“Every day is a new challenge.”
That’s how Taro Knight describes his job as director of communications/ community outreach at North East Carolina Prep School. Working at the startup charter school isn’t an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. job, but that’s fine by Knight.
“Being part of running a charter school, you won’t go home at 3. You have to be in it for the long haul,” Knight said he told a group of educators at a Winterville-Grimesland community meeting at Pitt Community College on Saturday. “The hard work definitely pays off … Seeing the smiles on the students’ faces, the teachers’ faces and the parents’ faces will be well worth the effort.”
Knight said the group invited him to discuss “the benefits of educational choice,” specifically at NECP.
“I think educational choice is something that families have been asking for for a number of years,” he said. “We have the ability to have our own curriculum here. Our curriculum is called the Core Knowledge Sequence and it’s always a couple of levels above Common Core (North Carolina Public Schools’ curriculum) in terms of its requirements.”
NECP’s curriculum is also based on the Eight Multiple Intelligences, which “says all kids are unique and learn differently. It also emphasizes cooperative learning,” said Knight. He added that the curriculum is more focused on learning and understanding rather than memorization in preparation for standardized tests.
Other than NECP, the only current charter schools in the region are Rocky Mount Preparatory School and Bear Grass Charter School in Martin County. Pitt County currently has five applications for charter schools pending with the state. Prior to the Jan. 4 charter school application deadline, 156 letters of intent were submitted statewide, according to the North Carolina Department of Instruction.
In its first year, NECP has students from Edgecombe, Nash, Halifax, Martin and Wilson counties. Knight estimated that 40 percent of the school’s students are minorities.
“One of (Executive Director) John Westberg’s priorities is to make sure our student population, faculty and staff reflects the diversity we find in the counties we serve,” Knight said. “In order to be prepared to succeed in the world, you have to know how to get along with others who are different from yourself.”
The enrollment numbers at NECP speak for themselves. Out of its current population of 403 students, 402 have re-enrolled for next school year.
“We’ve been at open enrollment since October and we have received over 300 (additional) applications, so we’re well on our way to reaching our cap of 860,” Knight said. “That lets us know that we are on the right track of what we’re trying to do.”
Open enrollment ends March 31, but the school will continue to take applications until it reaches its goal of 860 students.
Another challenge of opening a charter school that Knight discussed with the Pitt County group is financial .
“Charter schools are expected to deliver the same services as public schools without the same funding,” Knight said, noting that NECP has offered free and reduced lunch this school year without taking part in the federal lunch program. He advised the educators to assemble a financially savvy board of directors that knows when to allocate and when to save money.
NECP is operating in a newly renovated building, part of a $13 million project and currently has students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The school will add ninth grade and an athletic program in August. For Knight, a career educator who has worked at Martin Middle School and taught adult classes at Edgecombe Community College, the rewards of the hard work will be worth the effort.
“This is the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had in my life. You’re building something from the ground up and you’re doing it for all the right reasons,” Knight said, adding that the primary reason is to educate students to become “lifelong learners.”
Phase two of the school project will get under way in March, when Bouma Construction begins building a new, two-story facility for the school’s middle- and high-school students. That project will add to the number of jobs already been added by the charter school’s opening, according to Knight.
“Not only have we created 58 staff positions, but during the construction phase, we are insisting that Bouma uses local subcontractors,” Knight said. “We’re going to add at least 30 (staff) jobs next year.”
Knight says a number of NECP staff members previously worked outside of Edgecombe County, so the school’s opening has helped boost the local economy.
“A lot of our staff have now moved to Tarboro and are looking to buy houses in Tarboro,” Knight says.
NECP created jobs that didn’t previously exist, Knight said , because many of the staff members at the charter school were not working for Edgecombe County Public Schools (ECPS).
The opening of the charter school has resulted in budget cuts for ECPS, according to an ECPS document titled “Preliminary Target Spending Reduction for 2013-2014,” in the amount of $880,030. The district cut 56 jobs last August, and five of the cuts were because of an enrollment decrease of 300 students. For each student that didn’t re-enroll this school year — for whatever reason — the district lost $8,051.
NECP has two upcoming information/application sessions for parents in Edgecombe County. The first will be held from 1-4 p.m. Saturday at the Edgecombe County Memorial Library at 909 Main St. in Tarboro, and the second will be held from 5-8 p.m. Thursday, March 8 at the Edgecombe Memorial Library Pinetops Branch at 201 S. First St.