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On the morning of June 28, 2021, Buck Deal and Greg White waited in the sun-bleached parking lot of Oak Hill School, where they had both attended as children.
The school was shuttered. Located in the Little River community near Lenoir, it had served grades K-8. One year ago, the school closed due to school system budget cuts. White said the community felt cheated by not only losing their school but also the cornerstone to their identity.
That summer morning, Deal and White entered the school and walked along the dim hallways. Wooden floors creaked underneath them. They moved quickly from one side of the hall to the next, opening classroom doors to see what remained of their childhood memories.
Calculators and books were sprawled across the floor. Desks were stacked and pushed against the walls. Boxes with other schools’ names written on them were scattered across each room. When the school closed, other schools were allowed to pick through Oak Hill’s materials and furnishings.
Deal and White looked at the walls, inspecting the building for needed repairs. It wasn’t just memories that White and Deal had returned for. They were also bidding on the property to keep it active as a school and community.
Trying to save a school
Oak Hill School had been a part of the community since 1909, when it was housed in a two-story building down the road from where the school now stands. In 1939, community members working with the Works Progress Administration built a new school after the Great Depression. Structural additions and modern retrofits were added years after.
Generations of community members were educated here. Joe Sims, who has been on the school board since 2013, had grandparents and parents who attended Oak Hill. The school has also been the location for Ruritan Club meetings, local basketball games, and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the auditorium served as a place of worship for a local church.
The Caldwell County school board needed to cut $2.5 million from the 2021-22 budget and decided to consolidate schools to reach that goal. At the board’s special budget meeting on March 23, 2020, Caldwell County Schools Superintendent Don Phipps proposed a list of cuts from transportation costs to avoid shutting down Oak Hill School.
Weeks later, Oak Hill community members were allowed to request a written statement or call-in during a community input session on March 31. Forty-six people sent requests to speak, and the meeting lasted an hour. Many parents said that closing Oak Hill would lengthen commute times for their children. Some parents said they were afraid their child’s education would suffer due to changing environments.
Alumna Maggie Auton said the one-on-one investment from teachers “prepared me for high school, prepared me for college and prepared me for life.”
Community member Jerry Benfield said his family had been going to Oak Hill “since the last pandemic,” referencing the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.
“What’s going to happen to our community when you rip the heart out of it?” Benfield said. “I don’t see that much savings just to kill our community.”
When Kelly McIntyre heard that the school board was thinking about closing the school, she pulled her kids out and began homeschooling.
“I didn’t want my kids to go through that,” McIntyre said.
The Caldwell County school board considered nine possible alternatives, from changing bus routes to altering school district lines, to keep Oak Hill School open. In the end, though, the board voted to close the school in May 2020. The decision displaced 124 students who would be placed in other schools across the county.
‘It’s up to us.’
Many of those who spoke against the school’s closure began to come up with ways to keep the school open. McIntyre started looking into what it would take to start a charter school in the old Oak Hill School building. She gathered a board of directors, with herself as chair and Oak Hill locals and former teachers as members.
McIntyre boasted of the diversity on the board of directors, which included educator Charmion Frizsell, who worked with exceptional children. She emphasized that the charter school model is grounded in parental engagement and diverges from mandated teaching methods that she believes leads to poor educational outcomes. She said that the charter school model is dependent on strong community ties.
“I am very excited that we get to have an opportunity to not only raise the bar for education in this county but also be the avenue to provide school choice for the first time in our area,” McIntyre said. “Parents and students deserve multiple options for education so that they can choose the one that fits their needs the best.”
As McIntrye built the framework for the charter school, the Oak Hill Ruritan Club made bids for the school property through its nonprofit company, Oak Hill Development Inc. Aided by local investors and public donations, the community raised the $376,020 bid proposed to the school board.
On July 1, 2021, the Ruritan Club and charter school organized a community meeting as the hot, thick summer air lingered in the Oak Hill School gym. Signs posted along the roads in the area promoted a call for action to “save our school!”
Deal and White led the meeting of 23 participants, talking over the loud whir of the gym’s industrial fans. Carol Deal, a member of the Ruritan Club, grabbed a microphone to speak about the future and identity of the community through this school.
“We’ve felt defeated,” Deal said. “It’s up to us. Think about the education of the children.”
The group gathered together, bowed their heads, and a community member said a prayer to conclude the meeting.
About a month later, the Caldwell County Board of Education approved the sale of the Oak Hill School property to the Ruritan Club. Oak Hill Charter School accepted its first round of students and has been in operation during the 2022-23 school year.
UPDATE: In the 2023 spring semester, the Oak Hill Charter School has had numerous resignations from faculty and its principal, Charmion Frizsell. Issues surrounding increasing class sizes, campus security and plans for remodeling parts of the original WPA building have community members alarmed.
The opinions and perspectives expressed in NC Talks columns are those of the authors. Submissions have been edited for length and clarity. They do not purport to reflect the views of Carolina Public Press, its staff, board of directors or contributors.
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