Education

Some school districts balk at charter schools. This one is embracing them.

Olivia Mir, far left, and Jilly Casey, far right, design the gear their team will need to compete in a Lego League Robotics competition as part of a club sponsored by their school, Neuse Charter in Johnston County. De’ovyun LeRouge, center, a high school senior who wants to pursue a career in computer programming, helps the girls as part of a volunteering program at the school.
Olivia Mir, far left, and Jilly Casey, far right, design the gear their team will need to compete in a Lego League Robotics competition as part of a club sponsored by their school, Neuse Charter in Johnston County. De’ovyun LeRouge, center, a high school senior who wants to pursue a career in computer programming, helps the girls as part of a volunteering program at the school.

Charter schools often spark heated debates about education funding, but such tensions are noticeably absent as Johnston County’s second charter school prepares to open next year.

Johnston Charter Academy will enroll about 600 students in kindergarten through seventh grade when it opens in Clayton in August. The school, which is part of National Heritage Academies, a for-profit company based in Michigan, already has so many applicants that admission will be decided by a lottery, school leaders say.

“We want to focus on developing the whole child,” said Ebony Haywood, chairwoman of the school’s board. “Sometimes educators are so busy preparing for tests, that gets lost sometimes.”

More charter schools have been opening across North Carolina since the state legislature lifted a 100-school cap in 2011, but the only charter in Johnston County for the past decade has been Neuse Charter School in Smithfield.

Critics of charter schools say the schools take taxpayer money away from traditional public schools while being exempt from some rules, such as providing transportation and meals for students.

Wake County school leaders say competition from charter schools has led to slower-than-expected growth in the state’s largest school system. Leaders in the Durham Public Schools have complained for years about the large number of charter schools in the county.

But so far, the attitude toward charter schools in more-rural Johnston County is more relaxed. Supporters here say charter schools provide families more education options, and a healthy dose of competition pushes all schools to think outside the box and borrow good ideas.

“We embrace options for kids,” said Eddie Price, deputy superintendent of Johnston County Public Schools. “Kids need to have options, and parents need to have options. I see it as a positive thing. It’s competition, in that it makes us reflect on our practices, but we want all kids to find an area where they can be successful.”

Neuse Charter School, which enrolls students in kindergarten through 12th grade, opened in 2007 and regularly turns away students because there aren’t enough seats. Last year, Neuse Charter gained 271 new students, nearly double the number from the five previous years.

Neuse Charter is across the street from Smithfield-Selma High School, a traditional public school. The schools’ volleyball and basketball teams compete in scrimmage matches, and the schools partner on community college programs and have invited students to career fairs and military appreciation days.

“We complement each other,” said Susan Pullium, executive director of Neuse Charter School. “We’re all here to make sure our students have excellent learning opportunities. We’re all pulling in the same direction, so let’s not get in each other’s way. I’m thankful we’re putting the students first instead of the politics.”

Neuse Charter School students did better academically than students in nearby traditional schools during the 2015-16 school year. But Johnston County school leaders say they are working hard to catch up, and part of the strategy includes adopting ideas first pioneered by charters.

“We all borrow from one another,” Price said. “We want kids to be successful. We want to partner with folks.”

In August, the county opened Innovation Academy at South Campus in Smithfield, a middle school whose mission is to personalize learning to individual students. The district also started career, technical and leadership academies in conjunction with Johnston Community College and is piloting a program that allows struggling students to take evening or online courses.

Rachel McMorrow attended an information session last month for Johnston Charter Academy. Her three children will be in kindergarten, first grade and seventh grade next year.

“Being a mom, I want to get my kiddos the best possible education I can,” McMorrow said. “I think this might be a better fit for them.”

Autumn Linford writes stories about Johnston County for The News & Observer. Email her at autumnlinford@gmail.com.

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