How can we help more families break the cycle of poverty? And how can we do it in a sustainable, accessible and scalable way?

Those were the questions former NFL tight end and Super Bowl champion Casey Crawford pondered as he retired from football, began building a business and looked for ways to spark positive change in his adopted hometown of Charlotte, N.C.

He found the answers in Movement School, a new public charter school that brings business, education and nonprofit efforts together to make a lasting impact on communities.

Movement School is a groundbreaking cooperative between the Movement Foundation, Sugar Creek Charter School and the state of North Carolina. The result will be a new tuition-free public charter school that will open in 2017 for 300 students in west Charlotte. Crawford’s Movement Foundation is investing $12 million in startup costs for the school; its academic program is being developed from Sugar Creek Charter’s award-winning example; and a North Carolina public school charter is assuring a tuition-free, state-sanctioned education.

It is just the first step in a massive plan to bring the Movement School model to more communities across the U.S. in the years ahead.

The education dilemma

Seeds for the Movement School were planted more than 20 years ago. As a teenager growing up in an affluent Washington, D.C. suburb, Crawford saw first-hand the difference an education made in the life of children.

His father owned a True Value hardware store in a depressed urban neighborhood in the nation’s capitol. Crawford worked summer jobs there and forged friendships with other teens from the neighborhood who worked in the store. He saw stark contrasts in what happened next. Those teens with education opportunities — regardless of their financial or family status — followed healthier paths. Those young men without education fared much worse.

“That’s when I really began to understand the power of an education,” he says.

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Movement CEO Casey Crawford (right) and Chief Brand Officer David King tour the converted space that will house the Movement School in fall 2017.

Crawford went on to become an All-ACC tight end for the University of Virginia football team and played for the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, winning a Super Bowl in 2003.

When he launched his business career, Crawford revisited education. He hoped to invest some of his profits in schools that reached underserved children in urban areas. However, his research showed most private mission schools in large cities eventually failed for lack of sustainable funding.

Answers at Sugar Creek

Crawford says he was intrigued when a friend’s research project suggested private foundations should partner with public charter schools. The reason? Private donations could be used for upfront startup and infrastructure costs while relying on per-student tax dollars to sustain operations.

He immediately began searching for charter schools doing great work that Movement Foundation could support. He found Sugar Creek Charter School in his backyard.

Sugar Creek was founded in 1999 by a cohort of leaders, including former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot, to address the needs of children living below the poverty line in northwest Charlotte. Today, it serves 1,500 children preschool through high school and is widely recognized as one of the state’s top-performing charter schools.

Sugar Creek, led by principal Cheryl Turner, focuses on individual instruction and character education, teaching students both academics and life skills. The school’s waiting list is 500 names long.

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Cheryl Turner, principal of Sugar Creek Charter School, watches as kindergartners complete a work assignment. Sugar Creek, which opened in 1999 and has been recognized for its intensive curriculum and character-based instruction, is the model for the Movement School.

It’s important work. Among those living in the country’s 50 largest cities, poor children in Charlotte have the worst chances of escaping poverty and scaling the socioeconomic ladder, according to a joint 2014 study from Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley.

That’s on top of statistics showing that over 60 percent of students in Charlotte attend majority-poverty schools, most of which are segregated by race, say researchers from the N.C. Poverty Research Fund at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Those disparities create wide gaps in student achievement. Most schools earning a failing or ‘D’ grade on the state’s schools report card have student poverty rates of 50 percent or higher. That’s in contrast to “A” and “B” schools, where poverty rates are 50 percent or less.

Sugar Creek is one of the few that bucks the trend, earning high performance marks despite high poverty rates.

In 2012, Crawford launched Movement Foundation and chose to help Sugar Creek Charter start its new high school among its early investments. Almost immediately he wanted to do more.

“I call it the Casey multiplication factor,” Turner says. “He just instinctively saw how we can expand and reach more students.”

The vision: Use Movement Foundation’s capital, Sugar Creek’s successful model and Turner’s experience to start another charter school, this time along Freedom Drive, one of the most economically depressed corridors in the Queen City.

Launching Movement School
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The Movement Foundation is investing more than $12 million to renovate a blighted shopping plaza in west Charlotte and convert its anchor store, a Kmart, into a school that will serve 300 students next fall.

In 2015, Movement Foundation acquired a dilapidated shopping center once anchored by a K-Mart store. Plans were drawn to renovate the space and seed Movement School with classroom furniture, technology and other needed items.

Construction began in fall 2016. The total investment is projected to be more than $12 million.

Meanwhile, Turner assisted foundation director Garrett McNeill in forming a charter school board and applying with the state of North Carolina for a public school charter. In 2016, Movement School was officially granted a state charter.

The school is set to open in fall 2017 with 300 students in grades K through 2. An additional grade will be added each year. Movement School will be completely tuition free and all are welcome to apply for admission. It will also offer a cafeteria and transportation to school within a five-mile radius.

Movement School’s curriculum will be modeled on Sugar Creek, meaning a balance of traditional studies and life skills. All students will take character education that cover everything from character traits (like generosity) to global citizenship.

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Movement School aims to enroll 300 children grades K through 2 in fall 2017 but then add an extra grade each year.

“Our goal is for our kids to be successful in life,” Turner says. “It requires more than just the academics. We have to build character.”

For Crawford, Movement School is about building new hope in young children and encouraging them to reach their full potential. He says once Movement School is well established in Charlotte, he hopes to expand the model to other cities.

“Every child should be loved and cared for because they have intrinsic value given to them by a creator God. Education unlocks so much of that potential,” Crawford says. “We want to see those God-given gifts, talents and abilities nurtured and developed in our kids so they can become all God created them to be.”

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About the Author:

Adam O'Daniel

Adam O’Daniel is the communications director at Movement Mortgage, leading a team in brand storytelling, social media marketing and internal communications. A former journalist, Adam says he contributes to this blog, although colleagues are suspicious it’s his ghostwriter. The best part of his day is coming home to Ashley (he married up) and his three “mini-me's," Aiden, Asher and Avett.