This year Neuse Charter School celebrates 14 years of operation during COVID-19 with 940 students enrolled and a new Superintendent, Dr. Melissa Gilbert Edwards. Neuse is one of the few schools in the county, offering face-to-face instruction as an option in a K-12 environment, a strength of a comparatively smaller public school. Dr. Edwards brings with her nineteen years of experience teaching and leading at some of the state’s best performing schools. She also understands the community dynamics being a graduate of South Johnston High School. With a strong leadership team, talented instructional staff, and material community support, she aims to build on Neuse Charter School’s successes, solidifying its reputation as one of the highest performing schools in our area.
Nearly thirty years ago, the Minnesota legislature passed the first charter school law in the nation. Many thought it had no chance of passing but through the dedication of a pioneering Minnesota state senator, Ember Reichgott Junge, the law passed. Public charter schools began as a way to rethink traditional classroom norms and invoke new ideas to help students achieve and thrive in a modern education paradox. North Carolina passed its first charter school law five years later in 1996, and since then 200 public charter schools have been established in our state with over 120,000 students enrolled.
Neuse Charter School has a bit of its own Cinderella story that started when a group of Johnston County community leaders recognized the need for educational choice. In 2003, this pioneering group made their first attempt at submitting a charter school application to the Office of Charter Schools and the State Board of Education. Unfortunately, the authorizing bodies did not feel that their application was strong enough, and it was not approved. Two years later, the team felt compelled to give it another try, so they dusted off the former application and made key improvements in the best attempts to establish the counties first and only independently managed K-12 public charter school. Perseverance paid off, and the charter was successfully granted on the second attempt.
Todd Johnson, Director of the Johnston County Heritage Center Museum, was vital in penning the school’s application. When he was asked what compelled him to write the application, he responded by saying, “I was inspired to pursue a charter school for Johnston County after speaking with several parents, teachers, and administrators. Many parents lamented the lack of school choice in our county, with the only exceptions of a few small private schools. A charter school was one choice no one in Johnston County had seriously considered up to that point. The primary goals set in the beginning were to have a place where children could receive instruction tailored to their individual needs, not a one-size-fits-all approach. We also were intentional about trying to attract a diverse student body. I am grateful that those goals have been accomplished to a large degree.”
The founding board members included a diverse, well-known, and respected group of vested community leaders: Dr. Ossie Fields, David Goodine, Heidi Harris, Lee Jackson, Todd Johnson, Chris Johnson, David Johnson, Clayton Narron, Davidson Neville, Zaida Partin, and Marie Watson.
In August of 2007, Neuse Charter School opened its doors for the first time on the humble Harrison School campus in Selma, with approximately 175 students. Everyone was appreciative of this location, given public charter schools do not receive funding for facilities.
Parents came together as a unified community to clean and up fit the campus for its first cohort of students. Some parents even instructed classes, given the limited funding of a start-up public charter school. It was an exciting time, but also required a leap of faith. Everyone was expected to contribute their time, talents, and resources for the betterment and success of the entire school community.
Cindy Hester was one of those parents that took the leap of faith in a start-up public school. Mrs. Hester said, “We made our decision to come to Neuse Charter because it is a meritocracy where teachers, students, and parents are held to a higher standard, a place where children can excel in the classroom and also have the opportunity to be challenged on the athletic field. We thought Neuse would be a special place, and we were not disappointed.”
When Johnston Christian Academy closed, a more suitable location became available on Booker Dairy Road that would accommodate Neuse Charter’s anticipated growth and need for expansion. In 2011, Neuse Charter School moved to Smithfield.
Dr. Patricia Brady Harris led many of the school’s initiatives 2008-2013 as the school executive director. During Dr. Harris’s tenure Neuse achieved the following recognitions: 2008-09 School of Distinction and 2009-2010 School of Excellence. Enrollment numbers soared to more than 600 students as a result of strong outcomes and community reputation. Dr. Harris led Neuse Charter School until she passed away in 2014.
Since 2014, Neuse Charter School has had several leadership changes and experienced a high enrollment growth rate. Approximately half the school remains in educational cottages until it is fiscally feasible to develop and construct permanent buildings, but its never been about the buildings at Neuse. It’s about what goes on within the walls of the school. The motto among public charter schools tends to be “Do more with less.”
Alumni of Neuse Charter School reflect on their experience by commenting:
Mark Fang (Class of 2014, Neuse Charters’ first graduating class and a UNC-Chapel Hill economics graduate), “It was intimidating at first to find myself in a classroom too small to hide in the back, and a class size too small to just blend in and become a statistic; rather, I was forced to be an individual in a school where the teachers challenged me, and one day, I realized that I knew every single person by name! Neuse Charter is a diverse and quirky family, with members from all walks of life that blend without judgment and overflows with genuine support for each other. Neuse Charter holds a special place in my heart, and I will always treasure the friendships and memories that were made!”
Caitlin Miller (Class of 2018, a junior at UNCW in the nursing program and minoring in psychology), “What made my Neuse experience meaningful was the family aspect, literally and figuratively. I felt like teachers and students were so close and were together for so long that the relationships were more in-depth than your typical teacher-student dynamic. It was a unique place to learn and prepared its students for their equally unique futures.”
Abby Lampe (Class of 2018, a junior at NC State majoring in industrial engineering and minoring in business); “A few meaningful things were the strong friendships and relationships I made with my classmates and teachers, the education I had, as well as the sports program. Having attended this school from 4th grade up until I graduated, I made lasting friendships with my classmates and knew everyone in my grade relatively well. The teachers I had were experienced and made learning much easier because they catered to our class needs and offered many resources for us to use. They made classes enjoyable and strived for each of their students to do their best, spending their personal time outside of school to help us. Since Neuse Charter is a college preparatory school, I took primarily AP (advanced placement) courses with some honors classes. My grade was very academically competitive which pushed me to do my best, finishing third in the class. The education I received made my college transition infinitely smoother because of the rigor of classes at Neuse. I also learned good study habits which enabled me to do well in both high school and college. Lastly, the limited size of Neuse Charter allowed me to play three sports every year, where I gained teamwork and leadership skills. I’m very thankful to have had these experiences and memories that I will always remember.”
Neuse Charter School employs 95 instructional and support staff. As an independently managed non-profit charter school, the funding stays in our local community, which is tremendously beneficial. Missy Hodges has been teaching Kindergarten since the school opened and shared what makes Neuse such a special place to work. She said, “Neuse Charter is such a unique and special place because it’s K-12 structure provides an opportunity for teachers to appreciate a students’ journey at a deeper level and foster strong relationships with families. I’ve been fortunate to work with some incredible people over the years.” Second year teacher Heather Murray is a finalist for Beginning Teacher of the Year by the North Carolina Center for Advancement of Teaching. She is one of 28 finalists selected to visit NCCAT for professional development in February leading up to the award ceremony. Neuse Charter is so proud to have a finalist in the running for this state award.