When he got out of the car in Smithfield, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr saw two schools and believed he could tell the difference between them.
Across Booker Dairy Road sat the large, low campus of Smithfield-Selma High School, while in front of him rose the glass façade of Neuse Charter School.
“This looks like a higher-education building,” Burr said of Neuse Charter, the school he was in town to tour. “This is commercially sellable – that’s not.”
Burr was in Johnston County to meet with elected leaders and the county’s economic-development team. He stopped by Neuse Charter, he said, because a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan helped make the school possible and because of the school’s reputation for large-scale success.
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“This is one of the great success stories of the state,” Burr said. “Simply with what they’ve been able to do with a school this large.”
Burr said he was taken most of all by the school’s building, saying environment can set the tone for how students learn. He pointed again to SSS, not as the school with well-documented struggles, but as one representing all traditional public schools.
“I’m blown away,” Burr said. “If you look across the street and see a traditional high school, it looks like every other high school. This is designed very differently. It looks more like a university than a K through anything. I think that’s part of sending a different message.”
With trailers sitting behind Neuse Charter’s main building, school director Julie Jailall said she just needs more money to continue the school’s growth. Neuse boasts an enrollment of 860 students, with a 260-student wait list.
“Our scores are well above the state average; we’re doing more with less,” Jailall said. “Can you imagine what we could do if we were fully funded?”
Charter schools receive fewer state dollars than traditional public schools, but they also operate differently – they don’t offer transportation or meals, so they don’t have those costs.
Burr said it was doubtful charter schools would gain a bigger slice of the state’s school-funding pie, but he said independent public schools offer a proving ground for all levels of education.
“This serves as a model for North Carolina and traditional schools to look at and perhaps figure out how to change,” Burr said.
Johnston could have two more charter schools by 2017, offering more options for families seeking something outside of the traditional public schools. Burr said charter schools didn’t hurt or help Johnston’s traditional system; they simply represent something different.
“If everyone has the opportunity for a good education, either in public, private or charter schools, then we’ve succeeded,” he said.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson