One facet of North Carolina’s school choice movement is public charter schools. These schools are a unique option because they are public schools operated by an independent board of directors. Charters offer greater flexibility and some of the benefits of private schools, but because they are publicly funded, they don’t have the tuition costs associated with private education.
This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Larry Henson, the founder of Youngsville Academy. This public charter school uses methods such as Direct Instruction to give students a rich education based on the classics and offers a valuable (and affordable) educational option for families.
This episode is a part of a series highlighting the school choice movement across North Carolina. Tune in each week to learn more!
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. We’re continuing our Back to School series of interviews looking at the many faces of education here in North Carolina, which is considered a school choice leader in the nation. Today we’re joined by Larry Henson, Executive Director of Youngsville Academy, a classical college preparatory Public Charter School in Franklin County, currently serving over 500 students in grades kindergarten through 10th grade, we’re grateful to have him share his experience and insights gained from many years working in both public and private schools here in North Carolina, before founding Youngsville Academy in 2015. Larry Henson, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
LARRY HENSON: Thank you, Traci.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. So just to start off as a father whose children attended school in several different states, including North Carolina, and as a school administrator for many years, what kind of trends have you seen in education and school choice, especially here in North Carolina?
LARRY HENSON: My sons were both born at Wake Med in the 80s, and we left when they were one and three years old, but when they were born, I remember all of our neighbors asking, “What are you going to do for school?” And my wife and I looked at each other and we didn’t understand the question, because she came from Florida, and I had most recently come from Arkansas, and that wasn’t a question that people asked. And so we moved, and we went to Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, California, and then returned to North Carolina. And what is the first question I get asked, “What are you going to do for school?’
And so that’s an interesting thing, that the education in North Carolina has been a big question mark for years when it comes to parents trying to figure out what to do for their children. And I think that North Carolina has done a lot of things to improve the equation or to find better options for kids and for families to be able to get an education for their children.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What was the nature of that question?
LARRY HENSON: The nature was, starting out that, well, you’re living in Wake County at the time. And when you live in a neighborhood, that doesn’t mean you know the schools your children are going to go to, and you don’t know if that might not change next year or the year after. And so if you want some consistency in their education, maybe you need to look at some other option, at that time, private schools.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. So where do charter schools like Youngsville Academy fit in to the educational landscape in North Carolina? We know that you’re a public charter school, which I don’t think everybody understands what that is. But how does that affect your regulations, accountability funding, and all of that?
LARRY HENSON: Public charter school means, indeed, that we’re publicly funded. And it means that families who choose to go to our charter school receive that education tuition free, so to them, it is free. And we treat our school as though it’s a private school in terms of how we address our students and our families that come there. But we take advantage of the state having set in place the policies that allow for the funds that would go to a county to run their schools to follow the child into the charter school for us to be able to provide that education.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, so why are charter schools an important piece of the educational puzzle in North Carolina, do you think?
LARRY HENSON: It starts with, it’s a free option for families. And what it does is it allows a family to look at their child, look at the schools that can serve their child and find the school that they think will take care of what their goals are for their child.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: A lot of people seem to think that they are robbing good students from the traditional public schools. Do you agree with that?
LARRY HENSON: A lot of that is driven by the public schools and the misconception, to some degree, of what charter schools are because I know that when I run into public school teachers and administrators, even here in the county, they look at me as someone who is stealing their funds, because they don’t understand that the funds are attached to a child. And so we all get the same funds, depending upon the number of students we have.
And so they see it as a competition and they don’t look at it, I came out of the corporate world and competition in the corporate world is a good thing. It forces you to be better and so in education, we should look at it the same way. And I will say that truly the private schools, the public schools, and the charter schools all have to step up, because to some degree, they’re in competition with each other. Who’s the benefactor? That’s the student. That’s the family. That’s education.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, good point. Well, one of the unique things about Youngsville Academy is how you are governed. Tell us why that is unique. And why that is significant.
LARRY HENSON: As a charter school, we have our own board of directors. So to the state, we actually look like a school district. So we manage ourselves, but we do it under the umbrella of the Department of Public Instruction, as led by the rules and regulations that are fed to them from the state legislature. And so it is our local governance that looks at our students, our education goals, our mission and vision and manages the school to see that we are indeed delivering on that mission and vision and educating the students the way that we have set out to do.
One of the things we do that’s unique as a school is we actually review with the board the performance of every single child. And we allow the board to ask for what is the program that you’re working with this given child right now to make sure they get the education that they need. So we do data reviews, once every three weeks on our K-5 students, twice a quarter on the junior high and high school students, and we assess where they are in their program and where they need some tutoring, where they need extra help, where we need engagement with parents, and we literally are trying to program the success of each child.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So is this why you were motivated to establish Youngsville Academy? Is there a nugget in here that we should see as to why you started this school and why you’re doing it the way that you are?
