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Back to school: From public to charter, Faith Elementary won’t miss a beat

FAITH – Faith Academy in 2019 began as an idea presented to a few hundred people, but it’s preparing to open its doors for the first time in two weeks.

The facility that once housed Faith Elementary School was not shuttered long. Rowan-Salisbury Schools closed the school’s doors in June, and in short order the facility changed hands to Faith Academy Charter School, which will teach about 500 students grades K-7 this school year.

A small army of volunteers descended on the campus of Faith Academy July 24 to paint classrooms and spruce up the outside of the school before classes begin on Aug. 23. 

George Wilhelm, the academy’s board chair, spent his career in law enforcement and is best known for his 11 years as Rowan County sheriff. He retired from law enforcement in 2009. The move from retired law enforcement to the head of a local school board is not as big of a leap as you may expect. Wilhelm originally attended college with the intention to become an elementary teacher, but he changed majors to history because his concurrent law enforcement schedule got in the way.

“I’ve always had a passion for education,” Wilhelm said, noting his work with Boy Scouts and the Faith Community Endowment, which has benefited local scouts and other organizations.

A Faith native, he saw talks about the fate of the school surfacing every few years, and in 2019 he said the community felt like it had hit the end of the road. The school would eventually close.

The community took an informal vote on pursuing a charter at the fairgrounds in 2019. Then, there were about 200 parents and interested people. 

“We asked that group: ‘If we start a charter school and the school stays open, will you send your kids?’” Wilhelm said.

Almost all the hands went up, and some community leaders started figuring out how to open a school in the first place. In North Carolina, charter schools are all public institutions that are independent from traditional public schools. They receive public funding like a typical public school, but they have some freedoms not afforded to most school districts.

The school’s eventual board of directors attended a charter conference and got in touch with the firm Charter Success Partners. Like it’s name suggests, the company helps get charter schools off the ground. It guided the Academy through the application and approval process, ran its lottery and will continue to provide services after the school opens.

After an application and interviews with the state’s Charter School Advisory Board and a lengthy process of being recommended to receive a charter from the N.C. Board of Education, Faith Academy was tapped for a charter in January.

Wilhelm said schools and churches are what hold communities together.

“Without them our country probably would have not been founded,” he said. “Rowan County, at one time, was the frontier, as far west as you could go. As populations grew, schools and churches came in and communities were built around them. Our community was built around this school.”

Wilhelm said he is not surprised the school became a reality because Faith his full of hardheaded people and it was their intent to create a school.

Sarah Hensley has found herself as superintendent of a single school. Since January she has been in a frenzy arranging nuts and bolts of running a school, from hiring dozens of staff, ordering furniture and purchasing curriculum materials. This was not in her future a year ago.

“I had no idea I would be doing this,” Hensley said.

The retired RSS administrator offered to help the school in the beginning because people she thought highly of asked her if she would consider being involved, and the project interested her.

“I’ve always been an advocate for smaller schools,” Hensley said, adding she thinks it is important to know the children and parents at the school.

She is excited about her hires. She said the faculty at the school comes from all over and all experience levels. The most recent hire was a robotics teacher.

The school will begin classes on Aug. 23. The plan is to add a grade level each year, and eventually serve grades K-12, as well as build a second facility.

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