News: CJ Exclusives

At Thales Academies, Affordability Buys Academic Excellence

Private schools with $5,000 tuition offer new vehicle for school choice

Carlene Sumner moved to Wake County from Utah in 2007 with high hopes for her sons’ educational prospects. “We were hearing Wake County had the best school system in the country. We were thrilled,” said Sumner. The process of enrolling her oldest child, Isaac, in public kindergarten proved to be fraught with difficulty, however.

“We were moving into a new home that was not going to be finished until after the school year started. We tried to put Isaac in the public school where we were going to be living,” Sumner said. But school officials balked, telling Sumner her son could not enroll until after the family closed on a home. Even then, Sumner learned, ongoing student reassignments meant Isaac would not be guaranteed a spot in the neighborhood public school.

Subsequent efforts to enroll Isaac in a charter school were unsuccessful. Unfamiliar with the rush for charter school openings, Sumner missed most admissions deadlines. She did get an application in on time for the lottery at the popular Franklin Academy charter school, but like many other students, Isaac was placed on the wait list. An offhand, but fortuitous, conversation with another parent finally led Sumner to Thales Academy.

The brainchild of Raleigh businessman Bob Luddy, Thales Academy opened in 2007. Situated in Wake Forest, the school is the first installment of what Luddy expects will be a network of 25 to 50 affordable private schools. In October, Thales students moved into a permanent facility, constructed for a fraction of the cost of a conventional public school.

A second Thales Academy opened in Apex in September; students were scheduled to move from temporary quarters to a permanent school building in mid-December. Three other Thales schools are in development, said Luddy; the next will be situated in north Raleigh.

Enrollment is growing rapidly. Last year, the Wake Forest school had 60 students; this year, 160 pupils attend. Advertising has been minimal, said Annie Roach, Thales’ public relations administrator, but “we get applications every single day.” Both Thales locations offer kindergarten through fifth grade. At full capacity, each school will serve 432 students in grades K-8.

Another route to educational choice

Initially, Luddy had looked to charter schools as a viable way to serve families seeking educational options. Ten years ago, he founded one of the state’s top-performing charter schools, Franklin Academy. A state-designated public “school of excellence,” Franklin Academy has enjoyed enormous success since its inception.

Demand for charter schools continues to mount, but the General Assembly has failed to raise the 100-school statutory cap. So Luddy has targeted the low-cost, private Thales model – with tuition set at $5,000 per student – as another route to school choice.

Like Franklin Academy, Thales Academies employ Direct Instruction, a teaching method that “emphasizes well-developed and carefully planned lessons designed around small learning increments and clearly defined and prescribed teaching tasks,” according to the National Institute for Direct Instruction.

Focused instruction and flexible pace help kids learn

At Thales, the format and pace of instruction work synergistically to keep kids engaged. “Direct Instruction is clear and comes in small bursts of information….It requires all students to pay attention all the time,” said Luddy.

“I like how structured it is – there’s not a lot of time for getting off the beaten path, but yet the kids can still have a lot of fun with their learning,” Sumner said. Such intensive academic focus, joined by student enthusiasm, begets success: Isaac started kindergarten last year at Thales “knowing all of his letters,” Sumner said. By year’s end, he was “reading at the third grade level.”

Students at Thales are grouped according to ability, a boon to precocious and struggling students alike. Carol Steckbeck, whose son Greg is a fourth-grader at Thales in Apex, said this practice helps teachers “better accommodate students’ abilities, either to advance or catch up.” Flexible tracking has already benefited Greg. His computational competencies have landed him in fifth-grade math. Thales uses the well-regarded Saxon math curriculum, just like Greg’s former private school in Michigan. Steckbeck said it’s “one of the biggest reasons” she chose Thales.

Parents are also drawn to what Luddy described as a “very good culture of civility and fairness and respect” at Thales. Students attend “character club” at the school and help out in the community. “At Thales, kids love their teachers. I don’t see disrespect,” Sumner said.

Thales’ academic program attracts families from all educational backgrounds. Homeschooled students come “mostly because of curriculum,” Roach said. Still others make the switch from another private school. Constant reassignments, long bus rides, and safety concerns at public schools cause some parents to seek out spots at Thales.

“Half of the parents in our school have had children in the Wake County Public School System, said Kent Misegades, chairman of the board of trustees for the Apex campus. Overall, the “primary lure” at Thales “is academics,” Luddy said. Roach agreed: “We offer a specific type of education. That’s our best asset.”

Affordability a “huge factor”

A Thales education features a manageable price tag, a major consideration for scores of families. “Affordability is a huge factor. If it wasn’t affordable, I wouldn’t see as many families attending,” Sumner said. In addition to modest tuition, Thales offers parents a sibling discount and financial aid when needed.

While Wake County boasts a cadre of excellent private schools, the cost to attend them often falls outside the range of affordability, Luddy said. Annual tuition at some Wake County private schools nears $20,000, quadruple the cost of a year at Thales. As a result, “schools like Thales are filling a very important market niche,” Luddy said.

For Sumner, a once seemingly endless quest for the right school has finally reached its happy conclusion: Isaac is flourishing in his second year at Thales. School selection the next time around will be refreshingly easy. Sumner’s younger son, Ethan, is poised to start kindergarten at Thales in 2009.

“If we had any other kids,” Sumner said, “they’d go to Thales.”

Kristen Blair is a contributor to Carolina Journal.