LARRY HENSON: Yeah, it really goes back to, so my education, I was educated in 10 different schools, eight different states by the time I graduated from high school. And most of that was in rural America. So Youngsville Academy is in a rural area. And what I started seeing was that education has been deteriorating in rural America. And a lot of the reason for that is we created a US Department of Education. And the control went from the community who was proud of their schools to a federal government saying this is what you need to do. And so subsidiarity was turned on its head and the needs were being projected by the sea instead of by the locality. And so seeing that the charter schools were developing in a lot of more urban areas, we said, hey, let’s locate in a rural area that has families who need an option that isn’t available to them right now.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What about your curriculum, talk about that. Is it as unique as the other parts of your school?
LARRY HENSON: The curriculum is more of a classical type curriculum. And so we have the grammar stage in kindergarten through fifth grade, where we use direct instruction. Direct instruction is sort of a repeat after me kind of thing, and you make sure that the students build the foundation that can be leveraged later in the logic stage, which is Junior High, and then moving on into the rhetoric stage. And then, because it’s classical in structure, there’s a lot of linkage between the classes. So your literature and history sort of align, the writing assignments you have will contribute to what you’re doing in those classes. And then we’ll just maybe even look at literature on its own. Our sixth seventh grade students study Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the influence of the Bible, the Iliad, Antigone, King Arthur, Henry the Fifth, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and these are books that when we have people interviewing with us, they’re like, how do you get your students to read these? And it’s like, oh my gosh, once they get into them, they just want more, because there’s something there. I mean, they can see that they’re developing and working. These are classic books from all time and they’ve existed for a reason. And they really help that mind assemble language and assemble logic and to approach things in a way that educators of history have used to approach them.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You guys have had some good response and good growth. Talk a little bit about that.
LARRY HENSON: When we started the school, we were given four and a half months to open our doors. We were granted a charter. And then they said, okay, and you have to open in four and a half months, we said, what about 16 and a half months, and they said, No, your charter is for the coming year. And so we were able to lease space at Faith Baptist Church that had classroom space. And fortunately, they were agreeable to work with us. And we used that space for the first four years of our school. And every year, we’ve actually had a waiting list. And we’ve never spent more than $1,000 in a year advertising. So really, it’s word of mouth and people coming to discover who we are. At first people came because we were just generically a charter school. And then as the years have gone on, now they’re seeking out the academic program that they see, and saying well you’re actually serious about education, and we want our children to have access to a quality education. And so it’s nice, because as the state has added more charter schools, there are some now that are really looking for enrollment. You’ll see billboards as you go down the road, and we haven’t had to go that route. And we don’t really see it happening because now our students are proving who they are and what they can do. We get lots of positive comments from people in the community when they engage our students.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: As a charter school insider, now, what do you see that you would like to possibly see improved from a policy perspective regarding charter schools? Are there some things?
LARRY HENSON: One thing I’ve seen, there’s been this move towards these national charter schools, who come in, and they’ve got charter schools in many states, and they typically dive in and apply the state standard curriculum. And I just sort of believe charter schools should provide unique options. Now, they have other things that they offer, but they really are marketing machines, it’s hard for people to figure out exactly what they have to offer, because the marketing is actually pretty good typically.
And I would like to see more locals like us, it would be very difficult for a group like us who are from the community to start a charter school right now, we’ve been told several times that you’d have trouble getting a charter again, even though we’re doing very successful. It has nothing to do with that it has to do with these national organizations have a lot of machinery and a lot of relationships and a lot of things that they bring into the process to get their charters and small groups of independent parties just don’t have the same leverage.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk about advice for parents, what would you say to them as they’re trying to navigate all these choices and decide what’s best for their individual children?
LARRY HENSON: I don’t envy parents having to make these choices. I do encourage them to talk to neighbors, maybe to get with local community groups, with churches, and to talk to people who have their children in different schools. Try to learn a little bit about those schools. I think I’ve encouraged them to recognize that education, school really is primarily to provide the academic foundation that their children need for later in life. So to look for a program that is strong in its academics, and really networking and trying to find out what’s working for others is probably the most important thing that they can do.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, we’re just about out of time. Before we go, Larry Henson, where can our listeners go to learn more about Youngsville Academy?
LARRY HENSON: So it’d be www.youngsvilleacademy.org.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Larry Henson, Executive Director of Youngsville Academy, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy matters.
LARRY HENSON: Thank you, Traci.
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