Johnston County

Smithfield schools seting example for collaboration

With Neuse Charter School in the background and the Smithfield-Selma High School sign in the foreground, Susan Pullium, left, executive director Neuse Charter, and Stephen Baker, principal of SSS, realize their schools can share more than just a street address.
With Neuse Charter School in the background and the Smithfield-Selma High School sign in the foreground, Susan Pullium, left, executive director Neuse Charter, and Stephen Baker, principal of SSS, realize their schools can share more than just a street address. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

The education community is having a great debate on schools of choice. Some see it as an issue of “us versus them,” but two schools in the Smithfield-Selma community are trailblazing a new mentality, one of “together we all succeed.”

“Many people don’t understand charter schools, why we exist or how we fit into the broad educational community,” said Susan Pullium, executive director of Neuse Charter School. “They might think we take resources from traditional public institutions, but on the contrary, we serve a viable need for parents and our communities at-large.”

As Johnston County’s first, and currently, only brick-and-mortar charter school, Neuse Charter shares many of the same state accountability and assessment requirements as traditional public schools, though it receives less per-pupil funding.

“We operate with freedom from many of the regulations that govern traditional schools,” Pullium said, “But we also operate without many of the resources, and that can present a multitude of challenges.”

While Neuse Charter is focused on showcasing an unparalleled academic curriculum for its student body, it cannot do some things that help build school spirit and community pride.

But together, Neuse Charter and its neighbor, Smithfield-Selma High School, are working together to leverage assets that ultimately benefit both schools and showcase a sense of cooperation to their student bodies.

“Students in Johnston County are all our students as a community, and what benefits one, regardless of attendance boundaries or schools, benefits all,” said Stephen Baker, principals of Smithfield- Selma High School.

In the past year, the two schools have demonstrated an ability to work across imaginary lines to better their extracurricular programs.

In January, when the K-12 charter school started working on its spring musical, “The Wizard of Oz,” it found a collaborator in the much larger school across the street.

“Smithfield-Selma High School’s Band performed a ‘Wizard of Oz’ show a few years ago,” said Leah Williams, Neuse Charter’s music and band teacher. “They offered to help us by loaning us some props.”

Smithfield-Selma also offered to loan Neuse its auditorium for the last week of rehearsals. But the musical’s munchkin population is bigger than the SSS stage, so the students will hold dress rehearsals in their own school gym before going live at Johnston County Community College on April 6.

“I can’t express how grateful we are that Smithfield-Selma High School would help us in this venture,” Williams said.

In the past, the traditional public high school has only shared a street address and some carpool traffic congestion with Neuse Charter. But with new leadership at the helm of the schools, administrators are looking at a partnership to benefit all students.

“Successful schools do not build a community of exclusion, but rather walk the walk of collaboration and partnerships, helping us all improve,” Baker said.

“Both schools exist to educate our youth and make them better global citizens,” said Pullium. “As leaders, we must demonstrate the qualities we teach. We lead by example so that these students truly understand what it means to work together for a common good.”

In addition to their collaboration in the arts, the two schools are also partnering in a more competitive arena – sports.

The Neuse Charter Cougars are a 1A school, while the Smithfield-Selma Spartans are 3A. Their students might see each other as they pass on Booker Dairy Road or as they workout on the practice fields and tracks at Smithfield Community Park. But it’s doubtful they’ll ever meet in a conference match or game.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t play each other or that mindsets can’t shift.

SSS volleyball coach Deanna Moore and Neuse Charter volleyball coach Gail Browning have a long-standing friendship and saw an opportunity for their teams to practice skills and prepare for the season last August.

“We scrimmaged our JV and varsity teams,” Browning said. “This was the first year we have had the scrimmage. The Neuse girls learned a lot and had a great time.”

Browning hopes the scrimmage between the schools is a first step in Neuse Charter being invited to join the preseason Johnston County Jamboree, where the smaller charter school would be able to compete against its larger school counterparts from across the county.

On March 29, the schools will showcase their girls’ soccer programs as they play each other for the first time in the Spartans’ stadium.

Baker knows the value of the lessons he’s imparting upon his staff and students by bridging the gap between the traditional public and public charter school.

“I believe we are on this earth to make a difference in the lives of others,” he said. “When I think about what that means, what does it look and sound like, one of the conclusions involves collaboration and partnerships. We will always be stronger when we work together. It is all about the future … our students.”