Wake County students, who have long enjoyed a wide array of public school options, are poised to get several more.
For the past three decades, they could attend a base school, which offers a general education. Or they could choose from magnet schools that offer lots of electives - from archery to classes in rap music and architecture.
On Tuesday, that menu got bigger - but not without some political resistance.
Wake schools officials approved a plan that, over the next few years, would expand options to include single-sex leadership academies, a science academy, a vocational high school and a schoolhouse that would cater to recent preschool graduates and middle school students.
"What you are seeing is a more strategic vision of student achievement and parent empowerment leading the way this district does business," said John Tedesco, vice chairman of the Wake County school board. "The variety of schools will help fill the needs of this entire diverse county."
The options were approved as part of a $130.3 million construction plan that Superintendent Tony Tata hopes will make schools more innovative, attractive and cost-efficient.
Tata pitched the proposal as a way to merge school facility and student assignment needs now that the state's largest school system is transitioning into a new plan that will let families will pick where they want to attend school from multiple options.
Tuesday's vote is the latest win for Tata, a retired Army general who took over as superintendent in January. He has spent months developing a new student-assignment plan - all while working to build consensus among a board that became gridlocked over that issue. The new student-assignment plan could win approval as early as next month. But many details still need to be addressed.
Tuesday's approval, Tata says, is a step in the right direction.
"We have a strong vision to efficiently spend taxpayer dollars, create more space and broaden our program offerings," Tata said.
The bulk of the $130.3 million will pay for a new high school in Apex, a new elementary school in Wake Forest and more classroom trailers and off-campus ninth-grade centers for crowded high schools.
But what drew the most discussion was Tata's attempt to expand the program offerings in Wake. Some board members felt Tata wanted them to approve the programs without adequate discussion.
The plan was approved on a 5-3 vote. Democrats Kevin Hill, Anne McLaurin and Carolyn Morrison voted against it.
McLaurin objected to the plan because the single-gender academies had not been discussed and approved separately from the vote on the construction package. "We haven't really made a decision as to whether to approve these academies," she said.
Democratic board member Keith Sutton, a proponent of the single-sex schools, crossed party lines to vote with Republicans.
A first for Wake
The two single-sex leadership academies and the expansion of Hilburn Elementary School to include middle school grades are scheduled to open for the 2012-13 school year.
The leadership academies are to accept students in grades 6-12, with boys attending the current Longview School on King Charles Road in Raleigh and girls attending Pilot Mill, near Peace College in central Raleigh. The schools are designed to ensure students' entry to college.
The system has had discussions about possible affiliations with N.C. State and Shaw universities, and Meredith, St. Augustine's and Peace colleges.
"We have locations, curriculums and strong visions for these programs," Tata said.
It would be a first for Wake. The National Association for Single-Sex Public Education estimates that only a little more than 500 schools nationally offer single-gender classes.
The single-gender academies were previously presented to the board using the examples of two single-gender schools in Guilford County, both of which have almost entirely black student bodies and cost roughly twice that county's per-pupil average.
Tata said the Wake schools would not be as expensive because they will make better use of under-used space. In addition, staff members said the population of the schools will reflect the demographics of the county as a whole.
Expanded science school
The addition of middle school grades to Hilburn is expected to fill the half-empty school while addressing the need for more middle school seats in northwest Raleigh. It would be the first K-8 school in Wake in decades.
The middle school grades will expand Hilburn's recently started science, math, engineering and technology theme with laptop computers for all the sixth- through eighth-graders. It's projected to cost $2.1 million to modify Hilburn to accommodate the middle school program.
Questions such as whether the middle school students will be on a traditional or year-round calendar still need to be resolved. The school system is conducting an online survey of families at Hilburn and those who may attend the middle school grades.
Still in the works
Not much detail has been provided on the science academy and the vocational school, officially called a career and technical education school, that are slated to open for the 2013-14 school year.
Tata has said he has talked with officials at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh about partnering with Wake for the science academy. The new school, which could be in downtown Raleigh, would serve elementary school students.
Creation of a vocational-themed school, which would focus on students who aren't planning to go to college, has been long discussed in Wake but never implemented. Individual Wake high schools have over the years scaled back vocational programs such as auto repair.
Tata said he's talked with Stephen Scott, the president of Wake Technical Community College, about partnering with the school district for the vocational school.
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