A partnership creates opportunities for students

When students enter Renaissance West Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) Academy they are greeted by a wall of three-story windows that fill the area with sunlight. Walking along the hallways to their classrooms they are met by staff giving out hugs and greetings. It's a one-of-a-kind school in North Carolina in many ways.

Renaissance West STEAM Academy held its dedication ceremony on Oct. 6. The new community school was built with funds from the 2013 bond referendum and a partnership with the Renaissance West Community Initiative (RWCI). The four-story building currently has approximately 350 students in grades Pre-K-5. A grade level will be added each year until it is a Pre-K-8 school.

Katherine Hernandez, a fifth-grader, will have the opportunity to be in the first class when Renaissance West expands to middle school. The middle school will occupy the bottom floor of the four-story school.

"This is a very, very special new school because it is giving me lots of opportunities like doing the morning announcements," she said. "It is very cool to move on to the middle school."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was entered into a unique partnership with RWCI in 2014 to develop a school that would be community-based and overseen by a private group. Renaissance West is unique in North Carolina. Across the street will be a child development that will create a continuous learning opportunity from cradle to teens.

Fourth-grader Al'Quan Sturdivant said in a speech at the beginning of the ceremony, "This school is a better place for me and the community. I can get an education and do great things here."

Principal Erin Barksdale spent last year visiting the public-private Charles R. Drew School in Atlanta to see how it has become a national model of success.

"I told my staff that this will be hard work and heart work," said Barksdale. "It is about transforming the community on the west side of Charlotte."

To that end, Barksdale and her staff frequently make home visits to check on the families.

"I am not shy about going up to someone's house and knocking on their door," said Barksdale. "If I want to check on a family or introduce myself I will visit, as will my staff. Every single person in this building is committed to the children."

Barksdale said families are looking for ways to help out. Frequently someone will come into the school and say they want to help. She quickly finds a place for them to get to work.

"This school is about the student and their family inside and outside the school," Barksdale adds.

RWCI has created the unique opportunity to have added resources that normally wouldn't be available. When the school needs something, RWCI will find a way to get it. The RWCI board and Barksdale frequently speak about needs.

Also speaking at the dedication was Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education member Thelma Byers-Bailey, who represents District 2; Dr. Clayton Wilcox, superintendent of CMS; David Jones, chair of the Renaissance West Community Initiative, and Fulton Meachem, executive director of the Charlotte Housing Authority.