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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Isaac Bear Early College parents have new and long-term concerns. Here’s where things stand

The Isaac Bear campus at University of North Carolina Wilmington was established in 2007, and has been in need of improvements for years. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
The Isaac Bear campus at University of North Carolina Wilmington was established in 2007, and has been in need of improvements for years. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — When it comes to the Isaac Bear Early College High School, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the program nurtures gifted students and produces high scores and a 100-percent graduation rate with over 95 percent continuing on to higher education. The bad news is that bureaucratic deadlock has left the program stuck in outdated modular facilities that parents call embarrassing and one state representative has called ‘abysmal.’

Related: State representative proposes UNCW land grant to improve ‘abysmal’ Isaac Bear conditions

The latest proposal for addressing a hr substandard facilities involves moving the Isaac Bear Early College High School (IBECHS) into newer, larger modular units — currently being used will UNCW’s Dobo Hall is repaired — at a location on UNCW property across College Road. In addition to safety concerns based on the roadway’s history of pedestrian injuries and fatalities, parents have also voiced concerns that moving IBECHS even further to the university’s periphery foreshadows the program being eventually phased out.

UNCW and New Hanover County Schools (NHCS), the two institutional partners who jointly run the program, both strenuously deny IBECHS will be discontinued; in fact, both parties have said — including at a pair of recent meetings for IBECHS parents — that the plan is to grow the Isaac Bear program, not end it.

That plan includes a ‘brick and mortar’ facility — eventually. Details on the plan are, for parents, frustratingly vague. So is an explanation on how and why the ‘experimental’ program has languished in substandard conditions for so long.

Isaac Bear Early College High School

A parking lot with a dumpster and a basketball net is the open space for Isaac Bear Early College High School. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
A parking lot with a dumpster and a basketball net is the open space for Isaac Bear Early College High School. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

Isaac Bear opened in 2006 at Snipes Elementary before moving to its current location on UNCW’s campus in 2007. Since then, it has remained in modular buildings, while the student population has more than doubled over a decade.

In past years, NHCS funded supplies and operations, and reimbursed UNCW for course fees and books, while UNCW has been responsible for providing classroom space. But when it comes to funding expansion there’s been plenty of daylight between the two parties. For years, officials from both New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) and UNCW have suggested that the other institutional partner fund an expansion — that is, a real ‘brick and mortar’ building. But, so far, there’s been no almost no forward motion.

At the end of this school year, the current memorandum of understanding (MOU) between NHCS and UNCW will expire unless it is renewed (the three-year agreement been renewed several times in the past). For parents, June 2020 has loomed on the horizon, amplifying both short-term and long-term concerns.

To address these concerns, UNCW Dean of Watson College Van Dempsey agreed to discuss these issues. Dempsey has been dean of Watson College, which oversees IBECHS, for several years, and says he himself has been critical of the slow pace of discussions about the program — but also that he’s seen recent changes that make him optimistic.

Short-term concerns

The new proposed for IBECHS is across South College Road from the main campus. (Port City Daily photo / File)
The new proposed for IBECHS is in a UNCW-owned lot behind the Taco Bell, across South College Road from the main campus. (Port City Daily photo / File)

Recently, parents were introduced to a proposal to move IBECHS to the far side of College Road. But why now? Dempsey acknowledged there was a “general consensus” that the facility is inadequate.

“I think that concern has been raised by parents and parent groups and others — and I think that that message has been received. So, it is in part, you know, when I go into the building or when people are talking to go into the building, they see that, but that was a concern that was brought to us by several stakeholders that the current facility has critical issues,” Dempsey said.

Once UNCW acknowledged this, Dempsey said, it began to look for new locations for a temporary spot — as well as an intermediate location to host IBECHS while a permanent location is identified. Because the current IBECHS location will probably not have the footprint to accommodate better, larger modular units that actually means finding two new spots, since logistically it’s difficult to build on a site that is also hosting temporary modular units.

A major concern for parents is the location of this intermediate site: on the far side of College Road. The roadway has been the site of several recent pedestrian injuries.

UNCW has noted there is a crosswalk directly between the proposed new location and main campus. Additionally, Dempsey and UNCW both noted that many students already take a shuttle to IBECHS’ current location and would continue to do so for the new location.

Dempsey also reiterated that the peripheral location was not an attempt to “put Issac Bear out to pasture,” but was a function of finding available real estate. Further, Dempsey noted, the location across College Road has also had some of the necessary preliminary work — water, sewer, electricity — to accommodate a modular facility.

