It’s not every day that the CEO of a national corporation walks through the doors of Spartanburg’s Meeting Street Academy to see what all the buzz is about.
But that’s exactly what happened when Greg Carmichael, CEO of Ohio-based Fifth Third Bank, spent the morning there to learn how a public-private partnership that combines academics with character-building helps kids improve their odds in life.
The brainchild of Charleston businessman and philanthropist Ben Navarro, the two-story academy in the heart of downtown is one of four Meeting Street schools in the state getting rave reviews, largely due to student performance on standardized tests that far exceeds the national average.
In 2016, the academy, which opened four years earlier, entered into a partnership with Spartanburg School District 7 to enroll children in the Highland, Hampton Heights, and downtown neighborhoods. This semester, 247 students ranging from age 3 through fifth grade, the vast majority of them black, make use of Meeting Street’s mix of curriculum and inspiration.
“I hate to put a percentage on it, but in many cases I almost feel like it’s 50-50 academics and character-building in the way that we approach education,” said Claudia Albergotti, the academy’s community liaison.
“The academics are incredibly important, but we also need to be preparing our students for success in general, and so the research tells us that there are a number of character traits that can be learned and built upon and are not necessarily innate traits, that we can help students learn and grow and develop over time,” she explained.
Those traits – grit, curiosity, self-control, citizenship, gratitude, empathy, optimism, and integrity – are woven into conversations in classrooms and hallways and are spelled out on colorful posters throughout the academy’s bright surroundings.
Teachers, selected by Meeting Street and not the district, also have the autonomy to change curriculum, Albergotti said, with two instructors per classroom in an academic day that stretches from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
“So we’re not locked into a specific curriculum. If something doesn’t seem to be working or clicking with our students, then we have the ability to quickly look at other potential options and evaluate whether we should change something,” Albergotti said.
Meeting Street’s educational model appears to be paying off for its students, many of whom are visibly energized, easily interact with visitors, and rank high on tests administered across a spectrum of schools ranging from private institutions flush with cash to neighborhood ones.
On average across its four-school system, Meeting Street students rank among the top in the country when compared with scores at 15,000 elementary schools nationwide, placing in the 90th percentile in reading and 92nd in math, according to 2017 testing.
Community and business buy-in
To maintain momentum, staff members head out to students’ homes at the start of each school year.
“We need to understand where this child has grown up, who their people are, what their neighborhood is like, what they’re going home to, and in turn, I think, that opens up a lot of communication between our parents and our teachers and allows us to be much more productive in the way that we can work together to make sure that we’re doing what’s right for all of these students,” Albergotti explained.
In addition to family involvement, Meeting Street Academy is supported by individual patrons and community partners who underwrite programs, provide medical services and recreational opportunities, or volunteer their time. District 7 reduces overhead by providing transportation, food, and maintenance services along with per-pupil funding for households in the attendance zone.
Each week, volunteers from Carolina Foothills Federal Credit Union are on-site to guide students as they work as managers and tellers at a mock bank, counting money and engaging in bookkeeping.
To date, a total of $34,000 is parked in students’ accounts to help meet the cost of higher education.
“These are not accounts that can be withdrawn from easily,” Albergotti said.
For its part, Fifth Third Bank began its relationship with Meeting Street several years ago after a client made its commercial banking staff aware of the innovative work being done there.
“And so, some of their local bankers came and explored Meeting Street and were really struck by what we were doing and developed a passion for wanting to partner with us and help in whatever way they could,” Albergotti remembers.
Charles Arndt, who heads the bank’s middle-market office in Greenville and whom Albergotti calls “a huge supporter,” helped bring together students from Furman University and the academy.
About three years ago, Arndt, who serves as a soccer coach at Furman, arranged for team members to visit Meeting Street. The group shared their insights on discipline and motivation before kicking around a soccer ball with students and getting better acquainted.
Now, each year, students from one campus visit the other, “and it was powerful for our students to be able to sit in that kind of environment and contribute, and see what a college class is all about,” Albergotti said.
When Carmichael dropped by last month, the Fifth Third CEO spent time speaking with the academy’s administrators about the overall philosophy behind the school before visiting classrooms.
“That was an amazing visit, just to watch what they’re doing at that school, the way they approach education,” Carmichael said the afternoon of his visit. “It’s really remarkable what they’re accomplishing over there, and the evidence and the outcomes that they’re getting are just tremendous.”
Albergotti said, “I think it’s always wonderful to have someone who sits in a completely different state and has communication access to a lot of other markets … but our hope is also that we can start to have bigger conversations about how this model can be emulated in other places and how it can make a bigger impact, and that’s something that we’re very excited about.”