“Right now 80 percent of our students when they leave here attend high school outside of Cashiers,” said Danny Howell, the school’s director. “They get spread out to a lot of different areas. That’s one of the things we wanted to try to help with this high school is to give a place locally where our graduates who are not staying in Cashiers will have an option here at Summit.”
Summit Charter first opened in 1998 with 110 students, and over the nearly 20 years since it’s grown to an enrollment of 237 students, with 252 expected to attend in 2017-18. The plan is to add one grade level per year once the expansion begins, with Summit becoming a K-12 school by 2021-22. At that point, enrollment is expected to total 350.
“It’s going to be a quite a project,” Howell said. “We are excited about it — we’ve been talking about it for a couple of years now.”
Charter schools are public schools, meaning they’re free for anyone to attend and receive public per-pupil funding from the state. However, they don’t get any taxpayer money for building construction and maintenance, meaning that Summit must rely on fundraising and donations to pay for the $8 million project. The school has been fundraising for a year and a half so far but keeping its plans quiet until it could accumulate the critical mass needed to move forward. So far, more than $6 million has been raised. That’s enough to proceed with the project while the rest of the money comes in.
Once complete, the expansion will include a gym and 10 new classrooms, located on Summit’s existing 35.5-acre campus. Howell hopes to see the gym open by the start of 2018-19 as well, because it will be a resource for the school as a whole — not just for the high school. Currently, Summit holds activities such as basketball practice at the Cashiers Recreation Center, but with high school teams added to the mix more court space will be necessary. With a strong emphasis on place-based education, Summit relies on the outdoors for most physical education activities. Howell looks forward to having a place where the entire student body can gather and physical activity can continue when the weather outside is bleak.
Howell said that the high school would include the types of extracurricular options that most people expect of a rounded high school experience. Summit will offer honors and AP classes, as well as a fine arts program complete with music, band, drama and athletics.
“One of the hallmarks will be we will initiate and begin college counseling with our students in the ninth grade,” he said.
Even without the addition of high school classes, Summit’s enrollment has been on the rise in recent years. The school had 200 students in 2015-16 but jumped to 237 students for 2016-17, the highest enrollment ever. The 2017-18 student body is expected to number 252. Once the ninth grade opens in 2018-19, enrollment would likely rise to 280, topping out at 350 once all four grades are added.
Howell attributes that growth to a combination of community outreach to communicate what a charter school is — that it’s public and free, not a private school — and the arrival of more year-round residents to the area. The high school will likely encourage high enrollment in the middle grades, as families will no longer have to plan for their child’s post-Summit high school education. Currently, class sizes typically dwindle after fifth grade.
Competition for students
While Summit was among the first charter schools to launch in North Carolina, the number of such schools has exploded ever since the General Assembly lifted the cap of 100 charters in 2011. Currently, there are 165 brick-and-mortar charters and two online charters in North Carolina, responsible for educating more than 90,000 students in 60 counties. Among them is Shining Rock Classical Academy in Waynesville, which opened in 2015 and draws some students from Jackson County.
While proponents of charter schools laud them as an avenue for seeking creative approaches to education and providing greater flexibility and smaller class sizes than might be possible in traditional public schools, charters have been criticized as weakening traditional public school by siphoning funding from them. Many charter school students would have otherwise attended a traditional public school, and when a child leaves the public school system, the per-pupil funding attached to them leaves as well.
Howell emphasized that Summit’s relationship with Jackson Schools has been a positive one.
“We have a good relationship (with the traditional public school) and we will continue to,” he said.
“The money is following the child, so I don’t know that it’s a big negative for anyone other than it should follow the child wherever they go to school,” Howell added. “It just gives parents some options.”
Still, traditional public schools can find themselves dealing with the fact that costs don’t always adjust proportionally — if there are 25 students in a class and one student leaves, for example, the cost of salaries and utilities and building maintenance is still the same.
Summit’s expansion will likely have only a limited effect on Jackson Schools’ enrollment, however. Of the students who have graduated Summit’s eighth grade over the past eight years, Howell said, almost 40 percent have gone off to boarding school. Of the remainder, about 25 percent attend Macon County Public Schools, 20 percent attend Jackson County Public Schools and 15 percent attend elsewhere. So, of the roughly 100 students Summit expects to add when the high school is complete, about 20 are likely to be students who would have otherwise attended Jackson Schools and about 25 will be students who would have attended Macon Schools. In Jackson County, state and local per-pupil funding combine to about $6,000.
Jackson Schools will soon see another source of competition for students, however. The new Catamount School, located on the campus of Smoky Mountain High School, is set to open in August, with 55 students expected to attend this fall and as many as 75 in future years — 20 spots are still available for the upcoming year. While the school is located on Jackson Schools’ property, it will be run by Western Carolina University in response to state legislation passed last year requiring eight different universities in the University of North Carolina system to open a lab school — a school that would provide hands-on experience for educators-in-training while also offering focused, individualized instruction for students from schools the state has designated as low-performing.
As with charters, the university would receive per-pupil funding for each student attending the lab school. All lab school students will be Jackson County residents, and most of them will come from Jackson Public Schools.
Throughout his tenure, Superintendent Mike Murray has remained positive about Jackson Schools’ ability to market itself as the best choice for students in the community, seeing competition from other options such as charter schools as a force for the school system to stay on its toes and constantly improve the education it offers.
Associate Superintendent Kim Elliott, who will serve as interim superintendent when Murray leaves the job at the end of this month, says Jackson Schools plans to continue that marketing effort.
“We have a wonderful free, public education system,” she said. “Traditional public education, in general, is the great equalizer and gives every student the opportunity for a successful, happy life.”
Enrollment has been stable over the past five years, Elliott said, and she anticipates it will remain so for the 2017-18 school year.
“JCPS will continue to address the marketing of our schools in a positive, proactive manner,” she said.
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