Johnston County’s second charter school will be next-door neighbor to the Clayton Walmart, according to a site plan endorsed Monday by the town’s planning board.
The N.C. Board of Education approved Johnston Charter Academy in August, allowing the school to work toward a 2017 opening. The school will spend the next year hiring staff, including teachers, and building a facility.
Johnston Charter Academy will open with kindergarten through sixth grade and expand a grade per year until 2019, when it will top out at eighth grade. The maximum enrollment at that point will be 772 students.
The school is essentially a franchise of the National Heritage Academies model, which already has 83 schools across the country, including 10 in North Carolina. The Michigan-based company educates about 56,000 students in nine states.
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The two-story school building will be about 47,000 square feet and sit on around eight acres of the 67-acre Stephens property in between Walmart and the ABC store on U.S. 70 Business. The campus will have two playgrounds, athletic fields and a long, snaking car-ride queue.
“There’s a pretty significant amount of road throughout this school; there’s almost a mile-worth of car queuing for pick up and drop off,” town planner Jay McLeod said. “Charter schools don’t use buses, so they rely on parents to drop off and pick up kids every day, which leads to a pretty impressive drop-off and pick-up process.”
The school will stand at the end of Financial Drive, which won’t have a traffic signal at its intersection with U.S. 70 Business. Planning board member Stephen Powers pointed out that the school’s morning and afternoon bells could have an impact on the highway traffic, clogging up intersections as parents pick up or drop off their kids.
“You’ve got a 500-foot turning lane, and you’ve got a mile-worth of cars every day, 770 kids, probably not 770 cars, but it’ll be close to it,” Powers said. “What’s the plan for the afternoon when 200, to be conservative, are coming up to the highway and want to go left? That would be my concern.”
McLeod said the N.C. Department of Transportation signed off on the school’s traffic-impact plan, and traffic engineer Amy Giachario, who designed the school’s parking lot, said the arrival times of parents are generally spread out.
“Mainly I lay it out for the dismissal process,” Giachario said of the queue. “The parents come a half-hour or 45 minutes early, and they don’t come all at one time, so that’s why you don’t need mile-long storage lanes. They sporadically come in, and they all have to wait at dismissal time, so they start coming 45 minutes beforehand and line up through the site, so that’s why you need the whole mile-long queuing.”
Giachario described the pick-up procedure to sound something like an assembly line, where 12 cars at a time enter a pick-up zone for their kids to get in the car. When all 12 are loaded, those drive off and 12 more come in. She noted that the school day begins and ends at the same time for all grades.
The snake-like route of the parking queue caught the eye of planning board member Bob Ahlert, who worried that the considerable turning radius of a large fire truck might not be able to navigate the hairpin turns of the school’s parking lot. McLeod said the town’s fire marshal reviewed and signed off on the plan.
Bob Dunston, who made the school’s presentation to the planning board, said construction should take three to four months. Assuming the Clayton Town Council signs off on the school’s special-use permit later this year, Dunston said the contractor could break ground in January.
“If we stay on that schedule, we’ll absolutely meet the August opening date without any problem,” Dunston said.
Some members of the planning board expressed enthusiasm for the school coming to Clayton. The county’s only other charter, Neuse Charter in Smithfield, is wrapping up its first decade of existence, and Johnston Charter Academy looks to offer another option in the high-growth western end of Johnston.
“I’m excited about you coming,” planning board member James Lipscomb said. “I’m excited about another educational option.”
Other than traffic questions, the board found little to fault in the school plan. The planning board has the authority to approve site plans but also recommended the town council approve the school’s special-use permit to open an elementary school in Clayton.
“I think you can see that we’re very happy to have another school in the offering here in Clayton,” planning board chairman Frank Price said. “A charter school, it seems like every town needs one in this day and time.”