepared for college, a career and life. As of September, the school had not met most of the benchmarks.
Thomas Academy this year established a five-year plan with three goals: meet the state’s requirements for growth on state tests with after-school tutoring and quarterly assessments, hire teachers and decrease disciplinary incidents, and increase certified teachers to at least 50%.
“We have our roadmap that will affect student achievement and behavior,” Principal Cathy Gantz said.
Charter schools, originally established in North Carolina in 1997, receive money from the state but are not held to all of the standards of traditional public schools. Since 2011, when the General Assembly lifted the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state, the schools have doubled to more than 200.
In Columbus County, home to Thomas Academy, 8.5% of students attend charter schools, according to data compiled by EducationNC. That’s in line with the statewide rate.
Advocates say charter schools, which do not have to follow the state’s curriculum, can better meet the needs of some students. Unlike many charters, Thomas Academy provides transportation services and meals.
“If the kid comes to school hungry, they can’t learn. If a kid comes to school with all of this emotional baggage, they can’t learn,” Kennedy said. “What we do best is we take them as they are.”
About one-third of students at the school live at the Boys and Girls Homes in Lake Waccamaw, and the others arrive from an eight-county region, leaders say. A bus is available to pick them up at their homes.
“While initially Thomas Academy was created to meet the individualized educational needs of the residents in care of the Boys and Girls Homes of North Carolina, one of the things that we discovered in our community assessment was the fact that there were many students in the region who could benefit from small classrooms, trauma-informed care settings, therapeutic milieu that need individualized attention,” Ricky Creech, the former president of the Boys and Girls Homes, said in a video.
Class sizes are capped at 15 students, and Thomas Academy restructured its day to allow students who work, don’t have internet, or can’t focus at home to complete their homework while on campus. Students’ cell phones are locked in cabinets to eliminate any distractions during the school day.
“There’s no excuse for anybody, even those who can’t do their homework at home, to not do their homework,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy works individually with students who want to take dual enrollment classes at Southeastern Community College. She also helps them apply for financial aid to attend college. If students start to fall behind, she’s there to catch them and work on ways to get back on track.
“We have freedom to do that because of our therapeutic model,” Kennedy said.
The model, called Waccamaw Way, was created by Creech, who died this summer in a house fire. It calls for the development of positive, holistic growth through therapy and flexible thinking activities.
Each classroom at Thomas Academy has a box of quiet, therapeutic toys to help them focus and express their feelings in a healthy way.
The school also employs a full-time therapist who is available for students and children of the community.
“We partner with the therapists and the case managers, so we know how best to serve the kid,” Kennedy said.
Through this therapeutic model, Thomas Academy representatives hope to increase the school’s graduation rate, which in the 2020-2021 school year was 56%. The state’s average was 87%.
“We’re really working on changing that ratio,” Kennedy said.
Another way Thomas Academy can improve its performance, Kennedy said, is to submit its state-required data every month, which it had only been doing about two-thirds of the time.
Thomas Academy has also been working with the state on its school improvement plan with regular check-ins on benchmarks for growth and progress reports for students.
“It really helps you focus on doing the right things,” Kennedy said. “When you do, you improve. Then the kids do better too.”
This year Thomas Academy also introduced a new educational model that helps promote positive behavior. Every week, the students get 25 points. If they leave the classroom or misbehave, they lose five points.
Students who have at least 15 points get a dress-down day or treat at the end of the week.
Kennedy credits Gantz, who became principal last year, with the school’s progress so far.
“All of us were very loving and caring, but not a lot of us knew a pathway that we needed to go,” Kennedy said. “Dr. Gantz really spearheaded our path and said, ‘If we do it this way, we’re going to see big results.’ And we’re seeing it.”
Now the student who couldn’t stay in math class for more than five minutes is able to last the entire day. He’s become an ambassador, Kennedy said, for the Waccamaw Way and Thomas Academy’s trauma-based education.
How the school compares
Here are the passing rates of other charter schools in Bladen, Columbus and Robeson counties last school year:
Paul R Brown Leadership Academy in Bladen County: 25%
Emereau of Bladen County: 46%
Classical Charter Schools of Whiteville in Columbus County: 44%
CIS Academy in Robeson County: 45%
Southeastern Academy of Robeson County: 82%
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