Redefining Success: Inside Central Wake’s Second Chance Education

Jordan Meadows, Staff Writer

Central Wake High School stands as a beacon of optimism for students who have stumbled along the path of education. This fully accredited, tuition-free public charter school is part of the Accelerated Learning Solutions (ALS) network: an educational management consultancy that provides services to public school districts and charter schools struggling with high dropout rates among other educational failings.

Among nearly 20 sister schools scattered across four states in the southeastern United States – headquartered in Orlando, Florida – Central Wake shines brightly in the heart of Raleigh, offering a lifeline to students who have either dropped out or teeter on the brink of doing so. There are two ALS schools in Charlotte, and one is being considered in Durham.

Central Wake is a haven for 16 to 21-year-olds, predominantly students of color. The school is not religiously affiliated and actively works with local school districts in its efforts to assist the most at-risk students. Within its walls, stories of determination and perseverance unfold daily, each student harnessing the power of second chances.

But Central Wake isn’t just about giving chances; it’s about making them count. Armed with a mission to propel its students forward, Central Wake provides individualized learning experiences tailored to each student’s needs. From the moment they step through the doors, students are met with metal detectors and a strict policy on cell phones, a reminder that focus and dedication are the keys to success.

“When we first started these schools 15 to 20 years ago, it was like ‘Oh my gosh, you guys have a metal detector’, now it’s like, ‘Thank God you have a metal detector’. Students, when they come in, they understand that this is a safe and secure environment for them,” Dr. Thomas Hanley II, the Executive Principal of Central Wake, said.

Central Wake had the highest school rating in North Carolina’s 2019 state alternative accountability system. Offering a unique approach to education, students have the flexibility to graduate at any point in the school year upon completion of their credits. With two four-hour session options and adjustable schedules, Central Wake accommodates individual student responsibilities outside of school, such as work or family assistance.

“These students, for one reason or another, they just didn’t fit into a traditional high school environment,” Hanley said. “So that really means that students may be struggling socially and emotionally; it may be just that students have high levels of anxiety or depression, and so to assist with that, we have a full-time therapist who works with our students every day.”

Despite its smaller size, Central Wake prioritizes student support, providing access to reading specialists, career coaches, retention specialists, and social workers. Collaborating with prestigious universities like NC State, UNC-Wilmington, and Simmons College for internships, and community organizations such as the Teen Center, the Food Bank of NC, and Interfaith Food Shuttle, Central Wake ensures students receive assistance with personal responsibilities that may otherwise hinder their academic development.

On Tuesday, a group of mentors within the city of Raleigh’s Parks and Recreation Department visited Central Wake to speak with students to foster financial literacy, career information, and life skills to become prospering members of the community. The school was recently awarded a $1.3 million grant for their career and technology education department which allows them to expand the services they provide.

With the support of highly qualified and dedicated staff, students are guided toward college, vocational training, and employment opportunities. Additionally, the school partners with over 20 social services, crisis intervention, and behavioral health professional assistance agencies and organizations.

Central Wake also hosts impactful events to celebrate cultural heritage, such as their vibrant programs for Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month, conducted in collaboration with the YMCA. These initiatives foster cultural awareness by inviting speakers to share insights and experiences with students. Families actively contribute by sharing traditional dishes and cherished artifacts, enriching the school community’s understanding of diverse cultures. With over 40% of the school population being of Hispanic ethnicity, Central Wake ensures support by employing multiple staff members who are fluent in Spanish, catering to the needs of their culturally diverse student body.

The public charter school does not compete with traditional public schools or other charter schools as they only serve students who are two or more years behind 9th-grade level cohorts. All students are screened before entry for needs related to social and family assistance services as almost half of the students enrolling were parents or taking care of a family member, and almost two-thirds were working a job to support themselves and or their families.

“This is very much something the community said that they wanted and needed, but we are not seeking to take the place of traditional settings. My personal ministry is to serve those students, and brush them off, and get them back into the energy of them being someone and doing something with themselves,” Hanley said.

Central Wake assures that there is at least one qualified and accredited teacher for every 25 students. These professionals use targeted intervention to assist students one-on-one, in small groups, and tutoring for benchmark testing, depending on the student’s academic struggles.

“If they’re struggling, if they really need additional help, that assistance will always be there for them,” Hanley said.

