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From Hard Knocks to Honor Rolls: Interview with Crossnore Academy CEO

TeachHUB Interview

From Hard Knocks to Honor Rolls: Interview with Crossnore Academy CEOFrom Hard Knocks to Honor Rolls


Thanks to Crossnore School, North Carolina kids are getting out of a broken system and into a safe, supportive community.


The Crossnore School was founded by Mary Martin Sloop, M.D. in 1913 for Blue Ridge Mountain children living in poverty and/or from families ravaged by moonshining. Dr. Sloop believed that “the best way to help a child rise above their circumstances is to provide them access to a fine education.” 


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With campuses to rival high-end boarding schools, Crossnore is now both a nationally accredited residential home for children and a charter school certified by state board of education and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. They also operate a five-star day care center that provides quality childcare for some 50 community children daily, ages birth to age five, in addition to pre-schoolers placed in the residential program. 


This safe haven can offer children not just a home, but also possibilities for their future. Crossnore has a track record of being able to move a group of children from only 33% of the students scoring on grade-level in pre-assessments to 68-70% scoring on grade-level with end of year assessments. Despite most students being the first in their families to graduate high school, 80% of Crossnore graduates go on to postsecondary school.


We had to opportunity to speak with Dr. Phyllis Crain, CEO of Crossnore Academy to discuss her experience working with this remarkable institution.


For those who are unfamiliar with Crossnore School/Academy, can you briefly describe its unique position as both a home and school for children in need?

Today we are a Residential Education Program serving children from families in crisis, ages 1 to 21. We continue to give priority to serving children from mountain counties. However, our reach has extended throughout the state due in part to our special niche of keeping large sibling groups together that would otherwise be separated by the traditional foster care system. Our largest sibling group in Crossnore history was placed with us in November of 2006 – eleven Laotian brothers and sisters, ages 10 months to 17 years old.


While we do have a few private placements annually, 95% of our children are placed by departments of social services due to abuse, abandonment, neglect and school truancy. The children’s education continues to be our number one priority. 


We are blessed to have highly credentialed and skilled clinicians on campus to provide counseling and therapy so the children learn to cope with the many traumas they have endured. However, like normal families who may need to seek mental health services for their children, our students primarily receive counseling during after-school hours rather than therapy dominating the school day.


In my 50+ years of life, I have yet to meet one individual who was able to rise above poverty, abuse, abandonment or extreme neglect where education was not the key factor. At Crossnore, learning is the top priority and we begin talking to even the youngest children on day one about college.


I’ve heard that your facilities rival those of high-end boarding schools. The pictures featured on the website can attest to that. What funding methods do you use to make this possible?

It is no accident that our living and learning village looks a bit like a prestigious boarding school. I concur with the educational philosophy of Mortimer Adler believing that “the best education for the best is the best education for all.” The vast majority of our capital projects have been funded through individual philanthropists and foundations. Relationships, passion in sharing our mission and getting potential donors on our campus are the key factors in our fundraising success.


What are some challenges you face working with children in crisis?

Over the past ten years, we have found that children who have been tossed to and fro in the foster care system are on average 2 1/2 years behind their age-mates academically. This is not due to lack of ability but rather lack of stability in both their living and learning environment as they are moved from school to school with each change in placement. 


Alarmingly, 25% of our present student body are in their 8th to 12th placement while 75% are in their 2nd to 4th placement so the children have been moved through at least that many schools. Obviously, if a child is 2+ years behind academically, the child needs much more than a semester or one academic year to close the gap. And if the child does not obtain grade-level, it is highly unlikely that they will ever obtain a high school diploma much less have an opportunity to pursue post-secondary education.


How does the Crossnore Academy charter school cater to the specific needs of these students?

We operate with a modified year-round school calendar. Small student to teacher ratios are pivotal to our ability to meet the individual needs of children. One of our seniors said it best when she explained, “You can’t hide and you can’t be a slacker in a class with only eight or ten other students.” 


We have harnessed technology to help individualize instruction that ranges from diagnostic and prescriptive remediation in core competencies to accessing online foreign language classes. The Wayne Densch Education Building has wireless access and every child has a lap top computer. Our students have been provided school uniforms for several years. 


In an effort to help reduce depression inherent in abused, abandoned and neglected children, the Wayne Densch Education Building was designed to provide lots of natural light with every classroom having a wall of windows and a door to the outside. Skylights bring in natural light to the interior of the school. 


Since the school and academy are so strongly linked, how does that shift the role of faculty in the children’s lives?