According to Dempsey, the timing of moving across College Road will depend on completing the restoration of Dobo Hall, but is expected within the year.

“The first step in the modular units being relocated is dependent on the completion of the restoration of Dobo Hall — it will happen quickly once we get the key handed over, which based on what I’m hearing should be in 2020, potentially into the fall, given the construction delays and anything like that. But the goal is once that moment occurs, those units will be vacated by the people using them now, and they’ll be movable across College Road,” he said.

Long-term concerns

Both UNCW and NHCS officials noted there is no intent to stay across College Road for the long haul. Officials from both sides also say there’s every intent to renew an MOU, to grow IBECHS, and to move the early college to a brick and mortar facility. Dempsey added that if UNCW had any desire to end the program, it would have already notified the school to allow Superintendent Dr. Markley and the administration a chance to phase IBECHS students back into traditional schools.

NHCS Board Chairperson Lisa Estep also said the goal is to move forward, and quickly.

“I will say the goal was to get the school to this transition site as soon as possible, and I will emphasize the word ‘transition’ because land has been identified for a ‘brick and mortar’ building in the future, so there is no intent to keep IBECHS at this site long term,” Estep said.

Dempsey said that, while particular tracts of land within the confines of the university have been discussed, but said an exact site is still part of ongoing conversations.

What comes next is complicated. As Dempsey put it, “we’ve got some complex logistics, and we have some complex legal and operational issues to work through.”

It’s been a common refrain that NHCS can’t “build on land it doesn’t own.” Dempsey noted there are a couple of options, including deeding land from UNCW to the school district, a long term lease, or other more innovative funding arrangements. All of these are somewhat complicated, Dempsey said, but some would be further complicated by requiring action from the general assembly.

That said, Dempsey said these conversations “have not ended with anyone saying, ‘and therefore this cannot be done.’”

Clearly, a permanent facility is not out of the question. As of 2018, there were 128 Cooperative Innovative High Schools (CIHS) partnered with public colleges state-wide, including 11 in the UNC system. Many, like the early college partnerships for teaching or engineering between UNC-Charlotte and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School district are located on state-owned campus.

While conversations are moving forward, parents remain frustrated — in large part because it’s not clear what comes next or why progress is only being made now.

What has taken so long?

Overflow from Isaac Bear’s cafeteria led to these picnic benches tucked behind the building. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

Dempsey said he understood why parents would ask why these conversations weren’t further along after twelve years, but noted he could only directly speak to recent history; Dempsey has been at Watson for about four years, and only in summer of 2017 was IBECHS moved from the UNCW’s Provost Office to Dempsey’s supervision.

Dempsey noted that conversations were moving forward, but likely not as fast as parents and other stakeholders would have wanted. Dempsey said it’s important to be clear about “just how much [Hurricane] Florence derailed so many of those conversations that we had, how many of the specific things we were talking about that just went off the rails after the storm.”

Still, Dempsey acknowledges that it feels like real progress only began this spring.

“Up until about six months ago, I would have been one of those people saying ‘I’m not sure the university is engaging this with a level of focus that it might need to be. And I could have been wrong in that criticism but I would have made that criticism,” Dempsey said. “Up until March or April of 2019, I think there was a less proactive response. And to many people, including myself, may have felt like there was a lack of intention, and there was a lack of assumption of responsibility.”

Dempsey added that the changed attitude in recent months was in part motivated by the upcoming MOU deadline, but also by UNCW’s work with NHCS on D.C. Virgo. While IBECHS and D.C. Virgo are very different programs, Dempsey noted, the Virgo project required “a much more intense intersection between our organizations than had happened in the past.”

The increased collaboration “called out” that the two institutions hadn’t worked as closely on IBECHS, Dempsey said.

“We learned some things from Virgo that we can apply, overall, to the Isaac Bear situation — we just hadn’t engaged like that in the past,” he said.

Dempsey said he understood past frustrations, but hoped that parents and other stakeholders would see the improved cooperation between the institutions.

“As someone who was critical about how it was moving — I understand that [frustration]. Can I promise you it will lead to a perfect solution, no, I can’t do that. Can I tell you what’s going on right now is more likely to produce a good outcome? Yes, I’m totally confident about that,” Dempsey said.

Chairperson Estep was likewise optimistic.

“We definitely do not have all the answers yet since we brought this to the parents, students, and faculty as soon as possible. While we still have details to work through, this is the first time we have had a real plan on the table and I think that is a huge step,” she said.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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