Cam­bridge in Char­lotte: Bri­tish ed­u­ca­tion comes to suburbs

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY ANN DOSS HELMS [email protected]­lot­teob­

In 1864, the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge be­gan of­fer­ing ex­ams to stu­dents out­side of Great Bri­tain who hoped to at­tend the pres­ti­gious school.

To­day those ex­ams — and the K-12 ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram that Cam­bridge cre­ated to pre­pare stu­dents for suc­cess — are viewed in 160 coun­tries as a ticket to a top-flight ed­u­ca­tion.

The world­wide in­ter­est in these ex­ams is so in­tense that — Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg Schools of­fi­cials swear this is not a joke — Cam­bridge has or­dered Hopewell High in Hun­tersville to in­stall a cage around the file cab­i­nets where the school stores the ex­ams, lest some­one crawl through the ceil­ing to steal them.

But lo­cals who hear that Hopewell is a Cam­bridge In­ter­na­tional School are likely to re­spond with, “What’s that?” In North Carolina the pro­gram can be found only at Hopewell, six Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg el­e­men­tary and mid­dle schools that feed into Hopewell High and a Mooresville char­ter school.

That may change. In 2017 the Gen­eral As­sem­bly voted to give Cam­bridge classes the same stand­ing as Ad­vanced Place­ment and In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate of­fer­ings, with the state pay­ing exam fees for stu­dents and of­fer­ing bonuses to teach­ers who get the best re­sults. The Univer­sity of North Carolina and North Carolina com­mu­nity col­lege sys­tems have ap­proved

Cam­bridge classes for credit, just like AP and IB.

All three are of­fer­ings that push high school stu­dents be­yond ba­sic skills, tak­ing on work that re­quires deep knowl­edge and anal­y­sis. The IB pro­gram, which has been in CMS schools since the 1990s, is bet­ter known in the United States, but Cam­bridge In­ter­na­tional Schools are more preva­lent world­wide. Six­ty­four na­tions use Cam­bridge as their na­tional cur­ricu­lum, says Stephanie

Kelso, who co­or­di­nates the Cam­bridge pro­gram for CMS.

“I de­scribe it as IB on steroids,” says Beth Hunt, who has an eighth-grade daugh­ter in the Cam­bridge pro­gram at Bradley Mid­dle School. Her daugh­ter, Shan­non, was one of the ear­li­est Cam­bridge stu­dents in CMS, start­ing at Long Creek El­e­men­tary.

Kelso prefers to call it the best of both worlds: Like IB, it of­fers a de­mand­ing di­ploma track that’s rec­og­nized world­wide and a path­way that starts with the youngest stu­dents.

Like AP, it of­fers flex­i­bil­ity for high school stu­dents who only want to take a course or two.

She and oth­ers strug­gle to ex­plain ex­actly what makes Cam­bridge unique. Per­haps that’s be­cause ev­ery­thing it of­fers — global per­spec­tive, fo­cus on real-life ap­pli­ca­tion of aca­demic top­ics, in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity cou­pled with­team­work, in­ten­sive re­search and writ­ing — is the gold stan­dard for ed­u­ca­tion ev­ery­where.

All of those things are eas­ier said than done. That’s where sup­port from the Cam­bridge Univer­sity team comes in, Kelso says: “Cam­bridge isn’t some­thing you can touch. It’s some­thing you can feel.”


Un­like most CMS pro­grams, Cam­bridge came not from cen­tral of­fices but from fam­ily de­mand.

About six years ago, par­ents at Moun­tain Is­land Lake El­e­men­tary were wor­ried about the flow of fam­i­lies leav­ing the dis­trict for char­ter schools, say Kelso and Matt Hayes, the as­sis­tant su­per­in­ten­dent in charge of schools in north­west Meck­len­burg County. One of the par­ents had heard about Cam­bridge and done some re­search; the school lead­er­ship team asked CMS to adopt the pro­gram.

Hunt was one of those con­cerned par­ents.

“We live in a part of town that is not typ­i­cally known for good schools,” she said. Hunt, a jour­nal­ist, is mar­ried to a math pro­fes­sor and has a daugh­ter who in­her­ited both sets of skills. They were im­pressed with her ex­pe­ri­ence at Long Creek but wor­ried she wouldn’t get enough chal­lenge in mid­dle school.

