A half-dozen Southern Wake Academy students gathered in a corner of the gym’s bleachers for a volleyball match. The Lions took the court that fall afternoon against visiting Thales Academy of Apex.
Their school spirit was in the right place as they cheered on their classmates to a 3-0 sweep.
The wall above them was a perfect spot to paint or adorn a fan club sign that might read “The Lions’ Den” or “The Pride.”
But Southern Wake Academy, a public charter school in Holly Springs, is still a fledgling athletic program, so the walls are bare for now. It’s certainly too soon to hang championship banners. The gym is still pretty new.
Smaller charter schools such as Southern Wake and private schools such as Thales are alternatives for parents seeking a small environment for their sons and daughters.
“It’s a great school, and we have more school teams now,” said Daniel Seay, a Southern Wake sophomore soccer player attending the volleyball game. Seay has been attending the charter school since he was a seventh-grader.
“The classes are small,” he said. “It’s a primo job for the teachers.”
Just as colleges have long considered athletic programs the front door to view their school, Southern Wake and Thales are examples of small high schools that recognize the value of athletics to attract current as well as future students.
Southern Wake receives public funding and has free admission. Unlike traditional high schools, not all charter schools have athletic programs.
Since it opened in 2000, it has grown to a high school enrollment of 234 students. It began with a limited varsity athletics program that has expanded over the years. It now includes volleyball, boys and girls basketball, boys and girls cross country, boys and girls soccer and baseball. Other athletic department-sponsored programs are cheerleading and Ultimate Frisbee.
Thales Academy, a private school with an Apex campus, is new to the athletic scene. While the Apex campus opened five years ago, this is the first year for high school varsity teams.
Both schools are among the 40 schools in the Carolina Athletic Association for Schools of Choice. The governing body fits smaller and new schools still mapping out programs.
They compete in the Capital City Athletic Conference. They’re joined by a mix of other charter and private schools, including Triangle Math and Science in Cary, Mt. Zion Christian Academy in Durham, Thales-Rolesville, and a home school team, the Raleigh Hawks.
Building a program
Thales Academy opened its Apex location with kindergarten through fifth-grade classes. The junior high and high school building opened two years ago. Last year was the first year for middle school athletics. The facilities include a new gym and soccer field.
“This is my first year, and I enjoy how the girls are dedicated and hard-working,” said Thales coach Katherine Greco, who also is a humanities teacher. “I love the effort from them. They have improved so much.”
Thales organizes volleyball, boys soccer and boys and girls cross country in the fall; boys and girls basketball in the winter; and a girls soccer team in the spring if enough players come out for the team.
Thales expanded to the high school level when the original K-5 students wanted to remain at the school in middle school and beyond. More than 75 percent of the 70 high school students are freshmen and sophomores.
“Our kids had to leave to go to another school, and our administration received a lot of questions from parents taking tours of the school about athletics,” said Thales athletic director Jeff Bessler. “We want to provide a quality education and teach life lessons. It’s important to have an athletic program to retain kids at our school.”
Among the 50 or so fans in attendance at the game earlier this season – mostly on the home side – few if any were dressed in SWA spirit wear or the school colors. Such traditions have to be built with time, but there’s no lack of school pride as a cornerstone.
Southern Wake’s Andrew Ray, a sophomore on the soccer team, is new to the school. He previously attended Harnett Central, which competes in the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s large school 4A division for traditional public schools.
“My parents wanted me to come here for the environment,” Ray said. “I have some friends here, so that helped. I like it here.”