Chatham Charter cleared to enroll high schoolers

Jan. 19, 2013 @ 04:58 AM

Students in the area will have the option of attending a new high school next year.

Chatham Charter School recently received permission from the state to enroll students in ninth and 10th grade this coming August, adding 11th grade the following year, and then 12th grade. The school has been educating elementary and middle school students since 1996, when it became one of the first charter schools in the state.

Charter schools are public schools open to any family, no matter their income level or where they live. Tuition is not charged, and Chatham Charter, located in Siler City, now enrolls students from all over Chatham, Lee and Alamance counties. Charter schools receive less funding than traditional public schools but have greater freedom as to what they teach and how they teach it. They also generally have smaller classes.

Headmaster John Eldridge, who took over at the school last year after 20 years as a teacher, principal and regional superintendent at traditional public schools in Chatham and Guilford counties, said the high school will adhere to Middle College principals. In that system, which is similar to the one that guides Lee Early College in Sanford, students will receive a high school diploma and dozens of hours of college credit.

"Charter schools are very good at giving parents a choice if they want one," Eldridge said. "I didn't like hearing that when I was a public school guy, but now that I'm here and I'm a dad, I value that choice."

Chatham Charter School students will complete their high school graduation requirements by 10th or 11th grade and then move on to Central Carolina Community College classes in 11th and 12th grades, in which every student will earn between 31 and 45 hours of credit. The average course load for a full-time college student is 15 hours per semester, meaning that students will bring two or three semesters worth of credit to whichever college or university they attend after high school.

Students at Chatham Charter will choose one of four pathways to pursue, which will put them on track toward picking a more specific major in college. It will also let them explore subject areas without having to worry about wasting time or money, like some traditional college students might.

"If you thought you want to be a doctor and start taking those biology classes in college and think 'Eh, maybe not,' this lets you do that before you get to college and have to pay to take those classes," Eldridge said.

And on the other hand, if students do know exactly what they want, "It basically wipes out the first year of college and all those intro-level classes," he said.

The four pathways are humanities, medicine, engineering and business. If a student finishes his or her pathway and has time left over, Eldridge said, that student can take classes from another pathway. All students are required to take certain writing, reading and history classes no matter which pathway they choose.

People who want to attend the school must apply, because there's often a lottery for seats. Details can be found at www.chathamcharter.org/admissions. Eldridge said they've already received more than 60 applications for the 100 high school spots and will almost certainly have a lottery drawing for ninth grade, and maybe one for 10th as well.

The deadline to apply to grades K-10 is Feb. 28, and the lottery winners will be announced March 6. Last year, it was ranked a School of Distinction, with test scores in both reading and math for grades 3-8 above the state average.

Eldridge said the new high school comes at a perfect time for Chatham County, in which growth is stressing some of the current public high schools. The school district agrees and is working with the Chatham County Board of Commissioners to secure funding to build a new traditional school on Jack Bennett Road in the next several years, said Beth McCullough, the district's Public Information Officer.

"There are other charters in the area, and we're looking at how they might affect our numbers," she said. "... Many of those students will go into the (charter) high school and not even affect us — I'd say at least half."