They en­tered the lot­tery for Lake Nor­man Char­ter School, a pop­u­lar K-12 school in Hun­tersville, and Shan­non had been awarded a seat for fifth grade. The Cam­bridge op­tion is what per­suaded the fam­ily to stick with CMS, Hunt said.

Mean­while, the Florid­abased Char­ter Schools USA in­tro­duced Cam­bridge at Langtree Char­ter Academy in Mooresville five years ago. Like Hopewell, Langtree will grad­u­ate its first Cam­bridge class this spring.

Two other Char­lot­tearea char­ter schools that are part of that chain, Cabar­rus Char­ter Academy in Con­cord and Ire­dell Char­ter Academy in Trout­man, are pre­par­ing to add Cam­bridge classes, said Chuck Nusi­nov, Caroli­nas state di­rec­tor for Char­ter Schools USA.

“Cam­bridge has been pretty big in the state of Florida,” which made it a nat­u­ral con­nec­tion for his schools, Nusi­nov said.

Cam­bridge worked with state of­fi­cials to syn­chro­nize its les­sons with North Carolina’s cur­ricu­lum and grad­u­a­tion re­quire­ments, Kelso said.

Cam­bridge schools pay a fee to the or­ga­ni­za­tion for the ex­per­tise, train­ing and ex­ams. In CMS it comes to $90.50 per pupil, Kelso said, with about 3,000 stu­dents par­tic­i­pat­ing at all lev­els. While Hayes said he isn’t al­lowed to re­lease the bud­get, that comes to just over $270,000.

U.S. Sen. Thom Til­lis, who jokes that his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer be­gan when he was elected pres­i­dent of Hopewell’s PTSA in 2006, said re­cently he’s not fa­mil­iar with de­tails of the Cam­bridge pro­gram. But he caught a glimpse of its re­sults when he asked Hopewell to nom­i­nate three of its top ju­niors to serve as a Se­nate page last year.

Til­lis chose Mar­shall Miles Jr., a mem­ber of Hopewell’s first Cam­bridge class. Til­lis says Miles’ work ethic and or­ga­ni­za­tion made him a stand­out even among the high-achiev­ing pages cho­sen from across the coun­try.

Til­lis re­calls that when he asked the group who was the best at sev­eral skills, “he was the odds-on fa­vorite for ev­ery­body.”

Miles and his par­ents, Sonia and Mar­shall Miles Sr., say Cam­bridge de­mands and de­vel­ops the kind of study skills that en­abled him to flour­ish while split­ting his time be­tween classes and the Se­nate floor.

“It’s not an easy pro­gram by any means,” Miles said. “It teaches im­por­tant skills like time man­age­ment, how to work ef­fi­ciently and how to get things in be­fore dead­line.”

Til­lis says the adop­tion of Cam­bridge in a pub­lic school sys­tem is ex­actly how school choice ought to work: “One of the rea­sons why CMS is be­ing cre­ative is com­pe­ti­tion.”


The em­pha­sis on ex­ams — the of­fi­cial name of the or­ga­ni­za­tion is Cam­bridge Assess­ment In­ter­na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion — may be off­putting to peo­ple who be­lieve North Carolina’s pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem al­ready does too much stan­dard­ized test­ing.

But these ex­ams are noth­ing like the long mul­ti­ple-choice tests the state ad­min­is­ters.

Miles and the other 31 mem­bers of Hopewell’s first Cam­bridge class had to test into the pro­gram to be ac­cepted as fresh­men. He re­calls start­ing with in­for­ma­tion about a sci­en­tific ex­per­i­ment us­ing plants, wa­ter and light. Stu­dents had to run cal­cu­la­tions from the data and write an es­say about the best en­vi­ron­ment for the plants.

“It wasn’t re­ally a test that you could study for,” he said, and it made North Carolina’s End of Grade ex­ams seem easy.

The end of each Cam­bridge high school class brings an exam, too — AS level for in­tro­duc­tory classes and A lev­els for the more ad­vanced ones.

A chem­istry exam would in­volve open­ing a box, do­ing the lab work that’s con­tained within and writ­ing up re­sults. Psy­chol­ogy might bring sev­eral case stud­ies, which stu­dents have to an­a­lyze.

