Editor’s note: National Charter School Week is celebrated nationwide the first week of May. This week raises awareness for the strong parental demand for school choice. It coincides with teacher appreciation week. Public charter schools are intended to be a catalyst for change and serve as small scale labs testing out new approaches in education. If the model proves successful, it will likely be replicated across other schools both public charter and public traditional. Given their limitations on growth, public charter schools will not replace traditional public school models, but rather serve as a complementary option. One Johnston County School not only celebrates this week, but reaches a major milestone in public charter education this year.
Charting a New Course
In the early 1990s, a movement was started in Minnesota that allowed educators to reinvent traditional public school systems. Public charter schools began as a way to rethink traditional classroom norms and invoke new ideas in order to help students achieve and thrive in a new education paradox. In the mid-90s, North Carolina passed a charter school law. Since that time, more than 167 charter schools have opened across the state serving at population of roughly 90,000 students.
This year, Johnston County’s first public charter school, Neuse Charter, celebrates a milestone of 10 years as a school of choice serving families in Smithfield, Selma, Clayton, Benson, Four Oaks and across six different counties. While today’s Neuse Charter boasts a strong academic curriculum, growing infrastructure, full enrollment, solid extracurricular programs and sound external reviews, its early beginnings were a testament to the perseverance by a few parents and community leaders that wanted something different from the existing education system.
In late 2002, a Johnston County parent was having lunch with a friend whose children attended Magellan Charter School in Raleigh, one of the best ranked charters in the area. Todd Johnson said he was expressing his frustration over his, then, fifth-grade daughter not mastering many of the math skills he remembered doing as a third and fourth grader. His friend suggested he start a charter school in Johnston County.
“I soon found out there were a lot of other parents wringing their hands, wondering if their children would be properly equipped for college and the work force,” Johnson said.
Johnson, the original Neuse Charter Board chairman, took action creating momentum for a charter school among community leaders and working with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to understand the ins and outs of starting a school. He filed the incorporation papers in February 2003, but luck was not on his side.
“In hindsight, we should have waited another year. The first board did not have time to fully understand details outlined in the application and did not satisfactorily answer questions during our Charter School Advisory Committee interview at NCDPI in May 2003,” Johnson said. “We were denied and it was a huge disappointment.”
The idea was placed on the backburner until 2006, when a handful of parents and community leaders approached Johnson again about the idea.
“I was planning to file to run for public office, but decided to change my plans,” Johnson said. “School choice seemed to be the greatest public service I could offer my county, and my gut told me to try this charter school thing one more time.”
Johnson polled his original board and three members agreed to continue serving. Chris Johnson and David Johnson (no relations), and Zaida Partin all saw a charter school as a great need in the county. The four went to work adding a few more community and school leaders and parents with Davidson Neville, Dr. Ossie Fields, Lee Jackson, Marie Watson, Clayton Narron, Heidi Harris and David Goodine. The diverse, well-known and respected board, filed again in May 2006 and the charter was quickly granted.
Johnson served on the board until 2008 when he resigned his position to become a 6th grade teacher at Neuse Charter. During his tenure with the early board they were responsible for finding land, buildings, teachers and an administrator. Johnson gives a lot of credit to the Town of Selma for leasing the school its original land for an unheard of amount.
“In February 2007 Dave Neville convinced the Selma Town Council to lease it to us for $1 a year,” Johnson said. “The Town of Selma is due a huge debt of gratitude for making this space available at such a critical juncture. Without their kind gesture, the school could not have opened on time and could have been at risk of losing its charter.”
In the Fall of 2007, Neuse Charter School opened its doors to roughly 175 students.
Breaking Middle Ground
As Neuse Charter grew its model spurred interest in the surrounding communities. In 2008-09 it became a School of Distinction. The following year it was recognized by the state as a School of Excellence. Enrollment numbers soared and in 2011 the school moved from its location in Selma to its current location on Booker Diary Road.
Wendy Dunn, a parent who transferred her oldest child to Neuse Charter in 2012, was prepared to homeschool after being placed on the school’s wait list in 2011.
“We accepted the opportunity and have never regretted the decision as Neuse Charter has provided an environment in which students can single-subject accelerate and/or grade skip,” said Dunn. “This was an accommodation that our daughters desperately needed and it saves schools money. While these practices are highly recommended for high-ability students they are rarely implemented.”
Dr. Patricia Brady Harris led many of the initiatives of the school between 2008-2013. Enrollment boasted more than 600 students and grade levels were added allowing Neuse Charter to serve as a full elementary, middle and high school.
Chris Johnson, an original and still current board member, has seen many highlights in the school’s 10-year tenure listing opening day and finding the school’s current location as two major highlights. But the director for Economic Development for Johnston County also noted a major coup for the school was the opening of its newest building in 2014.
“We never wanted our students to feel ashamed of attending classes in educational cottages,” Chris Johnson said. “Securing the funds and having a state-of-the-art facility that our students were proud of was a big goal for us.”
During these years the school also put a heavier emphasis on academics ensuring that any graduates would receive a diploma “with honors” by bolstering the high school curriculum.
As the student body grew and the campus expanded, extracurriculars became a more storied part of the school.
Eric Brownlee, a parent and Smithfield business owner, served as the school’s first athletic director.
“My wife, Michelle, bought the first two basketballs,” Brownlee said. “I helped start the wrestling team four years ago. Tim Braswell and Hillary Leix followed and built a great athletic association.
The school continues to advance its athletic programs winning recognition in high school girls’ and boys’ basketball and wrestling and middle school volleyball. As a 1A conference school its reputation for strong scholar athletes continues to grow.
As athletics developed, students also found interest in programs like Odyssey of the Mind, band, drama and community service projects.
Angela Walker, an original Neuse Charter employee, has seen these changes first hand over the past 10-years. The data analyst took at chance on the new charter leaving behind a job at Southeast Magnet School in Raleigh.
“NCS has come a long way,” said Walker. “We started off with five units on a small piece of land in Selma, but look at us now. This school is a great family-oriented place to work and a wonderful place to send your child.”
The Path Ahead
Today, 10 years later, Neuse Charter School is looking ahead at a bright future. The school rated a B on the state’s annual report card, recently received a glowing recommendation for its 5-year accreditation renewal and received a 7-year renewal of its charter from the State Board of Education in February.
Susan Pullium, executive director for Neuse Charter, is responsible for leading the school into its next decade. With current enrollment at nearly 900 students and a teaching and administration staff totaling just more than 80, the new director is focused on making Neuse Charter not only a powerhouse in academics, but a household name among those that follow the charter school movement.
Over the next few years Pullium hopes to refine the academic approach at Neuse Charter to focus on student-centered learning. Her goal is to incorporate individualized learning plans for each student that will allow them to achieve their maximum potential without being limited to grade level structures.
Pullium also looks to strengthen partnerships throughout the community to benefit students.
“We want to develop an authentic service learning component for each student’s learning experience that culminates in a senior year capstone project,” said Pullium. “This will uniquely prepare our graduates for the rigors of college and university course work.”
Pullium is optimistic about the future noting that the school’s motivated teachers and dedicated professionals are ready to embrace student learning excellence…something that was a bit more of a challenge when the first board was looking to recruit skeptical teachers to a new school model.
“We will provide your student a learning experience found nowhere else in our community,” said Pullium. “Neuse Charter is dedicated to offering a rigorous and engaging experience that will challenge your students to reach their maximum potential from Kindergarten through high school graduation.”