Curious second graders turn to see who has arrived. One student approaches, shakes my hand and introduces himself: “Hello, my name is Josiah and I am in second grade. Welcome to Brookstone Schools. What is your name?” I introduce myself and he turns and announces, “Class, this is Mrs. Thompson and she is visiting our class today.” With that, the class responds: “Welcome, Mrs. Thompson. Thank you for visiting our school.”
On this chilly winter morning, warmth emanates from the heating vents at Brookstone Schools and from the thoughtful and loving learning environment created by Brookstone’s founders, administrators and teachers. The school hums with activity. Children in blue and white uniforms file down the hallway and classrooms are filled with colorful bulletin boards, writing assignments and history lessons. The school exudes calm, order and friendliness.
It is a learning environment that Brookstone’s founders hoped to create as they pushed forward in their unwavering mission: to establish a faith-based learning haven for urban, lower-income students; to grow students spiritually, academically and socially for lives of leadership and service; to create a college-preparatory school with no compromises on success; and to develop a clear academic path that would prove challenging for students. Founding Board Member and Educator Carole Ardizzone said: “The children that come to our school are hungry to learn. Children can understand anything and can reach higher and farther with the right tools and encouragement.”
“Any child can learn”
From its inception, Brookstone Schools took a radical approach to education. It is rooted in faith and enhances traditional education by catering to the different learning styles of the children. “I heard so many times, ‘these kids can’t learn,’” Ardizzone said, “and it’s just not true. If you understand how the brain works, that every brain processes differently, and know how to teach to the specific child, any child can learn and be successful.”
“One of the hardest parts was to attract families and children to the school,” said founding board member Mollie Faison. “We needed to go door-to-door talking to parents in the community about the school, the curriculum and what we were offering.”
Suzanne Wilson, Brookstone’s first Head of School and now Director of Development, still sees that challenge today. “We are fighting generational poverty in neighborhoods that traditionally have put their kids on the school bus and sent them off hoping their child would get what they needed at school,” she said. “What we are doing is radical, out-of-the box, college-prep education and it takes time for the community to accept the work we are doing.”
“We have created a highly structured school environment,” said Ardizzone, “because these are children who, in many cases don’t have much, if any structure, at home. We hope to give them an environment of structure — and safety — that provides physical sense of order, which frees up their mind to be creative and thoughtful.”
“Knocking it out of the park”
What began in 1996 with conversations among groups of concerned Charlotteans evolved into a nonprofit, Christian-based school in 2001. Half of the founding group came together as a response to the socio-economic challenges facing many of Charlotte’s urban neighborhoods. The other half sought to address educational challenges facing many low-income students.
The halves merged to create Brookstone Schools, now in its 12th year, beginning with two locations in 2001. Then, only 18 students were enrolled in kindergarten and first grade. Now, Brookstone teachers educate 101 students, K-6, with the hope of expanding to K-8 in the next two years. The average class size is about 20 and a small tuition fee covers 7 percent of the school’s operating costs, with the rest funded through charitable contributions.
The progress is measurable, as indicated by a survey in conjunction with Dr. Richard Lambert, Ph.D., Ed.S., Professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His analysis of standardized test data shows that Brookstone’s fifth-grade class average reaches above the 70th percentile in mathematics, reading and language. “That means that our students have scored in the top 30th percentile nationally,” Wilson said.
“Brookstone’s test scores would be considered truly remarkable for any school,” Lambert said, “but when you take into account that Brookstone serves an inner-city community and families who are largely from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, they are knocking it out of the park.”
“This is hard work,” Faison said, “but I love a challenge and being part of something creative. This has been a project where at many turns people have said, ‘you can’t.’ But this has been a wonderful group of people who has come together to say, ‘we can.’”
One parent’s story
Nah Darkwa was looking for quality Christian education for her daughter, Janel. It was a challenge because she couldn’t pay most school fees. She found Brookstone Schools on the Internet and was struck by the website’s quote by Simone Orendain: “Hardship is no barrier at a small private school in Charlotte.”
“After reading their core values and goals,” Darkwa said, “I knew this was the place I wanted my child to be.”“We as parents have seen her (Janel) mature emotionally, socially, psychologically and spiritually. She has attained a certain level of self confidence, which is nothing short of a miracle. Janel came to Brookstone not speaking at all at school but, two years later, she can stand before the whole school to speak. In her words, Janel said, ‘“Mom, I thank God for Brookstone Schools. I am not shy anymore.’”