The kind of test prep that coaches stu­dents to suc­ceed on mul­ti­ple­choice ex­ams does lit­tle good here, ed­u­ca­tors say. In­stead, teach­ers have to equip their stu­dents with the abil­ity to write well, do ad­vanced math and in­ter­pret in­for­ma­tion, rather than just re­gur­gi­tat­ing it.

That makes the teacher train­ing Cam­bridge pro­vides an es­sen­tial part of the pro­gram, ad­min­is­tra­tors and teach­ers say. Patrick Ma­hol­land, who teaches Cam­bridge lit­er­a­ture at Hopewell, com­pares it to be­ing a sherpa who guides stu­dents on their trek.

Hopewell math teacher Jim Cross says work­ing with Bri­tish texts re­quires a bit of trans­la­tion. While Amer­i­cans talk about slopes and rad­i­cals, he said, Cam­bridge ma­te­rial uses “gra­di­ent” and “surd.”


Cam­bridge de­buted in CMS with fourth-graders at Moun­tain Is­land, which is now the K-8 Moun­tain Is­land Lake Academy. The first stu­dents were a select group, with grade-level read­ing and math scores re­quired to en­sure they could han­dle the ma­te­rial.

Now the pro­gram is of­fered at Tor­rence Creek, Long Creek, Grand Oak and Bar­nette el­e­men­taries and Bradley Mid­dle as well. And teach­ers use the Cam­bridge ap­proach with all stu­dents, not just a select few. That’s part of the CMS strat­egy of mak­ing sure all stu­dents get ac­cess to rig­or­ous teach­ing and the spe­cialty theme any school of­fers.

Of the 32 Hopewell stu­dents who started the Cam­bridge pro­gram as fresh­men, eight are on track to earn Cam­bridge diplo­mas. That re­quires stu­dents to take seven Cam­bridge classes and pass the ex­ams.

Among the di­ploma can­di­dates is Kalei Small, who says when she was in eighth grade she was de­cid­ing be­tween Hopewell and nearby Hough High. She had friends line up and make the case for each school, she says. The Cam­bridge op­tion was what swayed her for Hopewell.

While Small loves the idea of hav­ing a di­ploma that’s rec­og­nized by the na­tion’s best univer­si­ties, she says her fa­vorite thing was the ca­ma­raderie among the stu­dents moved through the pro­gram to­gether. That in­cludes some, such as Miles, who didn’t take enough Cam­bridge classes to aim for the di­ploma.

“Ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­one,” she said.

“We do things out­side of school, and we make sure to in­clude the teach­ers, too.”

Miles says his time in Wash­ing­ton as a page, his lead­er­ship role in JROTC and sched­ul­ing chal­lenges kept him from meet­ing the di­ploma re­quire­ments.

That’s not a dis­as­ter. Hopewell stu­dents are al­lowed to pick and choose a mix of col­legelevel op­tions, in­clud­ing Cam­bridge, AP and classes of­fered at Cen­tral Pied­mont Com­mu­nity Col­lege.

Kelso says the Cam­bridge classes are grow­ing. Hopewell has 50 Cam­bridge stu­dents in 11th grade, 70 in 10th and al­most 100 in ninth grade, she said.

At all grade lev­els, about 3,000 CMS stu­dents are be­ing ex­posed to Cam­bridge teach­ing, Kelso says.

Hayes, the ad­min­is­tra­tor in charge of the CMS Cam­bridge schools, says that’s a ben­e­fit even to fam­i­lies who haven’t heard of the pro­gram and stu­dents who may never ap­ply for pres­ti­gious univer­si­ties.

“It’s just good teach­ing and learn­ing,” he said.



Mar­shall Miles Jr., a mem­ber of Hopewell’s first Cam­bridge class

JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­[email protected]­lot­teob­

Gabrielle Grif­fin and Katie Martinez, both 14, col­lab­o­rate on a health and well­ness project in Span­ish Two at Hopewell High School. Hopewell and its feeder schools are pi­lot­ing the Cam­bridge pro­gram.

PHO­TOS BY JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­[email protected]­lot­teob­

Saman­tha Platero di­rects her Cam­bridge English One stu­dents in class at Hopewell High School. The Cam­bridge classes, de­vel­oped by the Bri­tish univer­sity, stress deep anal­y­sis that must be demon­strated on in­ter­na­tional ex­ams.

Jack­son Scul­lion, 14, works on a project about “Romeo and Juliet” in a Cam­bridge English class at Hopewell High School.

Stephanie Kelso

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