Kirby R. McCrary
Millennium Charter Academy is headed in a strong, purposeful direction for the 21st century, and as Headmaster, I am very excited to be a part of this great educational adventure. We have a highly skilled faculty that genuinely cares about each student and enjoys teaching. We are continually implementing new measures to enhance our academic program, and we also focus special attention on character development, building positive moral, social, and intellectual habits in our students. Along with this, we strive to deepen the relationship between the school and the community.
To our parents, thank you for sharing your children with us. We continue to strive to fulfill our mission statement by providing an innovative, academically rigorous environment, producing life-long learners equipped with the knowledge and critical-thinking skills necessary to become leaders in the 21st Century.
To share my thoughts with you, below are a few articles explaining aspects of our particular approach to education.
For additional articles, please refer to our publications link.
The Nascar School
Both life and literature are full of analogies. I love them because they have the potential to reveal truth in a most understandable manner.
Several years ago when my son, Patrick, was about ten years old, he and I built a Pinewood Derby car. Yes, “we!” I did place my hands on top of his when he cut it out on the band saw, but he came up with the idea, painted it, and added the extras. You should have seen it! It was the Batmobile, sleek black with a LEGO flame firing from the rear turbo exhaust. It easily won first for the best design. Boy was I– I mean– boy, was he proud. Years later, the car and ribbon still sit somewhere in his somewhat less than orderly room.
The car looked great and rolled reasonably fast. It looked like a car. It moved like a car, but like all Pinewood Derby cars, it had no power. Some schools are like this. They look like a school. They act like a school, but they have no power within.
You know, the Pinewood Derby car that Patrick and I built started with a kit and was rather inexpensive, too, maybe $15 tops. And it took only a couple of evenings to finish the project..… but then it only coasted down hill and eventually stopped on flat ground.
Some schools are like this. They might not start from a kit, but many are built the same. Whether you are standing looking at the building from the outside or watching the days go by from the inside, many look the same. They are standardized for financial efficacy at the cost of focus, maneuverability, and responsiveness to customers and their environment. They are streamlined, having jettisoned everything academic that does not lead directly to that narrow finish line down the hill… those end-of-the-year test scores. When they roll across the finish line, their victory celebration is somewhat shallow and short-lived. They often have a tough time negotiating potholes and bumps in the road.
On the other hand, I imagine that a NASCAR car might take a little longer and might cost a million dollars more, but look at what you get, a vehicle that can travel up those 31º banked turns at Daytona or fly down that 3800 foot front stretch at speeds in excess of 200 mph for 500 miles or more, all under its on power.
Millennium Charter Academy, I believe is more like NASCAR… with a HEMI. It has taken six years to grow the school to the seventh grade and untold hours from enumerable people, synergizing their thoughts, expertise, and labor. In addition to North Carolina’s per pupil allotment that, by the way, follows every public school student wherever he/she may attend, it has taken thousands of dollars from companies and generous private citizens to foot the bill for this high-powered education.
There are lots of schools that look like a school and act like a school, but many just do not have any real power. MCA’s facility is obviously not your generic model. We are one of, if not the first, charter school to build with tilt wall construction and with such thoughtful design. The facility is an economic, state-of-the art design and construction. That would be your first clue that this is not your mid to low-end auto. Now look under the hood. You will find a rich curriculum, a wide variety of extra-curricular offerings, involved parents, a dedicated Board, systems that integrate all the moving parts, big dreams for the future, and the HEMI itself: a self-motivated, talented, hard-working, energetic staff.
Of course, that big ol’ HEMI needs fuel. Since MCA is a hybrid model, the engine runs off a variety of fuels, from moral support to classroom assistance to financial contributions. Like any good racecar, well-planned pit stops with full gas tanks in hand, are the most effective. So, if you have not already, join the team and offer whatever you can, your time, your knowledge, your money, your resources. One thing I’ve found to be true about earthly things, whether it’s building a NASCAR racer, a personal relationship, or a school, you generally get more out, the more you put in.
