Givers: PAVE Southeast Raleigh Charter School

“I will not waste this day”
PAVE Southeast Raleigh Charter builds scholars, community

by Hampton Williams Hofer
photographs courtesy Spencer Menzel

Every morning, each of the 230 children at PAVE, Southeast Raleigh’s first charter school, is greeted at the door with a handshake from the principal. Education is taken seriously here: students are called scholars, they wear neat uniforms, and they stick to a structured and rigorous academic curriculum. The classrooms at PAVE have names like University of Georgia and Wake Forest. “Many of our scholars don’t have a family member who has gone to college,” says PAVE founder and CEO Spencer Robertson, “so we make the idea accessible. College is always in the conversation.” The school, which was founded in 2015 and currently offers kindergarten through third grade, is comprised almost entirely of minority and low-income students, many of whom speak English as a second language.

“Most charter schools serve a different, more affluent population,” says Robertson. “Charter schools are public, but many do not provide meals and transportation, limiting the students who can enroll.” PAVE offers bus service as well as two meals and a snack each day, free and reduced for those who qualify. When opening the school, the PAVE staff took its Southeast Raleigh outreach efforts seriously, speaking in daycares, going door-to-door, and making sure the families they hoped to serve knew that PAVE was an option. They kept the application process intentionally uncomplicated.

This location of PAVE (an acronym for the school’s core values of Perseverance, Achievement, Vibrance, and Excellent Character) is the organization’s second charter; the first opened in Brooklyn, New York in 2008. “When we investigated replicating in N.C., my immediate thought was Durham,” says Robertson, a Duke grad who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and four children. “But at the time Durham had quite a number of charters, many targeting our same population, so Southeast Raleigh became compelling. Wake County public schools are excellent, one of best in state, but not all students are thriving there.” In Brooklyn and in Raleigh, the mission of PAVE looks the same: to offer an exceptional academic experience to some of the community’s most vulnerable children.

PAVE Southeast Raleigh plans to grow by one grade each year until it can offer kindergarten through eighth grade, preparing its scholars to head into Wake County high schools already on track to prosper at a four-year college. With smaller classes, learning assistance for students with special needs, and social work support, PAVE ensures that its scholars have everything they need to be successful when they leave.

PAVE’s eight-hour school day is longer than most other local schools, and its academic year extends for an extra ten days. It does other things differently, too, like teaching math with a curriculum called Cognitively Guided Instruction, in which students take on the role of teacher and explain their problem-solving strategies to the rest of the class. “It’s amazing how students begin to understand and replicate the strategies of their peers in a matter of days or weeks,” says third-grade teacher Virginia McMillan. “It’s far more impactful than if a teacher were to say ‘This is the procedure and you have to show your work in this way.’” The idea is that instead of memorizing steps to get correct answers, students become critical thinkers.

Reading gets a special focus as well. All students at PAVE gather for small-group and individualized reading instruction, allowing a level of attention that can create breakthroughs. Last year, a student came to school without any comprehension of one-to-one correspondence with text, meaning he could not understand that the words on the page directly correlated to the words read aloud. He received small-group instruction targeted for his significant obstacle. “By June, that scholar had made about two-and-a-half years of reading growth,” McMillan says.

PAVE has found so much success in Southeast Raleigh since its opening two years ago that demand has soared: This year, there were more than three times as many applicants as spots available. Like all charter schools, PAVE is open to any child in North Carolina, and currently enrolls students from Knightdale, Garner, and North Raleigh. But the school remains committed to its neighborhood, where many of the school’s board members live and work. “We seek to serve the Southeast Raleigh community, to meet the needs of children in this area, and to be a strong partner with Wake County public schools,” says board president J.B. Buxton.

PAVE’s students and parents are the school’s most enthusiastic advocates. “PAVE is the best,” says rising third grader Adrian Corona, “I like learning. Math is my favorite subject besides recess and PE.” Adrian’s mother, Annette Corona, says she and her husband chose PAVE for their two sons in part because of the success of the organization’s Brooklyn school. They stayed because of the community they have found there. “I trust the administration and see their commitment to our kids. We are in it together: the school, the network, and the families. We all want the school and our children to be competitive and succeed.”

One tangible indicator of the community’s growth is in the school’s garden. Last year, scholars planted and nurtured basil, which they picked to make pesto. Nearby, a kindergarten class planted the watermelon seeds they’d counted for math practice after snack time.

But the true character of the place is most evident on Friday mornings, when PAVE holds a community meeting that brings parents, faculty, staff, and students together. Every week, one child is given a golden brick symbolizing a core value of PAVE they have exhibited. “Seeing the parents come here and sit in the stands and sing their child’s class cheer,” says PAVE development officer Spencer Menzel, “It’s exciting.” The kids themselves get the most energized. “I will use my head, because I am intelligent!” the children chant together. Bobbing and stomping with emphasis, they go on: “I will NOT waste this day! I have too much to learn!”