Christianity is out, public money is in as Charlotte school makes a rare conversion

Christianity is out, public money is in as Charlotte school makes a rare conversion

CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - Weekly chapel will become student assembly. Bible classes and prayer at lunch must end. The plaque with a verse from the book of Jeremiah will be removed from the entry.

Even the steeple that stands over Mountain Island Day School will be gone in August, when the K-12 Christian school reopens as a charter school. In exchange for removing the trappings of religion and agreeing to meet state standards, the school will get about $3 million a year in public money.

Founder Tammy Winstead knows what some people think of schools like hers: "A whole lot of religion, a whole lot of rules and not a lot of education." In fact, she says as a child she went to a Christian school just like that.

But she and husband Tom Winstead, a youth pastor with degrees in divinity and Christian education, set out to make their school different. That's why the Winsteads say they're well positioned to make a shift that appears to be a first in North Carolina.

The Christian-to-charter conversion marks another milestone in a state that's investing heavily in alternatives to traditional public schools.

Charter schools are expanding fast. Opportunity scholarships, or vouchers, provide public money to pay tuition for more than 7,000 North Carolina students in private schools, most of them religious.

The vouchers come with no strings attached, and Mountain Island Day initially went that route. About 40 of its 250 students currently receive the public subsidies for low- to moderate-income students, which translated to about $150,000 last school year.

But that wasn't enough to cover rising costs. Mountain Island Day grew out of a church preschool and has been adding grades each year. It's about to graduate its first class, and running a small high school is expensive. The board agonized over whether to raise tuition, drop high school or apply for a public charter.

In the end, the best option was clear, the Winsteads say. Their philosophy of compassion and respect doesn't rely on theology, they say.

"You can still teach students all of the things we've been teaching them," Tom Winstead said. "You just have to take the Biblical aspects out of it."

But a new source of anxiety lies ahead. On March 8, the school will hold its first admission lottery, and that means current students could lose their seats to newcomers.

"There is no guarantee that the faces we have this year will be the faces we have next year," Tammy Winstead said soon after the charter conversion was approved. "So we have a lot of scared families right now. Really scared families."

An evolving mission

Mountain Island Day School has its roots in a preschool that the Winsteads opened in 2005 just south of Mountain Island Lake in northwest Charlotte.

When the Winsteads' oldest son was ready for kindergarten in 2009, they checked out options, including several Christian schools. Those struck them as light on education and heavy on religious conformity. So they enrolled their son in a secular private school before creating their own Christian school later that year.

They looked at Bible-based lesson plans but chose the secular Core Knowledge curriculum for its academic value. They hired licensed teachers, most with public school experience. The school is accredited by AdvanceED, the same group that accredits Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Mountain Island Day opened with 40 preK-3 students. Today it has about 250 students, with its first senior class set to graduate this summer.

And while some religious schools require families to subscribe to a statement of faith, the Winsteads asked only that they acknowledge that their children would be attending a Christ-centered nondenominational Protestant school.

The school's religious features include a blessing before meals, an opening prayer each day, weekly Bible classes and chapel, according to the school's website.

"Just as Jesus welcomed all," a website introduction says, "so does MID."

The students and their families include all sorts of Protestants, as well as Catholics, Mormons, Buddhists and people who claim no religion, the Winsteads say. About 60 percent are white, with the rest mostly African-American and biracial.

Ultimately, the Winsteads say, parents choose schools based on a safe, loving climate and an academic program that meets their child's needs, rather than on how the school talks about God. And they say families in west and northwest Charlotte are often unsatisfied with neighborhood schools.

Holli High, who has two children at Mountain Island Day, says she chose the school for its Christianity and its educational value, but doesn't feel threatened by the change.

"It's not the label that makes it a Christian school but the people inside," she said.

Growing and changing

Two years ago the Winsteads were preparing to buy the building that housed their school. Then they learned a larger, better school building was for sale about six miles south, on Little Rock Road.

They bought it and opened in their new home in September of 2016.

