Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — Is the private sector the solution for Wake County’s debacle over public school reassignment? One Raleigh businessman thinks so, and he’s getting help from community leaders and local elected officials to create an affordable private school alternative for families disillusioned with the government system.
Although Wake County is one of the fastest growing regions in the nation, private school enrollment has remained stagnant over the last three years. About 14,000 students attended Wake private schools during the 2006-2007 term, compared to 134,000 students enrolled in public schools this year.
Not every family can afford tuition payments, and those that can face fierce competition because of a backlog of applicants vying for openings at many area private schools. Bob Luddy, a business owner who launched the award-winning charter school Franklin Academy in 1998, wants to change that. His goal is to create an affordable, efficient free-market option that offers families a way out.
“The long-term goal is to build 25 to 50 private schools as models of what education could be on a larger scale,” Luddy said. “You can have one good private school, and everybody says, ‘So what?’ But if we had a larger number, then we could say this is a model that works in many communities.”
The Thales Academy in north Raleigh is based on the model Luddy hopes will catch on across the county. New schools are to open in Apex and Wake Forest this summer. With annual tuition costs of $5,000 and scholarships available for needy families, supporters envision the academies becoming a viable option for all Wake County parents.
The schools are modeled after the public charter school Franklin Academy, which has garnered praise from the state as a school of excellence. The idea for Thales Academy stemmed from the fight in the General Assembly to lift the 100-school cap on charter schools, Luddy said.
“We’ve looked at trying to expand charter schools for the last five years or more, and that has not developed,” he said, “so we decided that the only way to get this done is through the private sector, and that’s where Thales Academy came from.”
The concept is gaining support from elected officials, such as Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly, who said the town is cooperating as much as possible to ensure that a Thales Academy will open there in September.
“Demand for private and charter school options is through the roof,” Weatherly said. “The demand much exceeds the supply. This certainly is a much-needed product in Wake County.”
Total construction costs for elementary schools in Wake County are $161.33 per square foot, a rate higher than the average cost of elementary schools in comparable districts around the country, according to a report published in April 2007.
“It’s out of control,” Luddy said of spending on public schools. “It lacks economic calculations. If there is no economic calculation, there is no control of cost.”
Construction costs for a Thales Academy in Apex are expected to be $3.2 million for a two-story school, with only the first floor built out. The school will be situated on a three-acre parcel of land donated by the private firm Apex First Development. When fully completed, the school will be K-8 and hold 432 students.
Expenses are kept at a minimum, thanks to efficient construction and operating methods, according to Kent Misegades, a businessman and chairman of the board of trustees for the Apex Thales Academy. Eliminating extras such as cafeterias, large athletic fields, buses, and large parking lots help to keep costs down, he said.
That, in turn, makes tuition more affordable. “We believe that most residents in the Apex and Cary communities will be able to afford sending their children to Thales,” Misegades said. “A scholarship fund has been established to help those who cannot. Considering that Wake County spends approximately $9,000 annually for each child attending public schools, Thales provides an economical alternative.”
Another factor that distinguishes Thales Academy from traditional public schools is the teaching approach. Most students at the north Raleigh school perform at least one full grade above their counterparts in the public system, according to Suzanne Lambert, headmistress of the school.
Effective discipline policies, parental involvement, and smaller class size make a difference. “It gives us the opportunity to make sure we’re meeting the needs of each individual student and making sure we’re meeting those needs the best way, the most appropriate way,” she said.
For teaching, Thales Academy uses Direct Instruction, a method that relies on a structured learning environment and scripted lesson plans. This allows teachers to better evaluate whether students are mastering the material and to accelerate or decelerate the process depending on their needs, Lambert said.
“The Direct Instruction method is extremely effective,” said J. J. McNamara, a resident of north Raleigh and parent of a second-grader at Thales Academy. “Our child is way ahead of where she would have been had she been elsewhere.”
McNamara is one of many parents pleased with the Thales model. He and his wife began searching for private school options because of uncertain reassignment schedules in public schools.
“As new residents, we felt misled by the Wake County website and the real estate agents,” McNamara said. “What we didn’t realize was that they wanted our kindergartener to be on a bus for 45 minutes to an hour one way. For a 5-year-old, we thought that was excessive.”
When the McNamaras heard about plans to open a community-based private school nearby, they immediately jumped on board.
“We have nothing but positive things to say, from the curriculum to cost to the staff and teachers and everything in between, it’s just been one good thing after another,” McNamara said.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.