The Hawbridge School
The school was in trouble. Hawbridge was on academic probation from the NC Department of Public Instruction two years in a row. One more year of below average proficiency tests and they would lose their charter. Hawbridge was an alternative charter high school, which meant that they took in all the students that the big box public schools had failed to educate. Marcia Huth, the school’s director, wanted to turn the school into an environmental magnet school, and a somewhat skeptical school board was looking for an action plan. I met privately with Dr. Huth and explained the “triple bottom line” approach to sustainability: Environmental Stewardship, Social Equity, and Financial Viability. We agreed to adopt the idea of “sustainable education” as the new Hawbridge model.
The first year was easy. One of our student’s parents was head of the Dept. of Environmental Sciences at UNC, and he graciously offered his graduate students to prepare an outstanding Environmental Stewardship course outline centered on the Haw River. We hired local organic farmers to teach organic gardening, and the art class started digging clay out of the riverbank to throw pots. We even got Joe Jacob of the Haw River Assembly to offer hiking and kayaking for PE. Now how cool was that! The students responded with interest and enthusiasm. The end-of year test scores leaped to 84%, the highest ever in the history of the school.
Year 2: Social Equity. Hawbridge has a serious image problem. It was “that school for troubled kids” and less than 30% of Alamance County residents actually sent their children there. Mack Jordan had an idea. Most everyone in Saxapahaw had relatives who worked in the mill at one time or another. Hawbridge designed an integrated study plan dedicated entirely to the Saxapahaw mill. The art class studied textiles as an art medium. The science and physics classes studied mill design and the use of the Haw as a source of power. The crowning event was an open house attended by over 250 former mill workers and their families. The students took oral histories, gave tours, and made photo collages for all the attendees. They loved it! That fall, EOG proficiency rose to 88%, and pre-enrollment from local students rose to over 70%! “That other school” had finally become “our school.”
Year 3: Financial Viability. Schools are always short of money, and charter schools are even more destitute since they receive no building funds. Just when we were celebrating our academic achievements, our accountant informed us that we faced a budget shortfall of $80,000 for the coming year. The DPI had cut funding by 12%, and we had just graduated 16 seniors, which cut our enrollment by another 18%. We faced a tough decision. Rather than cut our teachers’ benefits (again) just when they were on an academic high, the board agreed to spend our reserve fund in order keep all our academic programs on track. At the same time, we aggressively campaigned to add a middle school to Hawbridge, which would bring in another 50 students (and $200,000 in DPI funding). It was a gutsy move because it could put us on financial probation. I still admire the board for the choice that they made. The gamble paid off. Hawbridge scored an astounding 96% proficiency, and was pronounced a “School of Distinction” for being one of the top 5% schools in the state. The DPI couldn’t deny our request for a middle school after having received such academic accolades. Hawbridge added a middle school and our funding was secured for the foreseeable future.
Epilogue: Hawbridge continues to operate under the “Hawbridge Model” with astounding success. Student test scores have yet to drop below 90% and the curriculum has been expanded to include AP classes in Chemistry and Algebra. No longer an alternative school, Hawbridge now attracts some of the top students from surrounding school districts. In 2010, as a final tribute to the triple bottom line, Hawbridge purchased the Saxapahaw mill building with a rural development grant from the US Department of Agriculture.
Andy Zeman is the owner of Benjamin Vineyards in Saxapahaw, NC.