The children’s teachers are their sages, their mentors, their positive role models, their cheerleaders and perhaps most importantly – their sign posts – pointing them upward and onward. 


Samantha, a precious and vivacious young lady, 17 years old, that has lived and learned with us in this incredible community for five years had this to say about her school and a special teacher -- “I was behind in school when I came,” explains Samantha. “The smaller class sizes have made the biggest difference for me. Here you get lots more one on one help that you sometimes need. You really get to know the teachers and they get to know us.” Samantha further elaborated, “And the teachers are awesome. For example, Mrs. Massee is so dedicated, she lays down the law, loves to talk so we get along great and she insists we do our work and do it well,” says Samantha with a smile. “When you are in a classroom of eight students, you can’t get away with much and you certainly can’t hide!” she adds with a laugh. 


As a home for children, how does Crossnore differ from other state-run facilities?

Unlike a residential treatment center that provides temporary environments in which mental health care is primary, Residential Education programs like Crossnore School emphasize academic and life skills achievement. 


Moreover, a major goal in Residential Education is to create an environment as much like a healthy home as possible. Thus, Residential Education programs are committed to providing longer lengths of stay which promote stability and community in a family-like setting. Children who live in one setting, with the same adults, for a longer period of time experience a greater sense of connection and belonging. 


Crossnore’s campus has been redesigned in the last decade to be a village or neighborhood of lovely homes for the students. The children live in cottages of 8 to 10 students with primarily couples serving as “houseparents” or resident counselors in the role of surrogate parents. We are passionate about keeping sibling groups living together in the same cottage. Having mixed ages and mixed gender cottages create more natural homelike settings too.


My students explain it best. “I can’t say enough about my cottage parents Mark and Lora,” shares 17 year old Samantha. “They have encouraged me so much and have helped me to know Christ as well as develop plans for college. I think of them as my own parents. I have been with them almost my entire five years. I was in 10 foster homes and a group home before coming to Crossnore. They treat me and all the girls like their daughter. Their little girl, Julian, has also brought so much joy to my life and even their newborn infant son from the very beginning was introduced to us like, ‘Here’s your big sister Samantha, here’s your big sister Destiny …’ as he met all of the girls in our cottage,” Samantha adds.


Is there a religious affiliation to the organization?

We were founded as a Christian boarding school although we have no denominational affiliation. Inherent in the Christian faith is the concept of forgiveness. We believe helping children learn to forgive those who have hurt them is the giant step they must take to bring about deep healing from trauma in their lives.


Considering that a cottage has been named in your honor, you clearly share a strong history with Crossnore School and Academy.  What has been your most rewarding moment working at Crossnore?  What has been your most challenging?

Rewarding and challenging moments are intertwined. One of the most rewarding and memorable moments was at the dedication ceremony for the Phyllis Crain Cottage on February 14, 2004. I was in the midst of a $6 million dollar capital campaign when in October 2001 I sneezed and it broke my back. I was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer with metastasis to my spine, ribs, left clavicle and the femur neck of the right hip bone. As described by the spine specialist, the lumbar region of my spine was ‘moth eaten’ by the cancer. I was given 12 to 18 months to live. 


Having already surpassed the prognosis by a several months and probably thinking I was running quickly out of time, our Board of Trustees surprised me at our December 2003 meeting with the announcement that this cottage would be named for me. We had not only met our capital campaign goal, we had exceeded it by one million dollars. 


When someone important had begun to speak at the ribbon cutting ceremony, a young Crossnore girl, that was excited about moving into the new cottage later that day, poked me in the ribs and whispered rather loudly and in a puzzled tone, “Dr. Crain, I thought you had to be rich or dead to have a building named after you.” I began to giggle almost uncontrollably and whispered to her – “Actually, I’m neither, thank God. Perhaps they thought I would be dead by now. Oh well, I hope the board is not disappointed!” We hugged and giggled together once more and then cut the ribbon. 


While I still travel to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas for regular check ups and scans, amazingly there has been no active cancer cells in my body for approximately three years. In my seventh year of ongoing treatment, I am amazed that I am still vertical and healthy enough to be the advocate these hurting children deserve. Amazing Grace!


When considering both the school and the academy, what are you most proud of?

Neither. I am most proud of the resiliency of the children and youth in our care. I marvel at and celebrate their ability to go from almost walking in fetal position when they are first placed with us to within a few short months smiling, happy, self-confident children and youth; walking with their shoulders back and heads up, riding their bikes, discovering there are adults they can trust, able to give adults eye-contact, thriving in a healthy family environment and making giant strides in learning. 

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