East Wake Academy is asking the State Board of Education for permission to increase its enrollment by nearly 40 percent in response to a growing demand by families wishing to send their children to school there.
Having that approval in place would allow the public charter school to explore an expansion that school leaders say would begin no sooner than fall 2017, and would either involve adding to its existing Zebulon site or pursuing a new campus in Knightdale.
“We have not yet looked into locations in Knightdale – that is in the very early discussion stages,” said East Wake Academy Superintendent Stephen Gay. “At the (school) board level, we said yes, we would look at this (Knightdale) option, and that’s the latest on that.
“It’s all about what ifs at this point. What if we could do this, or that?”
Gay expects the enrollment request will go before the state school board in February. He said he anticipates the request will be approved because EWA has met growth requirements in academics, is financially sound and is in good standing with the state.
East Wake Academy opened a new, 24,000-square-foot middle school academy for grades 5-8 just before Thanksgiving. The $4.3 million structure was financed through a USDA rural development loan.
The new building will allow the school to remove two of its four modular buildings in the coming months, but did not increase the school’s capacity of about 1,200.
The school has added an average of 25 students per year over the past three years to reach its current enrollment of 1,146. At that rate, the school would reach near full capacity by the start of the 2017-18 school year.
The explanation shown for EWA’s request on a list of all charter school expansion and enrollment increase requests to the state for 2016-17 is that it has a waiting list of 800.
The school could increase its enrollment to 1,375 without state approval, which is not required for increases of up to 20 percent for charter schools. But EWA wants to increase its enrollment cap by 454 students, for a total of 1,600.
If the state OKs the request, Gay said the school leaders would begin considering locations in Knightdale to weigh that option against expanding the existing campus.
There is plenty of room to expand at the Zebulon site. Gay estimated the existing structures take up a little more than half of the 32-acre property.
On the other hand, a new location in Knightdale would be a closer option for about 250 students from that area who attend EWA. It would also allow the school to draw new students from the west and free up space at its main site to serve more families from the eastern side of its five-county market.
“We’re at our max, so to expand, we see that as a great opportunity,” Gay said. “We have a great product and Knightdale is a growing area and we’re a prime prospect for that area.”
More to consider
Expansion, one way or another, has long been in East Wake Academy’s plans.
Gay said plans for Thales Academy, a private school coming to the Knightdale Station area, and other charter schools around Knightdale may have pushed discussion to the forefront but were not major factors in EWA’s consideration of a new location there.
Cardinal Charter Academy had hoped to open a Knightdale location in the fall but town leaders recently denied a rezoning request for the proposed site of the K-12 school off Poole Road, citing traffic concerns for the basis of their decision. That school is now looking for a new site with plans to open for the 2017-18 school year.
What EWA’s initial presence would be in Knightdale if it branches there is still uncertain – whether it would pursue a K-12 facility or start with an elementary school to serve about 450 students, matching the enrollment request. Some of that decision, Gay said, will hinge on optimizing use and meeting needs at the Zebulon campus.
Gay said the school will keep its entire K-12 operation running in Zebulon, making any potential Knightdale facilities duplicates of the existing academies.
That would be rare, but not unheard of, for a charter school that sprouted out of community interest. Gay pointed to Lincoln Charter, which offers kindergarten through high school in both Denver and Lincolnton, as an example of a similar arrangement.
“We’re both organic – we’re grown from people wanting to provide an educational choice,” Gay said. “It’s a model that’s probably going to start growing. It is rare, but it’s a model that can work.”