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In Atlanta, a neighborhood, a golf course and a charter school inspire Charlotte’s work

Jan 01, 2024

This is the second in a three-part series about Renaissance West, an attempt to revitalize a west Charlotte neighborhood through an education village approach. Tomorrow: Renaissance West leaders hope school improvements bring gains in North Carolina's grading system.

Charlotte’s Renaissance West Community Initiative, which is trying to break the cycle of poverty by pairing an education village with housing and other adult programs, has its roots in the revival of Atlanta’s East Lake community.

Over the past 30 years, the neighborhood and the charter school that anchors it have become a nationally renowned model for the “education village” approach to changing lives. Renaissance West is among 27 communities across the country — including projects in Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Spartanburg, South Carolina — trying to replicate that pattern.

East Lake's long history and deep private investment make the project a standout. Still to be seen is how well Charlotte and other cities can transplant that approach into different circumstances.

A century or so before it became a national model for urban revitalization, East Lake was a suburb where Atlanta’s elite came to play golf.

“It was a water park. It had these beautiful lakes. It was a place to take some time away from the city,” said Ilham Askia, CEO of the East Lake Foundation.

What followed was an evolution that played out in many cities during the 20th century. As Atlanta’s population grew, East Lake became part of the city. As Black people moved in, white people — and investment — disappeared.

Part of the East Lake Golf Club was sold to developers, and in 1970 a public housing complex opened next to what was left of the golf course.

“In the early ’90s the East Lake community, because of disinvestment, was considered one of the worst neighborhoods in the country. The crime rate in East Lake was 18 times the national average,” Askia recalls. “The high school graduation rate was 30% and unemployment was just extremely high.”

As the neighborhood declined, so did its schools.

Atlanta was not the only city trying to figure out how to reverse cycles of racial isolation, economic decline and school failure. But at East Lake, a powerful combination of people and circumstances converged.

Eva Davis, president of the public housing tenants’ association, brought a strong voice demanding better conditions.

“She loved her community but she thought there could be so much more, and there was so much opportunity in that community with the people if they were just given the resources that other people received in Atlanta,” Askia said.

Former President Jimmy Carter helped get more than $30 million in federal funding to upgrade East Lake — spurred partly by Atlanta’s desire to prepare for the 1996 Olympics.

And Atlanta real estate developer Tom Cousins, who had made his fortune building towers in downtown Atlanta, decided to devote a piece of his profits to turning around East Lake. He once described it as part of Atlanta’s civic culture.

“The Yankee press always called it enlightened self-interest. The business community was always very involved in community and community needs,” he said at a 2013 forum.

Cousins, an avid golfer, bought the East Lake Country Club in 1993. He joined with Davis and other community leaders to create the East Lake Foundation in 1995. Its mission was to revive the neighborhood, the golf course and the school, which was named for Black medical researcher Charles Drew.

“Before it became a charter, the school that sat here was the lowest performing school in Atlanta Public Schools and one of the lowest in the state,” says Nicole Tuttle, who has worked with Charles Drew Charter School for 16 years. Part of her current role involves consulting with Renaissance West STEAM Academy in Charlotte.

The Atlanta city school system closed its East Lake school in 1998. The foundation applied to take it over as the district’s first charter school. As mixed-income housing went up — half public housing, half market rate — the foundation raised money for an elementary charter school. About that same time, the revitalized golf course began hosting the PGA TOUR championship — with some of the revenue plowed back into East Lake.

Drew Charter School opened in 2000.

Today it has two campuses in the East Lake neighborhood, serving students from pre-kindergarten through high school. Those schools serve a racially and economically diverse student body in buildings that reflect the private investment — the high school’s sweeping glass front looks like an airport terminal. The elementary and middle school share space with the YMCA, which offers care from birth to age 3. Children move from there to pre-K at Drew, and by kindergarten, Tuttle says, five of the seven classrooms are filled with students who are ready to learn.

“When you start out with the majority of your kindergarteners ready, you’re not playing catch-up,” Tuttle said. “We just start off with a really strong foundation.”

Private money supplements the public funding that comes with being a charter school, and that allows Drew Charter some advantages. For instance: A longer school day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and more days per year. Some of that time goes toward building basic academic skills, Tuttle says — but not all of it.

“Kids go to two enrichment classes a day. We have, I think, 17 different offerings,” she said. “So kids get to experience things like robotics and swimming and at the upper campus, harp — you know, things that you don’t find in more traditional schools.”

It’s tough to compare academic performance for schools in two different states, with different exams. Still, it’s clear that the students at Drew Charter Academy are doing much better than those at Renaissance West in Charlotte. Tuttle says that’s partly because Drew has been open for 23 years, while Renaissance West has just begun its seventh year.

“Schools don’t change overnight,” she said. “ It is long, hard work.”