A few years ago, when Patrick and I put spacers on his Jeep Grande Cherokee (an actual vehicle) it took a week of long, very late evenings and a lot more than $15, but when we finished, his vehicle set up higher just like a Jeep ought. The results are functional and lasting. The time we spent on this project was memorable; in fact, it proved to be an important allegory for life itself.
The classical model of education in its essence organizes learning around the maturing capacity of the child’s mind. The pattern of classical education is known as the Trivium and, though there is room for variation, MCA divides it as follows:
Grades K-5: Grammar Stage
Grades 6-8: Logic (or Dialectic) Stage
Grades 9-12: Rhetoric Stage
The first years of schooling are called the “grammar stage” – not because one spends four years doing English, but because these are the years in which the building blocks for all other learning are laid, just as grammar is the foundation of language. Since children at this age actually find memorization fun, during this period education involves not self-expression and self-discovery, but rather the learning of facts, rules of grammar, poems, vocabulary of foreign languages, the stories of history and literature, descriptions of plants and animals and the human body, the facts of mathematics. The list goes on. This information makes up the “grammar” in preparation for the second stage of education.
By sixth grade a child’s mind often begins to think more analytically. Middle school students are less interested in finding out facts than asking “Why?” The second phase of the classical education, the “logic (or dialectic) stage,” is a time when the child begins to pay more attention to cause and effect, to the relationships between the different fields of knowledge, and to the way facts fit together into a logical framework.
A student is ready for the logic stage when the capacity for abstract thought begins to mature. During these years the student learns algebra and logic, and begins to apply logic to all academic subjects. The logic of writing, for example, includes paragraph construction and support of the thesis; the logic of history demands that the student find out why the War of 1812 was fought, rather than simply reading its story.
The final phase of a classical education, the “rhetoric stage,” builds on the first two. At this stage the students apply the rules of logic learned in middle school to the foundational information learned in the early grades and express their conclusions in clear, forceful, elegant language.
In addition to the traditional subjects of reading, writing, math, history, geography, and science, the classical curriculum includes great books, debate, fine arts (visual and music), drama, logic, Latin, and foreign language. Furthermore, this structure of education interrelates all knowledge. For example, the study, the eighth grade’s study of North Carolina’s involvement in war allows the students to consider the present impact of the Civil War on their own local area, the concept of heroism, civil war in other cultures of today, the scientific advancements that impacted weaponry, the effects of history and geography on military strategy, the power of words during the war, and personal beliefs about the moral validity of war. In Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education, David Hicks, a classical schoolmaster wrote, “The beauty of the classical curriculum is that it dwells on one problem, one author, or one epoch long enough to allow even the youngest student a chance to exercise his mind in a scholarly way: to make connections and to trace developments, lines of reasoning, patterns of action, recurring symbolisms, plots, and motifs.”
Classical education is language focused and logically ordered to the developmental stages of the mind. It, furthermore, recognizes that all knowledge is interconnected. The primary goal of classical education is to teach students how to learn, and thus, equip them for life, not just for further education or for a job.
What Governs Your School
It’s an odd question to ask, if you think about it. Would you not first ask who is governing the school? Well, probably, yes, you would. Nonetheless, once that question is answered, there looms an all-important question about that person: What does he or she believe about “good education?” The answer to this question will offer an insight into the nature of the education the school will offer. The ideas of the chief executive officer, whether that be principal, director, headmaster, or another title, shape the school. What a strong head-of-school believes to be true about life, humanity, and the purpose of education molds the school.
Here, in this brief article, we’ll deal with the question of education and leave the question of life and humanity for another time. The challenge is to examine North Carolina’s current and most pervasive definition of quality education: a quality education equates to a high score on the end-of-year-test.
