WILMINGTON — UNCW will make a permanent home on its campus for Isaac Bear Early College High School after years of stalled expansion.
At its May 27 meeting, the UNCW Board of Trustees approved plans to construct a two-story building for the selective-enrollment early college.
The memorandum of agreement stated UNCW would provide around 1 acre of land to be used for up to a 44,000-square-foot building at the back of campus.
After efforts to secure funds by Sen. Michael Lee, the state allocated $1 million in December for the planning of an Isaac Bear facility on UNCW’s campus. According to the memo, the university will use those one-time appropriated funds for the planning of the facility, “including creation of design and development documents.” New Hanover County Schools, however, will be responsible for funding construction, renovation, maintenance and operation of the building.
“This should have happened years ago, but I am glad I was able to get the money in the budget and that UNCW and Isaac Bear have come to an agreement on how to move forward,” Lee said.
The facility would be located in the east campus quarter of UNCW behind upperclassmen housing Seahawk Village. The building would be accessible via Plyler Drive. Adjacent lot “EE,” along with other nearby lots, would be made available for parking.
A new facility has been a long-time coming for Isaac Bear, which currently teaches its 200 students in modular units on UNCW’s campus.
“It’s about time,” county school board member Judy Justice said. “I am nothing but pleased. These students are hardworking and they deserve the opportunity to learn in a realistic environment.”
Founded in 2006, Isaac Bear’s program allows students to complete their high school curriculum in their first two years so they can get a head start on college courses in their last two.
Isaac Bear moved to UNCW’s campus in 2007 as a partnership with the university and New Hanover County Schools. The latter is responsible for classroom and operational costs; UNCW provides classroom space — in 10,000-square-feet modular units over the last 15 years, even as the student population doubled.
For years, the two parties have been dragging their feet on advancing an expansion, each one suggesting the other should pay for the facility’s improvements.
In 2019, New Hanover County’s state Rep. Deb Butler suggested UNCW designate a piece of land for a county-funded Isaac Bear building. She told Port City Daily in 2019 the conditions at Isaac Bear were “abysmal.”
“Simply put, the facility that houses IBEC has outlived its functionality and is inadequate,” Butler said. “The building is in dire need of replacement.”
Concern over conditions at Isaac Bear have been echoed by parents. Many consider the cramped spaces to be unfair to the school’s stellar academic achievers. The graduation rate at Isaac Bear is 100% and 95% of students go on to higher education. U.S. News & World Report ranks the early college as second among the county’s nine high schools, behind John T. Hoggard High School.
The proposed Isaac Bear facility will allow the school to double its enrollment and provide more space for classrooms, a media center, administration offices, health services, counselor services and a cafeteria.
“I am grateful that the board of trustees has recognized what a treasure Isaac Bear Early College High School is and I am hopeful that their new facility will continue to afford the students every opportunity,” Butler said in response to the memo. “They deserve a place they can proud of.”
Isaac Bear is one of two UNCW grade school collaborations. The second, D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy, is a year-round public school for K-8 students that UNCW partnered with in 2018. D.C. Virgo’s facility is located at Nixon Street in Wilmington.
UNCW’s Watson College of Education Dean Van Dempsey said the partnership with D.C. Virgo highlighted the need for the same attention at Isaac Bear.
“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 to Port City Daily in 2019.
UNCW’s land commitment will sunset after five years if New Hanover County Schools and the university cannot reach agreements on further planning decisions, such as contracts regarding the construction, ownership, maintenance, and operation of the
facility, in addition to a lease of the applicable property. For now, it looks like the facility is moving forward.
“We value our partnership with New Hanover County Schools and look forward to collaborating with their team throughout this process,” UNCW Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs Miles Lackey said.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com.