Schools, community celebrate unique private/public educational partnership during groundbreaking ceremony April 14
This year as Pfeiffer 125 years since its inception, the institution will celebrate this week yet another important milestone – the construction of a new facility on its campus for Gray Stone Day School, a public charter high school for approximately 300 students that has been on the university’s campus since 2002.
Pfeiffer recently donated 18 acres of its land, with an estimated value of $400,000, to Gray Stone, which has occupied an academic building on the campus for eight years. The college preparatory school attracts students from eight counties and 10 school districts, including Mecklenburg, the state’s largest. The land gift is pivotal to the continued development of this successful rural high school, which plans to break ground at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, April 14 behind the Merner Gymnasium on a new $7.2 million facility that will allow the school to meet its growing enrollment demands.
The gift of property is also important to Gray Stone because a state statute prohibits charter schools from using any state-issued funding to purchase land or facilities, according to Jack Moyer, director of charter schools for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Charter schools depend on private donations or financial institutions to subsidize their building needs.
“This is really exciting and is an example of what can be done through a public/private partnership when the focus is to provide quality education for students rather than individual interests,” explained Moyer. “This new facility is a huge asset for Gray Stone, Pfeiffer University and the community.”
Administrators from both schools agree the partnership is mutually advantageous. Gray Stone students are able to take college courses, thereby earning dual credits; they benefit from Pfeiffer faculty who offer lectures to the high school students, are often invited to participate in Pfeiffer’s extensive service projects; and they can utilize university facilities and services, like the library, dining hall, maintenance and cleaning, etc. Pfeiffer officials said having Gray Stone on campus offers benefits to the university, including:
• Introduces and exposes 290 Gray Stone students and families, who otherwise might not come, to Pfeiffer and its campus.
• Provides a campus laboratory for education students who can observe classes, conduct student teaching and help become better prepared as they pursue careers as teachers.
• Offers an attractive incentive to recruit quality faculty, staff and administrators who have the option to enroll their children at Gray Stone, which provides an optimum student experience.
• Helps Pfeiffer students to further develop leadership and service qualities through their willingness to mentor, tutor and coach Gray Stone students.
• Affords an opportunity to further expand the partnership with Stanly Community College (SCC), which exposes prospective students from SCC who want to pursue four-year degrees. Pfeiffer has a dedicated space on the SCC campus, but could not reciprocate because of the limited space on campus. The 50,000 square-foot new Gray Stone facility will provide that opportunity, especially during summer months.
• Funds from Gray Stone to construct a new access road on campus, parking area, an enhanced athletic field, and replacement of the access bridge that leads to the university’s gym.
• Access to the secondary school's interactive distance learning center that was funded by a federal grant. The technology will allow Gray Stone and Pfeiffer students to virtually connect and interact with faculty and other students anywhere. Officials say this innovation “will bring the world to a small community, and consequently, could bring opportunities to people in Stanly County.”
But most importantly, the collaboration between Pfeiffer and Gray Stone reflects the university’s history as an academic destination and positions Misenheimer as an “educational village.” In 1910, Pfeiffer, then known as the Mitchell Home School, relocated to what is now the Village of Misenheimer 100 years ago. It was established to provide quality education for rural students who didn’t have access to public education at the time. Many of its students walked a minimum of 3-5 miles from Rowan, Cabarrus, Stanly and Montgomery counties to attend school because there was no public option. Ironically, Gray Stone attracts students from those same areas and beyond.
“Having Gray Stone on our campus helps our surrounding school districts address the high demand for quality secondary education,” Pfeiffer President Dr. Chuck Ambrose explained. “Ultimately, when you have parents who are willing to drive 45 minutes to bring their children to school in the Village of Misenheimer, the provision of both secondary and higher education in one community is a sense of destination and is a very unique asset to a rural community.”
Ambrose said he believes the ramifications could interest corporations and future employers whose workforce is attracted to an overachieving high school and will increase the potential for future economic development for the entire region.
Helen Nance, Gray Stone administrator and co-founder, said providing quality education in a rural area was the vision of her and her husband, Jim, when they established Gray Stone in 2002. Although their three daughters were accepted to well-respected four-year universities and enjoyed very successful academic, and now professional, careers, she didn’t feel they were as well-prepared to compete with their peers as she would have liked. Some other parents shared her concern.
“Many have said that Gray Stone is a unique asset to this rural community,” Nance said. “I thank Pfeiffer –and the Ambroses – for giving us the opportunity. Without their willingness and support from the beginning, Gray Stone wouldn’t exist.”
Since its inception, the charter school’s enrollment has quickly climbed from 80 9th and 10th graders its first year, to nearly 300 students today. The school added a grade each year and graduated its first class of 20 students in 2005. This year, 64 seniors are preparing to march across the Gray Stone stage. To date, the school boasts 196 graduates, 95 percent of whom are enrolled in college. The grads have earned $3 million in college scholarships to universities including Pfeiffer, Duke, West Point, Wake Forest, Elon, Dartmouth, and the New York Fashion Institute of Technology. One graduate earned the prestigious Thomas Wolfe Scholarship to UNC Chapel Hill.
Gray Stone is a high-performing school ranked in the state’s top five percent of all public schools for its extraordinary SAT scores, and it had the highest scores in the immediate 3-4 county region last year. Because of this, some parents drive nearly an hour one way so their children can attend the school. As a result, its popularity has been bolstered and the new facility, which will accommodate a capacity of approximately 400 students, is desperately needed.
The type of quality education Gray Stone provides is also desperately needed in other rural areas across the country, according to Moyer. Almost 50 percent of North Carolina’s students attend rural schools – only one state in the country has more. For decades, the formula that funds schools at the state and national levels has favored urban and suburban schools. That has led to an educational crisis within small communities, which experience historically high drop-out rates, low test scores, and high teacher turnover rates. Those same challenges likely prevent more charter schools, like Gray Stone, from building in rural areas.
“Approximately 60-65 percent or more of the charter schools are located in more urban areas. We do have them in rural communities, but they have their own unique problems,” Moyer said. “Transportation poses a challenge because rural communities don’t often run busing services and the schools can’t provide transportation. Parents have to arrange carpools, which can pose an issue because of distance.”
Agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Education, are working to address some of the education challenges that rural areas face by creating funding initiatives like its Small, Rural School Achievement program. As part of her newly released education policy, N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue recently urged education leaders to develop a plan to better prepare high school students for college to help increase the number who pursue higher education. Currently, 65 percent of the state’s high school seniors pursue college.
Currently, the unique partnership between a small private liberal arts university and a rural-based public charter high school seems to serve as a way to address challenges in rural education. Only a few similar relationships exist within North Carolina and, possibly even nationwide, Moyer said.
“I don’t know of any other similar partnerships like Gray Stone and Pfeiffer. It is a testament to what’s happening there and how Gray Stone is attracting students from other areas, not just Stanly County. That’s a unique thing for charter schools because LEAs (local education agencies) are set on county lines,” Moyer added. “That’s why Gray Stone’s location at Pfeiffer is so attractive. That exposure to the college environment, I’m sure, increases the likelihood those students will pursue higher education.”
Established in 1885, Pfeiffer University is a comprehensive United Methodist-related university, with multiple campuses, including Misenheimer, Charlotte and the Triangle, committed to educational excellence, service and scholarship.
Please note the above image is not the actual rendering, but illustrates a similar building design.