LUMBERTON — An alternative choice to public school education has just become more affordable to people in and around Robeson County.
Southeastern Academy, a private school located seven miles east of Lumberton on N.C. 41, has been granted a charter by the State Board of Education — becoming the county’s second charter school — that will go into effect in March. The charter will qualify the academy to receive state funding, allowing the school to open its doors to those in kindergarten through seventh grades who may have not had the $5,000-per-year tuition.
“The thing that’s exciting about this is it will offer a very unique opportunity to children in the area,” said Eddie Musselwhite, a founder of the school and a partner at Musselwhite, Musselwhite, Branch and Grantham law office in Lumberton. “I think that this will be very well-received … all indications are it will be pretty overwhelming.”
The state General Assembly recently lifted a cap of 100 on charter schools, which receive government funding and admit students free of charge. Charter school students take state-mandated tests, but teachers have more freedom in the way they teach.
Southeastern Academy, which has operated as a private school since 1991, will join 108 charter schools in North Carolina. It joins a charter school in Pembroke established in 1992 by Communities in Schools, a state-wide dropout prevention nonprofit. The CIS Academy is for students in seventh and eighth grades who are at risk of not completing their education.
According to Southeastern’s charter application, curriculum will be focused on science and math by “more hands-on instruction,” a method of teaching that Musselwhite says is only possible when class size is limited.
“It allows children an opportunity to nurture their math and science skills in a very individualized, educational process,” Musselwhite said. “We wanted to create an effective learning environment — we felt that if we could prepare them to enjoy the learning process, that when they moved on to high school it would be an effective transition.”
The school’s largest class size is currently at 13 students. With the charter, class size will be limited to no more than 20. A policy on the State Board of Education’s website requires charter schools to conduct an open lottery after an enrollment period if they have more applicants than available slots.
“It’s not just for certain people, it’s for all students,” said Caroline Williamson, principal of the school. “We want to make sure that it is fair and that anybody in North Carolina can fill out an application and put their child here. …We try to make sure that we teach students at all levels and to their abilities.”
According to the school’s charter application, during the 2010-2011 school year, fourth- and eighth-grade students tested 100 percent proficient in math, while fifth- and seventh-grade students tested at or slightly over 90 percent. Reading scores for the same year were all at about 80 percent proficiency, while the state’s average scores hovered around 70.
Musselwhite said the charter is something he and the other 12 members of the school’s board of directors have been working toward since the state removed its 100-charter-school cap last year.
“We made the decision that this would be an effective way to offer this asset and opportunity to more people in the area,” Musselwhite said. “… It’s never been easy to operate a private school, especially in a county that has the economic distress that Robeson County has.”
Williamson sees the charter as a chance to continue to develop an environment that pushes students to perform at the best of their ability.
“We’re going to have a very rigorous curriculum for math and science and there’s going to have to be a lot of parental involvement,” she said. “… It’s a very family-oriented environment. The older children look after the younger ones and the younger children look up to the older ones.”
For Lauren Miller, who works as a secretary at the school and also teaches music, acquisition of the charter is a development that is best described as “exciting.”
“This will give our school the chance to see the whole scope of cultures,” she said. “It will be great to see the variety of students being able to learn and grow while sharing experiences with each other … unity and togetherness is a big part of it.
“We’ve had lots of support since our first official year in 1991,” she said. “Now, we’ve hit it big.”