A group of 50 students, parents and educators representing Pamlico County High School filled the small, cramped meeting room of the State Board of Education this week to make sure board members know what they think about the possible expansion of a local charter school.
The entourage from eastern North Carolina wore “Save Pamlico County High School” stickers and made it clear they want the board to prevent Arapahoe Charter School from expanding through the 12th grade.
Arapahoe, a kindergarten through ninth grade campus, already accounts for roughly 18 percent of the student population in Pamlico County, a small community that has four public schools – two elementaries, a middle and a high school.
“We’re passionate,” said Superintendent Wanda Dawson. “I just want the best for my students. That’s all…. I feel that one high school in Pamlico County can provide outstanding opportunities for all students in Pamlico, and that’s what we’re advocating for.”
The high school, she said, has 491 students and offers an array of honors and AP courses, as well as extracurricular activities and the gamut of sports programs.
“That’s our concern,” she said, “the diminishing of the quality educational program that we’re offering right now, because if you do not have students, you do not have funding. At some point, if our membership continues to diminish, we’re going to have to cut programs. We’re going to have to cut teachers and extracurricular activities.”
When Arapahoe expanded this year to include the ninth grade, Pamlico County High School lost 20 out of 31 freshmen students, and over the years, it’s lost many more. Arapahoe, with 443 students, represents roughly a third of the enrollment in Pamlico County public schools, which serve nearly 1,300 kids.
Arapahoe’s expansion request was one of several presented this week to the State Board of Education, which is expected to reach a decision on each one at the January meeting. The requests, however, sparked a discussion about the need to determine at what point charter schools begin to have an adverse effect on public school systems, particularly in small counties.
Several board members said they want to make sure that with the expansion of charters – both in number and in size – students still have access to a sound and basic education. “I don’t know when, how or what we do,” said board member Patricia Willoughby, “but we really need to address this.”
In Pamlico County the tipping point has been reached, said attorney Richard Schwartz. The district has seen 19 percent of its local and state funding go to the charter school, he said, and it stands to lose as much as 33 percent if the charter school adds three additional grades.