A few summers ago, I asked Zeb, a long-time friend and well-educated person, how his middle school son’s school year had gone. His reply was quick and proud: “He scored well on the EOGs!” and he added nothing else to his answer. He had summed up all the complexities of a year’s worth of academic growth in the score of one test on reading and math. Did his son increase his knowledge base of solid, meaningful information? Had he been inspired by anything or anyone? Had he developed a passion for learning, or even an interest in a particular subject? Did he study science or social studies? Did his son deepen his appreciation for beauty, or the fundamentals of art or music? Being at the developmental age when analytical thinking comes into play, did he touch on dialectics? Had he begun to learn to articulate his thoughts in a logical, rational manner? Did he develop as a citizen? Was his son taught to pursue excellence and truth in everything?
The current system of testing is the proverbial tail wagging the dog. Those scores have become the end that determines the means. For those schools succumbing to state and federal pressures, everything in the life of the school is purposed toward that final score, and everything– everything!– between the first day and those test days is for sale, as long as there is a potential to raise that score. It is faulty reasoning to correlate a high test score directly to a solid, meaningful education. In public education, no longer is a good education the goal, but rather a test that has cannibalized the life of a complex, dynamic education and spit it out in a single, easy-to-digest, nutritionless number.
This pragmatic, but jejune, approach to education has filtered down to the classroom level. Take writing for example. Writing practice is often a prompt that propagates an opening paragraph, followed by three supporting paragraphs and a summary paragraph, all easy to score, but typically lifeless and with little lasting value. One would be hard-pressed to fit F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” into such a formulaic paper.
No one set out to undermine academia or to reduce students to skilled test-takers; nevertheless, the result is a new definition of education that shortchanges the potential of students, and teachers alike, for the sake of a score. The shift came over time. It’s similar to the frog being slowly cooked in a pot of water. He doesn’t realize his perilous situation; then, it’s too late. The value of a single measure of education grew from a measure of progress, until it became the primary and singular goal of classroom instruction. It has transformed our public schools in both form and function. From the first day of school, teachers are compelled to teach nothing but the content and skills required by the EOGs and EOCs. Successful education is now defined by a score of Level III and IV. I imagine gnawing inside some of our preeminent, best thinking administrators and teachers is the idea that there has to be more to education than this.
There is nothing inherently wrong with annual testing, nothing unjust about assessments. In fact, measurements can and should assist academic institutions to make improvements. Education, however, is a complex endeavor, and a multiple-point quality review process would be more accurate and more helpful than a single curricular test. This review process would involve numerous factors, including the school’s goals and mission, the school’s philosophy of education, students’ work, students’ grades, parents’ views, instructional strategies, curriculum design and alignment, organizational structure professional development, and standardized test scores. In the end, no one source of data alone would be used to reach a summative evaluation of the child or school.
If the leadership of the school has not considered the broader, more sweeping winds of pragmatism and relativism that blow across this nation, the school may be unwittingly led by the trends and the majority, whether the majority be on the mark or itself misled. As leaders dig into the soil of their own beliefs, as they backtrack why they believe what they believe– ultimately, as they honestly pursue truth– their resolve and focus strengthen, and they are less influenced by the fads of the moment (or even the age). “Authentic leaders anchor their practice in ideas, values, and commitments…and can be trusted to be morally diligent in advancing the enterprise they lead,” wrote Thomas Sergeovanni in The Lifeworld of Leadership.
Governance, therefore, is based not only on structure and who holds those positions of leadership, but also on the beliefs and ideals that those individuals embody. Those of us in charter schools are participating in one of the most powerful and important reform movements in public school history, and we’re even charged to be innovative. I encourage all of us to conscientiously ruminate on the deeper meaning of education, to conscientiously define for ourselves what is a good education, what is the ultimate purpose of education. With well-thought-out answers, we can shape our schools with a renewed vigor and higher expectations, so that our students might become inspired, logical thinkers, honest pursuers of excellence, truth and beauty, and articulate leaders who lead with intellectual integrity.