The instructional approach at ALS schools is centered on individualized pacing and mastery of the curriculum. This means students progress through their coursework at a pace that suits their comprehension, ensuring they fully grasp each concept before advancing.

Students have the opportunity to retake tests and quizzes, collaborate with teachers or peers on challenging assignments, and closely monitor their academic development and progress. Utilizing a computer-based platform, ALS schools continuously pilot various curricula to optimize their teaching model and align with state standards effectively.

“This really gives them a chance to get out of those traditional environments, and also to get away from some of the folks they might have been goofing off with – or distracted by – so this is very much a distraction-free environment,” Hanley said.

The typical new student at Central Wake is nearly 18 years old and lags by two or more years in their expected grade level. Approximately 90% of these students demonstrate reading and math skills below their grade level, averaging at a 5th-grade proficiency. Their average GPA stands at 1.48, generally reflecting a C- to D+ level of performance.

After attending one or more semesters at Central Wake, these students soared to new heights, with 78% experiencing a boost in GPA by at least 0.5 points. 96% of students improved at least one grade level, and over two-thirds of them improved by 3 or more grade levels. The average student is earning almost double the amount of credits they were before attending Central Wake.

With a robust alumni network exceeding 11,000 graduates from ALS schools, Central Wake High offers students the flexibility to graduate at their preferred pace; the school celebrated the achievement of 42 graduates last school year alone. Anticipating continued growth, the school expects this number to double in the current academic year, bringing the total tally of Central Wake alumni to over 400 since its inception.

Tamara Rogers, a Career Coach at Central Wake High School, plays a pivotal role in guiding students toward diverse opportunities beyond the classroom. On Wednesday, she orchestrated an outing for a group of students, arranging meetings with executives, professionals, and hiring managers in Raleigh. This excursion provided students with insights into potential career paths, broadening their horizons and exposing them to new possibilities they may not have otherwise encountered.

Rogers also cultivates partnerships with colleges and universities, facilitating connections with institutions like Wake Tech, Shaw University, and William Peace. Looking ahead, she aims to expand these collaborations to include renowned institutions such as NC A&T, NC Central, and Durham Tech. Through these partnerships, Rogers opens doors for students, offering pathways to higher education and vocational training that align with their aspirations.

Central Wake’s impact is undeniable. Despite facing academic setbacks before attending, the average student emerged from their first semester with remarkable progress. Behind these statistics lie countless stories of triumph over adversity. Students juggling parenthood and familial responsibilities found support and understanding within Central Wake’s walls.

Those balancing work and education discovered a community that believed in their potential. With targeted interventions, individualized pacing, and a mastery-based curriculum, Central Wake empowered its students to reclaim their academic journeys.

In 2020, Jajaira started her journey at Central Wake High School with a GPA of 1.0, facing the daunting task of balancing academics with the responsibilities of motherhood to her two young children. Over three years, Jajaira’s determination and resilience shone as she soared academically, more than doubling her GPA and passing an impressive 27 courses without a single failure.

“I thought I might never finish school,” Jajaira recalled. “I was going through a rough time, trying my best to catch up on my school work, but in my mind, I was thinking I would never graduate and get my diploma.”

With her eyes set on a future in nursing, Jajaira’s dreams are swiftly becoming reality. Holding her diploma in hand, she beamed, “I’m so proud of myself. I never gave up. My dreams are becoming real. I’m so happy to start something new and positive for my family – and for me.”

Hanley shared the story of another former student who demonstrated remarkable dedication by attending school while also caring for her mother as she was in hospice care.

“Everyone says they have a heart for kids,” Hanley said. “But the conversation I have when I’m bringing somebody onto the team is ‘Do you have a heart for these kids?’ Because these kids have struggled, these kids have faced adversity, these kids are dealing with real-life situations.”

Hanley continued, “These are real adult-type situations. We have students who are wage earners for their families, helping with their siblings and parents, and in the wake of the pandemic, we saw that increase exponentially.”

By providing individualized learning experiences and comprehensive support services, Central Wake equips its diverse student body with the tools they need to succeed academically and beyond. Behind the impressive statistics and accolades lie stories of resilience and triumph.

Students like Jajaira, who defied the odds to pursue their dreams, embody the spirit of Central Wake. With each success story, the school reaffirms its commitment to nurturing the potential of every student, regardless of their past struggles or circumstances.

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