A new Raleigh charter school intent on expanding the possibilities of students challenged by disabilities celebrated with an open house Saturday.
The Dynamic Community Charter School on Munford Road is the first charter school in North Carolina that focuses of young people with intellectual, social or developmental disabilities.
Parents, board members and staff at Saturday’s event all touted a school where children with those disabilities have a voice, instead of being marginalized.
“I don’t know the best way to say this, but a lot of the public schools don’t want these children,” said Mike Watkins, the school’s principal. “It takes a lot of patience. It takes out-of-the-box thinking.”
Watkins paused, then scrolled through his cellphone photos for a picture of a teacher lying on the floor beside a student in one of the charter school classrooms.
“The student comes to class and he lays on the ground. She laid on the ground with him and taught him. I say, ‘Let’s go with that.’ Let’s get down on their level.”
The white-columned, red-brick school has been open only a month but success stories are already starting to emerge.
Brian Williams, a 47-year-old technology consultant, home-schooled his son Travis from the first through eighth grades. Travis started ninth grade at Dynamic last month.
Williams said his son is highly articulate, but he struggles with a learning disability that affects his writing.
“He struggles getting what’s in his head on paper,” Williams said. “If he had to write a paragraph, it would lead to a meltdown stage.”
Williams recently arrived from work to his Apex home and discovered his son had written two full pages of what he had been thinking.
“He’s joined the school’s newsletter,” Williams said, his voice tinged with wonder.
The idea for the school was launched two years ago by Diane Morris, an editor and writer with the N.C. Justice Center. She is a married mother of two sons who both have autism. While attending public schools, the boys were largely confined to self-contained classrooms, with little or no interaction with other students from kindergarten through third grade.
“They brought home the same exact worksheet, year after year after year,” Morris said. “I wanted to give them an opportunity to truly learn. They had great teachers but the (public school) system wasn’t conducive to helping them explore who they really are.”
The charter school opened the same day as schools on the traditional calendar year for Wake County Public Schools.
Morris and others designed an educational plan built on the concept of “project-based learning,” with the goal of developing real-world skills, beyond math and science.
“You teach them in whatever way possible,” said Amy Cameron, an Apex therapist and Dynamic school board member. “These kids want to learn so bad. They just can’t take in information like everybody else. What’s going to become of them if we don’t do this?”
There was a consensus at Saturday’s open house: A community came together to make the dream of a school that embraces special-needs children a reality.
“Parents gave up their Saturdays to install air conditioning, make drywall repairs and (do) yard work,” Watkins said. “Another volunteer put in the phone system and another is installing the technology.”
“Grandmamas cleaning window blinds,” Cameron added.
Watkins agreed. “Without the community we would not be a school,” he said. “That’s why we had to go with the name Dynamic Community.”
It all started in 2012 when Morris emailed a message to parents who have children with special needs. She asked, who wants to start a charter school? The response was impressive enough for them to consider the next step: completing an application with the N.C. State Board of Education.
The state approved the application early last year. Supporters found a building to lease, hired teachers and employees, and filed paperwork with a number of state agencies.
“It was an enormous amount of work,” she said.
And not without challenges. In June, the state released a report that said Dynamic was among eight charter schools that had made only “slight progress” toward opening this fall. State officials had concerns about the school’s reliance on fundraising and the need to find a building after rental plans fell through.
The school found the building at 5510 Munford Road, formerly a nursing home that was built in 1960. The Dynamic community raised more than $105,000 in 30 days and transformed the building into a school that houses 72 students in grades six through 10.
The school has been designed with the needs of the children in mind. Class size averages 11 students with one teacher and a teacher’s assistant. Some classes have two teacher assistants.
The classrooms use lamps and natural lighting for students with sensory issues.
Cameron pointed to a room where students who are acting out or having a difficult day can go to take a break. The room, called the “Dragon’s Lair,” has sofas, exercise balls, bean bags and a small trampoline.
“We’re trying to give them a place where they can calm down,” Cameron said. “And they can go back to class when they are ready.”
Travis Williams, the ninth-grader, spent his day at the open house with his dad’s camera, snapping pictures for the school newsletter.
Asked what he liked most about the school, he answered, “The people.”
“It’s a really nice place,” he said. “The other kids are way more accepting than any other kids I’ve met. It’s high fives and hugs and they don’t even know my name.”