On a quiet hilltop where cattle once roamed sits Carolina International School’s brand new building.
The exterior is graced by the same mossy green and burnt-amber hues as a maple tree’s foliage in autumn.
Opened in time for the new school year, the $10 million, 60,000-square-foot facility in Concord is surrounded by slightly more than 80 acres of peaceful serenity.
The chirping crickets and rustle of the wind as it blows through the tall grasses reduce the noise of Poplar Tent Road traffic below to a faint, far-off hum.
Although it’s the oldest charter school in Cabarrus County (it opened originally in 2004), CIS in many ways shines as new as the other charters that have sprouted nearby in recent years.
The school is at a sprawling new location, with two ponds, meadows and woodsy groves.
The school also is run by a new headmaster. Together with a community of teachers, parents, children and board members, he is eager to plow forward with new plans for the future while learning from its past.
“I see quality going on here. This is a vibrant place,” said David Kukielski, who began work as headmaster Sept. 2, the first day of the new school year for students and staff.
Kukielski’s tenure as an educator lags seven years behind his peers, who began their careers right out of college. Kukielski spent that time as a Catholic priest, tending to parishioners at the two churches he served.
“I loved being a priest,” said Kukielski, who eventually left the church in the early 1980s after contemplating his feelings about the celibacy vows priests must take.
A friend recommended him for a position teaching Latin to middle-schoolers at Atlanta International School, a 30-year-old private school. Kukielski took the job, finding a new career that ignited a passion for teaching.
“I stumbled into education, and I’m glad I did,” he said. He taught at the school for 11 years before moving into administrative positions elsewhere.
Kukielski was drawn to CIS because of its emphasis on creating citizens who think globally, not just locally.
“We want people who are going to be capable of positively contributing to the world as a citizen of the world,” he said.
Parents often are drawn to the school for the same reason.
“The children are learning so much about the entire earth – all the cultures that are all across the planet,” said Jennifer Henri of University City. “They are innately developing a high tolerance for everybody, no matter what their background.”
CIS’s teachers represent several countries, including Kenya, India, Bolivia and China. Classrooms pair off with sister cities in other countries to learn their cultures, languages and current events.
The school has added an international studies coordinator this year to manage and design even more lessons and projects for teacher and student use.
Henri’s children, a fifth-grader and a seventh-grader, came to Carolina International School from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Henri said she thought the district was too large to be effective.
CIS has 700 students in kindergarten through 11th grade, and it plans to add 12th grade next year. Total enrollment will be capped at 1,000 students.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has a student population of 145,000, while Cabarrus County Schools enrolls 30,000.
Henri, who said she prefers a smaller, more intimate classroom setting, said CIS is a better fit for her children. Classroom sizes are kept small, with a maximum of 22 students for each kindergarten and first grade and as many as 24 students for second grade and up.
“It’s a charter school, but to me, I call it a free private school,” said Henri.
The school’s board members have been careful to keep the school small, cautiously growing it at a snail’s pace after financial troubles almost closed it in its early years.
In 2007, the school’s finance officer embezzled more than $180,000 from its coffers and failed to make any payments on employee taxes. The latter caused a tax lien of $600,000 against the school.
Most of the embezzled funds were recouped through an insurance policy, but the school remained responsible for repaying the $600,000. It made the final payment in 2009.
“It’s pretty amazing we’re even here … that we survived the financial issues,” said Scott Elliott, a security bond underwriter and the school board’s chairman.
“Being in the financial world, if the school had been one of my clients, I would’ve told them to shut down. There’s no way you could survive.”
Today, a system of checks and balances works to prevent the same kind of disaster from recurring. CIS uses both a regional accountant (a certified public accountant) and a third-party bookkeeping service. It maintains its board makeup as an equal mix of educators and business people.
None of those safeguards were in place in 2007.
The financial upheaval was a painful chapter that has kept the school’s decision-makers wary when considering growth.
“We’ve been real cautious, and I think that’s going to be our approach going forward,” said Elliott. “If we have the demand and if we know we can fund it, we will build it. But until we are certain, we’re not going to do that.”
In the meantime, Kukielski said, he is happy to work with all the school already offers.
“I plan to take what’s in place and enhance it,” he said, brainstorming such ideas as expanding the school’s field trip program to offer overseas options and creating a farm on a portion of the land for educational use. “The possibilities are endless.”