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The Tipping Point: Arapahoe Charter, Pamlico Schools, And ‘Choice’ In Rural NC

Arapahoe Charter School
Dave DeWitt

This is a story about choice. And it starts in the lunch line at Arapahoe Charter School in Pamlico County when students choose between pizza and french fries.

And while that choice may seem easy to make, the choice to offer it is a little more complicated.

Charter schools aren’t required to offer meals, even to kids who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. But Arapahoe does – and sixty percent of the students here qualify.

“We make a commitment to it,” says Chris Watson, Arapahoe Charter School’s Finance Director. “It’s a part of the big picture for Arapahoe Charter School.”

Arapahoe Charter also offers transportation – another service charter schools are not required to provide. That means buying Wake County’s old buses for $5,000 and somehow getting another hundred-thousand miles out of them.

And there’s another challenge - as the road sign says when you drive in, Pamlico County is “the place where land and sky meet water.” So that means one of the school’s ten buses crosses over on the Minnesott Beach ferry twice a day, carrying 40 students from Havelock.

That commitment doesn’t leave much room for things like central air conditioning or state-of-the-art technology.

“We value people over stuff,” says School Director Tom McCarthy. “So when the state was cutting assistance and cutting teachers, we were hiring. Because we believe that those personal relationships you form with students are going to bring you more value than buying a computer program or buying a book.”

It’s a philosophy that appeals to many families. Arapahoe Charter was the state’s first public “conversion school”. Sixteen years ago, Pamlico County schools consolidated, and closed the k-8 public school in Arapahoe. It just so happened the state had just passed a law allowing charter schools. So some people in town came together, and rallied to open Arapahoe Charter School.

It began with a handful of students then – today, it has more than 400 in grades K thru 9. It feels smaller than that, and that’s why Sherry Reeves likes it. She made the choice to have her two sons come to Arapahoe Charter. Her older son, James, has Asperger’s Syndrome. She likes the way students here know and accept him.

“And they all embrace James even when he’s very eccentric,” Reeves says. “You know, they just take his quirkiness and roll with it. It just makes me feel very comfortable as a parent.”

Reeves would very much like her two sons to stay at Arapahoe Charter all the way through high school. And as of last winter, that seemed to be a likely possibility. Arapahoe Charter was allowed to open a ninth grade a year ago, and the school’s application to expand through 12th grade was initially approved by the State Office of Charter Schools.

But then it landed in front of the State Board of Education in January and they voted to deny the expansion request, by a narrow 7-to-5 margin.

“It broke my heart, and not for me,” says McCarthy. “It broke my heart for these families that believed in us and these kids that believed in us and they took a leap of faith and stayed with us in ninth grade, with no guarantee of anything else being able to happen.”

To understand why a committed, successful, community-based school was not allowed to grow, you have to drive north along one of the county’s few two-lane highways, to Bayboro. The county seat has about 700 residents, and it’s also the home base for Pamlico County’s four public schools – a primary school, an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school. Total enrollment in all the schools: about 1,300. Or about half the size of Panther Creek High School in Wake County.

In the tiny, one-story administration building tucked behind the high school, Pamlico Superintendent Wanda Dawson explains why her administration fought to stop Arapahoe Charter’s expansion.

“We are the tipping point,” Dawson says. “At what point are you going to realize how devastating this is for a public school system?”

That “devastation” is the transfer of local and state funds that go with students when they leave traditional public schools and choose a charter school.  

Consider this: just one charter school - Arapahoe - currently enrolls 18 percent of all students in Pamlico County. That is by far the highest charter school “market share” in the state. As a comparison: Durham has eight charter schools, but they enroll fewer than ten percent of all students in that district. And if Arapahoe expands through 12th grade, it could enroll one-third of all Pamlico students.

“When you start chipping away at the funding and start taking the kids away, at some point you’ve got to say: What do I cut out?,” Dawson wonders.

The answer, for Pamlico, is teachers. If it was to lose one-third of its per-pupil funding, the school system would have to lay off teachers and staff, including the last remaining counselor in the middle school. Disband the marching band. End middle school sports.

Dawson has been in the Pamlico Schools for more than 30 years. She says cutting a diminishing financial pie into too many slices will harm students at both the traditional public schools and at Arapahoe Charter.

“What are you going to be able to offer?” says Dawson. “Are you going to be able offer the AP classes? Are you going to have a football team? A basketball team? Are you going to be able to have a student government? And offer all these extra-curricular activities? And music program and art program and all of that? Are you going to be able to offer that? So what I see is the children who graduate in Pamlico County, whether it’s the charter school’s high school, or Pamlico County High School, at some point, they’re going to leave, and they’re not going to be prepared.”

Even if it expands some day, Arapahoe Charter School will not be fielding a football team. It’s a school accustomed to making the best with what it has. It’s the kind of place where the finance director also drove the backhoe to dig the trench to bury fiber optic cable when the 9th grade classroom was built.

And the strong sense of community also means the folks at Arapahoe are not deterred by the latest decision not to allow expansion. Arapahoe Charter has appealed the State Board of Education’s decision – the case will be heard by an administrative hearing officer sometime in the coming months.

And the school also vows to re-apply for expansion as many times as it takes.

“We are not going to back down,” Reeves promises. “We believe in our school and we believe in our vision and we are going to keep fighting until we have our full K-12.”

Many rural charter schools that want to grow – and those who want to start one – will be watching the fight in Pamlico County. And no matter how it turns out, they will have a pretty good blueprint for what happens when “choice” comes to rural North Carolina.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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