Apex schools keep up with growth, offer 21st-century educational smorgasbord
The Wake County Public School System that serves Apex and surrounding areas owes its great size to two of its greatest challenges. It was formed almost 50 years ago as part of the remedy to the South’s long practice of segregating schools between whites and African-Americans. And in recent years it has been wrestling with a more pleasant problem – the terrific population growth in the Research Triangle area in general.
As a result of these two forces, though, the system has grown into the largest school district in North Carolina, serving more than 163,000 pre-K through 12th-grade students in 185 schools. And instead of forcing its residents to be content with a one-size-fits-all education, that size allows families to choose from a wide variety of schools that offer different calendars, numerous magnet themes, instructional networks, early-college options and career academies.
“Our goal is that by 2020, WCPSS will annually graduate at least 95 percent of its students ready for productive citizenship as well as higher education or a career,” said WCPSS spokeswoman Lisa Luten.
“In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the entire South was struggling with segregation and demands to provide equal opportunities for all students,” Luten said. “We had one school system that was all African-American and one that was all white. Our community leaders, including the chambers of commerce, got together and worked out a plan for voluntarily desegregating and part of that was to merge all schools in the county into one big school system.”
In fact, Luten believes that decision can partly be credited for the explosive business and population growth of the 2000s. “People in the chambers of commerce realized that desegregated schools would attract business and that if we were able to provide one of the best school systems in the country, we would be able to provide those businesses with the kind of employees they need.”
And those people came in droves. The number of students zoomed 40 percent in just the past 10 years.
Fortunately, the community recognized the need for quality schools too and has stood behind the system’s efforts to keep up with that growth. A recent intense round of construction and modernization was made possible by a tax referendum in 2013, in which the “yes” votes exceeded “nos” by 56,905 to 41,651. The vote authorized a massive $1.1 billion of construction spending over several years.
For Apex, that meant a new Apex Friendship High School, a new Apex Friendship Middle School, a new Scotts Ridge Elementary School and the replacement of the existing Apex High School with all new buildings.
The 2018-2019 school year saw the system open Apex Friendship Middle School and three other schools in other parts of the county – South Garner High, Bryan Road Elementary and Buckhorn Creek Elementary.
The new Apex High will open in fall 2019. While students from its area were shifted temporarily to Green Level High School, the old buildings were torn down and a new three- and four-story school was erected roughly within the same building footprint. Apex High’s athletic fields survive but will be safer and more accessible. Bus and auto traffic patterns were rearranged and a “tabletop” structure will provide sufficient parking. The new Apex High will have a building capacity of 2,262 students.
Completed in 2015, the new Apex Friendship High School celebrated the graduation of its first class in 2018 with 420 students.
“The past few years are distinguished by many firsts for our class graduating in 2018 and for Friendship High itself,” said Apex Friendship High Principal Matthew Wight. “First prom, first football game, first graduating class.”
A hallmark of Apex Friendship High is its unique culture, defined by an atmosphere of support and inclusiveness and the highest caliber of teachers and academics.
“Thanks to great staff, teachers, students and parents, we’re meeting all of our objectives,” Wight said. “Our graduating class will see students going to many prestigious schools, competing for scholarships and the highest grants. They are an extremely talented group.”
The sprawling school system’s many magnet programs and special curricula are “finding creative ways to provide the learning space our students need,” Wright said.
For example, Apex Friendship High is noted for its Academy of Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing. “We infuse engineering and technology skills and concepts into their core classes, along with soft skills such as mock interviewing, shadowing and field trips to businesses and industries,” Wight said. “We work to address the job requirements and skills that employers are seeking so students are prepared for jobs and college when they graduate.”
Apex Friendship High students also can choose career and technical training classes, spanning from health sciences to technology and interior design. “There’s something for every student,” Wight said.
The school also is steadily growing athletics and performing-arts programs.
Wake County has 51 magnet/application schools offering kindergartners to seniors the chance to take part in magnet themes such as Academically or Intellectually Gifted, Creative and Performing Arts, Global Studies, International Baccalaureate and Leadership. Children can attend a magnet school of their choice no matter where they live in the county.
In 2019 Magnet Schools of America named Wake STEM Early College High School the best secondary magnet school in the nation, and MSA honored Reedy Creek Magnet Middle School with its New and Emerging Magnet School Award. Both schools were among the 11 Wake County Public School System schools to be named Magnet Schools of Excellence earlier in the year.
New community college campus enhances training
The area’s nationally famous four-year universities include Duke University, the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and Wake Forest University.
For beginning college students or people of any age hoping to hone their job skills, higher education and economic development come together in a dynamic way at Wake Tech Community College’s new RTP Campus. Strategically positioned near Research Triangle Park, the 94-acre campus in Morrisville opened in 2018.
“Innovation is really part of the DNA of this campus,” said Wake Tech President Dr. Stephen Scott. “From its inception, everyone involved has been focused on creating an environment that prepares students and our region’s workers for the highly specialized workforce the future demands.”
This next-generation learning environment is designed to serve the needs of business and industry in western Wake County and Research Triangle Park. It offers industry-inspired programs, the latest instructional technologies and study areas that encourage collaboration. The RTP Campus houses Wake Tech’s Corporate and Business Solutions division, which provides companies – both large and small – with customized employee training in a variety of formats, from portable learning modules and one-day workshops to more extensive instruction and industry credentialing. Corporate and Business Solutions also offers Project Management and Lean Six Sigma.
Academic programs at the RTP Campus have been designed to engage high-tech professionals, with specializations in Cybersecurity, Business Analytics, IT Storage and Virtualization, Network Management. The campus also will offer college transfer opportunities, which allow students to complete the first two years of coursework and earn an associate degree at Wake Tech, then transfer to a university.
The RTP Campus opened in summer 2018 with a 109,000-square-foot classroom building. Ultimately, it will have the capacity to serve 7,000 students, with nine buildings and a full array of student resources and services.