School Choice: A Family Legacy

Op Ed By: Dr. Melissa Edwards
Superintendent of Neuse Charter School

Being an advocate of school choice is something I had the privilege to learn about before I was in Kindergarten, before the term “school choice” became a buzzword around the country. My mother, being the brave woman that she is, went to the principal of another school and requested that my older brother and I attend that school instead of the one for which we were districted. She advocated for us both in choosing the school she felt was best for us, and her request was granted. This was in 1984, long before charter schools came onto the scene in Johnston County. She didn’t really have another choice available to her so she made her own, and my brother and I went on to receive a well-rounded and rigorous K-12 education in Johnston County Public Schools.

As I grew up, I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a teacher, and I’ve had great fortune in finding wonderful schools in which to learn and teach in my 20-year career. I spent time in Granville and Wake County public schools before finding my way to Franklin Academy Charter School in Wake Forest.

To be clear, I did not choose to accept an offer of employment at Franklin Academy because it was a school of choice. In fact, I was severely uninformed about school choice when I began my tenure there. I accepted the job because I wanted a new challenge and to continue to grow as a teacher after completing my Masters Degree. My understanding of school choice then centered around magnet programs within the public school system of which I was a part during my early years of teaching. Initially, I knew little about and, quite honestly, paid little attention to the ins and outs of charter schools. I simply wanted to teach in a place that allows teachers to truly teach, where they feel trusted to know and deliver content in a way that provided students with the maximum opportunity to succeed and most importantly where students come first in all things and in all ways.

This past year, I made my way back home to Johnston County after 19 years away (to the absolute delight of my parents and best friend) and became the new Superintendent of Neuse Charter School (NCS). NCS is the first charter established and the only independently managed charter school in Johnston County. The NCS Cougar family celebrates 14 years of operation this year, and our longevity is no easy feat in the world of charter schools considering the state of North Carolina passed its first charter school law only 24 years ago.

NCS has remained a steadfast presence in our community, currently drawing in over 900 students from 6 different counties. NCS provides individualized instruction to meet the needs of each and every student enrolled in our school and has the flexibility to adjust and pivot as needed, especially during this season of COVID. NCS has the capacity to do these things because we are a K-12 school, all housed on the same campus, with highly-qualified and experienced staff, a strong team of instructional support assistants, and a community of parents who believe in and support school choice.

When I was searching for a school that allowed me to truly teach, I found it at Franklin Academy. I am now relentlessly working to ensure that our teachers at NCS can spend their days teaching and feel trusted to know and deliver content in a way that provides students with the maximum opportunity to succeed, and most importantly that students come first in all things and in all ways.

The very same year I began working in a school of choice, 37 years after my mother gave me my first memory of school choice, Neuse Charter School became the first charter school to open its doors in Johnston County. I have my own kindergartener now. I watch her pink backpack bob down the hall. I cannot help but wonder what great things she will do with all that she learns because she has the right place in which to blossom and thrive, becoming uniquely herself, as all children should be, in a school her mother chose for her.