By then the school's upward expansion encompassed high school, which requires more teachers and resources. The renovations cost about $500,000. And the school had a faculty that includes Spanish and French instructors, special education teachers and a reading specialist.

All of that made it hard to survive on yearly tuition – $5,500 to $6,500 based on grade level – that's affordable to families of modest means, the Winsteads said. About 35 percent of students are classified as low income under federal guidelines, the Winsteads say.

North Carolina's opportunity scholarships, which pay up to $4,200 a year for students from low- and moderate-income families, provided some aid without any tradeoffs. The theory behind the vouchers is that families can decide what's acceptable for their children. Most participating families choose Christian, Islamic and other faith-based schools.

A charter school, however, must be a secular school – one that gives state exams, gets state letter grades and otherwise meets the requirements of an independent public school.

It's not unusual to find charter schools renting space in churches (charter schools get no public money for facilities). To meet state requirements they must cover or remove any religious symbols from the space students use.

The rewards of getting a state charter are substantial, with public money based on enrollment. Mountain Island expects to get $7,872 per Mecklenburg County student and $6,827 for those who come from Gaston County. The difference comes because Gaston spends less on public education.

If Mountain Island Day were to become a public school and expand its enrollment from 250 to 400, its annual budget would roughly double to $3 million.

In fall 2016, the Winsteads created a nonprofit board and applied to convert.

Is it legit?

While most charter schools start from scratch, state law allows private school conversions. In the Charlotte area, Community School of Davidson is the most prominent example. Its founders opened, though, with the intent of becoming a charter school.

Cheryl Turner, head of Charlotte's Sugar Creek Charter School, serves on the state's Charter School Advisory Board, which screens all applications for charters. One of the first things members look for when a private school applies is whether that board is serious about going public, she says. If school leaders hope to get public money while maintaining exclusive admission, or if they're seeking a bailout from financial problems, they're going to be rejected.

Alex Quigley, a Durham charter school operator who chairs that board, agrees the bar should be high. He voiced that view as the advisory board debated Mountain Island Day's application.

"I feel like there's another layer of scrutiny that should be applied," Quigley said.

Despite a history of converting secular private schools, neither the state Office of Charter Schools nor four long-time charter school advocates know of any North Carolina religious schools that have become public. That meant the Winsteads faced additional questions about how they'd remove the Christianity from a Christian school.

"How do you handle that from a cultural standpoint? I feel like that's really hard," one advisory board member asked.

The Winsteads made the case that the academic structure is already in place, and character education – common in most public schools – could replace Bible-based lessons.

They won unanimous approval from the advisory board and the state Board of Education – first to open in 2019, and then, in January, to move that up to 2018.

Now the hard part begins.

Shaking up a community

Becoming a public school means some of the existing students, who have been together for years, could lose their seats to newcomers.

The plan calls for keeping 12th grade private next year, to ensure no one will be bumped in their final year. But the school will take applications for grades K-11, and if demand exceeds supply the school must hold a lottery. Children of staff and board members – including the Winsteads' three children – get priority, but the rest will take their chances.

The school has already revamped its website to eliminate religious references. The steeple will come down as part of roof repairs, but the cross on the front of the building will stay. That's allowed, as it would be for any church housing a charter school.

The sanctuary where elementary school students report for weekly chapel won't require any changes to become a gathering spot for a public school. The contemporary church that leases the space on Sundays already took down the lighted cross and replaced the baptismal font with a drum set.

The school did hit one surprising complaint from state officials: They didn't like the name. There's already a Mountain Island Charter School about 10 miles north, on the Gaston County side of Mountain Island Lake, not to mention a CMS K-8 school named Mountain Island Academy.

To meet the state's demands that it clarify its public status and try to avoid confusion, the Winsteads plan to expand the name to Mountain Island Day Community Charter School.

Compared with all that, stripping out the religion seems almost minor. As Tom Winstead told the children in a recent chapel service, "The whole Bible can be summed up with 'Love and respect each other.' "

High says her faith keeps her calm about the looming changes, including the possibility that her children could be displaced.

"As a Christian I know God's got his hand on it," she said. "I try not to be anxious."