How Bald Head Island’s First School Was Born

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Community and school leaders in front of what will be the Bald Head Island Academy.  Left to right: Millicent O'Connor and her son, Mayor Peter Quinn, school co-founder Sheree Vaickus, Dr. Lou Vaickus, Sarah Tennant and Dr. Sabina Bragg., Wednesday, July 6, 2022 at Blad Head Island , North Carolina.  (Kate Marijolovic/The Star-News via AP)

Community and school leaders in front of what will be the Bald Head Island Academy. Left to right: Millicent O’Connor and her son, Mayor Peter Quinn, school co-founder Sheree Vaickus, Dr. Lou Vaickus, Sarah Tennant and Dr. Sabina Bragg., Wednesday, July 6, 2022 at Blad Head Island , North Carolina. (Kate Marijolovic/The Star-News via AP)

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About 3 miles off the coast of southeastern North Carolina, perched at the end of the Cape Fear River, is Bald Head Island.

Home to more than 10,000 acres of unspoilt land, encompassing marshes, beaches and maritime forests, the island is an ecological paradise for its approximately 260 permanent residents.

Accessible only by boat, the isolated island is about to look a little more like the mainland.

Bald Head Island Academy, the first school on the island, will open at the end of August. A private K-8 school for residents and the children of those who work on the island, the academy’s founders are optimistic that it will make life on the island easier for those with young children.

Millicent O’Connor has lived on Bald Head Island for three years. She works as a realtor for Pirate Places, LLC., a rental company she owns with her husband, Robert, that offers housing near East Carolina University.

A mother of two young children, O’Connor said she had long hoped a school would open on the island.

To get her children to preschool in Southport twice a week, O’Connor currently takes the ferry, a journey she says is difficult. Each school day requires at least two ferry rides.

” It’s very hard. It’s something we really dreaded, if they were going to have to go to school, because especially with young children it’s really difficult for them to behave on the ferry,” she said.

O’Connor is happy that her children can finally stay in the community for their education and will be able to spend most of their time on the island. Her 5-year-old daughter will start kindergarten at Bald Head Island Academy this fall.

Change Education

The academy’s co-founder, Sheree Vaickus, knows it’s difficult for islanders to get children to school every day.

When Sheree Vaickus pitched the idea for the school to current teacher Sarah Tennant, they were excited to explore how Bald Head Island Academy could be different from a traditional public school.

After working as an educator for more than a decade, Tennant believes the academy can have a positive impact on the education system.

“I saw the flaws in our nation’s education system. It doesn’t work that way and it’s frustrating for teachers, it’s frustrating for parents, but it’s even more frustrating for our students who aren’t getting what they need,” she said. declared.

Originally from West Virginia, Tennant worked in Ohio before moving to Raleigh, where she met Vaickus, who is also responsible for operational solutions and marketing for the academy. Prior to working with the academy, she was chief operating officer of akta Pharmaceutical Development, which was founded by her husband, Dr. Louis Vaickus.

Tennant said the academy will be a “student-centered school” and that the small classes made up of multiple grades will allow teachers to spend more time working one-on-one with students.

Tennant currently resides at the academy’s “teacher headquarters”, a newly renovated house in Southport, where teachers are housed free of charge.

Bald Head Island Academy life sciences program director Dr Louis Vaickus said the academy has heard from Southport families interested in enrolling their children. For now, the board has decided to only accept students who live on the island or are the children of those who work there.

Louis Vaickus also volunteers as Chairman of the Board of Bald Head Island Academy. Founder and CEO of akta Pharmaceutical Development, he is a researcher, physician and immunologist. He hopes to continue to be involved in the future of his business.

He hopes the academy’s individualized approach to learning will allow children to realize what they gravitate toward at a young age, setting them up for success in a future career path.

Construction workers construct the commercial space where the Bald Head Island Academy will be located.

From idea to school

About seven months ago, Sheree Vaickus began planning the establishment of Bald Head Island Academy, quickly discovering that building a school on the island would not be an easy task.