And while Drew Charter pulls visitors from around the world, it’s worth noting that the East Lake project has not eliminated the racial and income-based disparities that plague schools across the country. For instance: In 2022 just over half of Drew’s Black students passed Georgia’s elementary school math exams, compared with 90% of white students. Only 35% of economically disadvantaged students at Drew passed those exams, compared with 82% of those from higher-income families.

And Drew is no longer a high poverty school. About 37% of the Drew elementary students who took exams in 2022 were economically disadvantaged — compared with 71% at Charlotte’s Renaissance West. The majority of students at both schools are Black.

Just as neighborhood decay and school failure can create a downward spiral, improvements in housing and schools can accelerate change. Most of us know that by a shorthand term: Gentrification.

“When the market, when people, developers, but also homeowners and others get interested in a place, it really can zoom pretty quickly,” said Brett Theodos, a researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. He studies comprehensive community initiatives — the kind that try to transform a neighborhood through a long-term investment in many aspects of life.

“In some ways East Lake is the grandfather, the grandmother of these initiatives,” he said.

It wasn’t the first, he says, but its staying power and deep investment — more than $600 million since 1995 — make it stand out.

Theodos did a study of East Lake that was published in January 2022. He started by noting that all such projects must strike a delicate balance: Do too little to alter the status quo and the project is viewed as a failure.

Do too much and you get prosperity that doesn’t benefit the original residents.

“That can be the point where it’s too late to do preservation in a meaningful way of rental housing or ownership housing, as well as commercial spaces where local small businesses may be,” he said.

Theodos found that the East Lake residents of today are significantly richer, whiter and better educated than they were when the project began. But the East Lake Foundation did something that let it push back when market-rate development threatened to squeeze out affordable housing. It bought 20 acres and held onto them, planning to develop retail there. Instead, the foundation is working with developers who got access to the now-desirable land by agreeing to include affordable units.

“It doesn’t mean you have to own the whole neighborhood. It means you have to own enough strategic properties to allow you to do what needs to be done long term,” he said.

And when Theodos talks about long term, he’s talking about 20 years or more — and a lot of money.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars, even potentially a billion dollars, within a single neighborhood,” he said. “Now that’s not every year, but over the course of 20 to 30 years we need that order of investment to really see communities uplifted economically.”

Theodos says he’s not familiar with Charlotte’s Renaissance West Community Initiative. But Carol Naughton, CEO of Purpose Built Communities, is.

“I think they’ve got some really extraordinary leaders involved and people whose hearts are in the right place,” she said of Renaissance West. “And I think they’re struggling sometimes with their public-sector partners.”

Tom Cousins and investor Warren Buffet created Purpose Built in 2009 to take the East Lake model nationwide. Renaissance West is one of 27 communities currently in the network.

The Purpose Built conference room in East Lake is literally wallpapered with huge red-lining maps of Atlanta. They illustrate the racist lending practices that helped create poverty and decline in neighborhoods like East Lake.

“Look, there’s a lot of stuff that the various political systems and commercial systems and individuals did that made life harder for Black and brown people for a long time,” Naughton said. “And our work is unwinding this and creating new systems that are based on equity and opportunity.”

Naughton says Charlotte is in the middle of the pack when compared with the other Purpose Built communities.

East Lake boosters are proud to point to a Publix grocery store in their neighborhood. In the West Boulevard corridor that includes Renaissance West, community leaders are trying to launch a local food co-op after many failed attempts to recruit a grocery store chain. Development and gentrification are booming in many surrounding sections of Charlotte, but they haven’t reached Renaissance West.

As for Renaissance West STEAM Academy, the pre-K-8 school that’s at the heart of the community, “it’s not where it needs to be yet,” Naughton said. “And the surprise would be if it was at this stage in the game.”

The school was created in partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. It’s about to begin its seventh school year. In most communities, Naughton says, churn in public leadership is a challenge. That can come through new mayors being elected with a new vision. Or, because Renaissance West didn’t go the charter school route, it can mean changes in the school district.

“Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system has been through a series of superintendents, right? And when that happens, that’s destabilizing to the whole ecosystem of partners that are, you know, really part of the school-based, school-centered community revitalization,” she said.

Indeed, CMS has had seven superintendents since the school board approved the Renaissance West partnership in 2009. Earlier this year, shortly after Crystal Hill stepped into the job, she blindsided the Renaissance West team with a public announcement of a major change. As the school year begins, Hill and the Renaissance West team are just getting to know each other.

This story was produced with support from the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative. WFAE is part of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative (CJC), launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with funding from the Knight Foundation. The CJC strengthens the local news ecosystem and increases opportunities for engagement. It is supported by a combination of local and national grants and sponsorships. For more information, visit charlottejournalism.org.

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