The local test is over for Johnston County’s second charter school, with only state approval yet to go before students begin classes next fall.
The Clayton Town Council last week signed off on Johnston Charter Academy’s plan to build its school next to the Walmart on U.S. 70 Business.
Johnston Charter Academy received the green light from the state’s charter school office earlier this year, and if the state board of education OKs a 2017 opening, it will join Neuse Charter in Smithfield as the county’s only independent public schools. It will open with kindergarten through sixth grades and will add seventh and eighth grades in each of the next two years, with enrollment topping out in 2019 at 772 students.
Johnston Charter Academy will be a National Heritage Academies school, the 11th in North Carolina. The Michigan-based charter school corporation operates 83 schools across the country, with a total enrollment of 56,000 students across nine states.
Clayton Mayor Jody McLeod appeared happy to welcome the school to town.
“I’m very pleased and I’m very excited about this project,” McLeod said.
The school will be a two-story, 47,000-square-foot building to the east of Financial Drive. Johnston Charter Academy will build on eight acres of a 67-acre tract lying between Walmart and the ABC store. The campus will have two playgrounds, sports fields and a serpentine driveway that can accommodate a mile’s worth of parents picking up or dropping off their children. Town planner Jay McLeod said the lengthy drive is needed because charter schools do not offer transportation, meaning everyone is a car rider.
The building itself will be largely earth-tone siding with elements of brick and stone around the entrance and in sections around the building.
During a Clayton Planning Board meeting in October, Councilman Bob Satterfield voiced his concern that in computer models, the school’s rear didn’t match its front, with the brick elements omitted where out of sight.
At last week’s council meeting, Bob Dunston of National Heritage Academies said he preferred to put money in the classroom rather than the exterior. He showed the council two models, one with brick on all four sides, one with no brick on the back side.
“All the brick on the southern end is going to back up to a swamp that no one is going to see; no one is ever going to look at that,” Dunston said. “I always do some diligence. I prefer to put money into books for kids than bricks on buildings, and that’s just the truth.”
This time of year, plenty of families are hiding the bare spot of the Christmas tree against the wall. Mayor McLeod said he wasn’t buying the argument that it’s either bricks or books for the students and said it was important to him that the school have a complete design.
“They’re kind of getting away from books in education now,” McLeod said. “Everything is so digital. We don’t need to buy a lot of books for the library because everything is so digital. So I’m not exactly buying into you mentioning you’d rather buy books than bricks.”
Dunston continued, suggesting the school’s mission is in the building, not on the outside.
“Whether you buy books or do something else for the students, I’d rather do that,” Dunston said. “They don’t care how many bricks are on the building. They care more about teachers.”
The decision was left to the council’s discretion, and Johnston Charter Academy will have brick on all four sides.
“I’m very much appreciative of the investment it would take to make it look wonderful in all 360 perspective,” McLeod said. “So far this is a very first-class operation. The (previous rear design) is not first class. That’s a cost saving, throwing up some siding. But the second one, with the brick, it really creates a cohesive-looking building, and it will be a true asset out in that region, for sure.”
To pass by Financial Drive on any afternoon or evening is to see the eastbound left turn lane full of cars with their blinkers on. A traffic study and review by the N.C. Department of Transportation concluded that the increased traffic from the school will not need a traffic light at the intersection. The turn lane will be extended to 500 feet.
Johnston Charter Academy is currently in its planning year. The state board of education will determine next year whether the school will be ready to open in August.