Originally, there was no land on the island zoned for a school. In late June, the Village of Bald Head Island changed its zoning laws to allow schools on land classified as commercial property.

Complying with building codes set by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction was another challenge.

The Ministry of Public Instruction requires that kindergarten and first grade classrooms be located on the first floor of a school.

On Bald Head Island, where flooding can occur, structures must be raised. Vaickus said it took back and forth with the Department of Public Institutions to explain the issue, but the current building was eventually approved.

The academy had to wait for the village to change zoning laws before it could enroll students, so Vaickus doesn’t know how many students are currently enrolled. She said many families have shown interest.

Her daughter, who is entering sixth form this fall, will attend the academy.

Learn from the island

On the journey from town to the ferry terminal, no less than three butterflies crossed the road in front of Sheree Vaickus’ golf cart.

A sight like this may seem unusual to some, but frequent visits from local wildlife are part of daily life for those who call Bald Head Island home. Lou Vaickus recently saw a 7-foot-long snake crawling up the family’s porch railing.

Such encounters with nature are part of what the school’s founders aim to incorporate into the academy’s curriculum.

Dr. Sabina Bragg, who develops the curriculum for the academy’s summer enrichment program, has a doctorate in educational psychology from the City University of New York Graduate Center.

Spending most of the year at her primary residence in Charlotte, Bragg loves watching her three children learn about nature each summer during the family’s annual trip to their second home in Bald Head.

On a recent bike trip, Bragg and his daughter found a bird that had fallen from its nest. After a quick phone call, members of the nature reserve came to help the bird and explain the situation to his daughter.

For the summer program, Bragg aims to incorporate hands-on activities like this into a rigorous, measurement-based academic curriculum. Its goal is for children to experience the island, while having a measured academic growth.

Demographic change

Bald Head Island Village Mayor Peter Quinn is hopeful that the addition of a school will attract more families to the island. He said the school will help answer questions from many holidaymakers who wonder how they can live on the island full time.

Quinn said despite the island’s 400-year history, the community is just getting started. In 1985 a municipality was formed with the creation of the village of Bald Head Island.

He said he knew the island would eventually need a school and that he supports community members’ efforts to build one.

“I can’t imagine a community without a school. For a community to continue to grow and invest in itself, you need education,” he said.

O’Connor, who is also director of the academy’s parent-teacher organization, said she has noticed great interest from the community in volunteering at the school.

Sheree Vaickus also hopes the school will change the demographics of the island, transforming it from a seasonal vacation destination to a place where young families can easily raise children. She said it was possible for anyone to move to Bald Head Island, and it’s a community, not an elite place.

Yet, if an equitable student experience is the goal, why not start a public school?

Quinn said the island’s tax base probably wouldn’t support a public school. According to US Census data, 76.6% of the island’s residents are 65 years of age or older.

A fair approach

Bald Head Island Academy has a uniform policy, which according to Sheree Vaickus was designed to level the playing field for students.

Through the school’s philanthropic efforts, the academy strives to welcome students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, encouraging a diverse learning environment.

Vaickus said the school’s nonprofit fundraising arm, the Bald Head Island Academy Foundation, recently obtained 501(c)(3) status, so donors are eligible to receive benefits. tax. She added that the Foundation is important to all students, even those whose families are currently able to afford tuition.

Through the Foundation, the school plans to provide scholarships to those in financial need. According to the academy’s website, tuition for one year is $11,600.

The future of the academy

The academy is being built in two phases. Phase 1, currently under construction, is a new commercial property located at 2 Maritime Way where the academy will lease space.

The academy is considering plans for phase 2, which would see a school built on what is now vacant land adjoining the property where the academy leases space.

The academy will be accredited by its partner institution, Charlotte Lab School. For legal reasons, Vaickus could not comment on the partnership.

Vaickus said construction is on track for Bald Head Island Academy to welcome students Aug. 29, the first day of school.

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