Baldhead Island, NC — About 3 miles off the coast of southeastern North Carolina, at the head of the Cape Fear River, lies Bald Head Island.
With over 10,000 hectares of protected land that includes swamps, beaches and marine forests, the island is an ecological paradise for its approximately 260 permanent residents.
Accessible only by boat, the remote island will soon look a little more like the mainland.
Bald Head Island Academy, the island’s first school, opens in late August. The academy’s founders, a private K-8 school for residents and the children of island workers, are optimistic 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 real estate agent for Pirate Places, LLC., a rental company she co-owns with her husband Robert that offers apartments near East Carolina University.
As a mother of two young children, O’Connor said she had long hoped a school would open on the island.
To take her children to Southport preschool twice a week, O’Connor currently takes the ferry, a commute she describes as challenging. Each school day requires at least two ferry trips.
“It is very hard. That’s one thing we really feared if they had 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 excited that her children can finally stay in the community for their education and can spend most of their time on the island. Their 5-year-old daughter will be starting preschool at Bald Head Island Academy this fall.
Academy co-founder Sheree Vaickus knows it’s difficult for islanders to get kids to school every day.
When Sheree Vaickus pitched the idea for the school to Sarah Tennant, now Principal, they were excited to see how Bald Head Island Academy would differ from a traditional public school.
Having worked as an educator for over a decade, Tennant believes the academy can have a positive impact on the education system.
“I have seen the brokenness of our nation’s education system. It doesn’t work the way it is and it’s frustrating for teachers, it’s frustrating for parents, but it’s most frustrating for our students who aren’t getting what they need,” she said.
Originally from West Virginia, Tennant worked in Ohio before moving to Raleigh, where she met Vaickus, who also serves as the Academy’s curriculum operations solutions and marketing officer. Prior to joining the Academy, she was Chief Operating Officer of akta Pharmaceutical Development, which was managed by her husband, Dr. Louis Vaickus was founded.
Tennant said the academy will be a “student-centered school” and that small class sizes, made up of multiple grade levels, would allow teachers to spend more time working with students individually.
Tennant is currently residing at the Academy’s “Teachers’ Headquarters,” a recently renovated home in Southport, where teachers are accommodated free of charge.
dr Louis Vaickus, director of life sciences curriculum at Bald Head Island Academy, said the academy has heard from families in Southport who are interested in enrolling their children. The board has decided to only accept students who live on the island or are the children of those who work there for the time being.
Louis Vaickus also volunteers as the Board Chair of Bald Head Island Academy. Founder and CEO of akta Pharmaceutical Development, he is a researcher, physician and immunologist. He expects to continue to be involved in the further development of his company.
He hopes the academy’s individualized approach to learning will enable children to identify what they are drawn to from an early age and make them successful in a future career path.
Construction workers are constructing the commercial space that will house Bald Head Island Academy.
From the idea to the school
About seven months ago, Sheree Vaickus began planning to found Bald Head Island Academy and quickly realized that building a school on the island would not be an easy task.
Originally, no land was earmarked for a school on the island. In late June, the village of Bald Head Island amended its zoning statutes to allow schools on land designated as a commercial zone.
Another challenge was meeting building codes set by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
The Department of Public Instruction requires kindergarten and first grade classrooms to be on the first floor of a school.
Buildings need to be raised on Bald Head Island, where flooding can occur. Vaickus said it took some back-and-forth with the Department of Public Institution to explain the issue, but the current building was ultimately approved.
The academy had to wait for the village to change zoning laws before enrolling students, so Vaickus isn’t sure how many students are currently enrolled. She said many families have expressed interest.
Their daughter, who will be in sixth grade this fall, will attend the academy.
Learn from the island
On the drive from the city to the ferry terminal, no fewer than three butterflies flew across the road in front of Sheree Vaickus’ golf cart.
A sight like this might seem unusual to some, but frequent visits by native wildlife are part of everyday life for those who call Bald Head Island home. Lou Vaickus recently saw a 7-foot snake climb the railing on the family’s front porch.
Such encounters with nature are part of what school founders want to build into the curriculum of the academy.
dr Sabina Bragg, who develops the curriculum for the Academy’s summer enrichment program, holds a PhD in Educational Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.
Bragg spends most of the year at her primary residence in Charlotte and loves watching her three children learn from nature each summer during the family’s annual trip to their second home on Bald Head.
On a recent bike ride, Bragg and her daughter found a bird that had fallen out of its nest. After a short phone call, conservationists were there to help the bird and explain the situation to his daughter.
For the summer program, Bragg aims to integrate hands-on activities like these into a rigorous, metrics-based academic curriculum. Her goal is for children to experience the island while measuring academic growth.
Bald Head Island Village Mayor Peter Quinn is optimistic that adding a school will attract more families to the island. He said the school will help answer the questions many holidaymakers have about living full-time on the island.
Quinn said that despite the island’s 400-year history, the community was just getting started. In 1985, a community was formed with the formation of the Village of Bald Head Island.
He said he knew the island would eventually need a school and supported the push by community members to build one.
“I cannot imagine a church without a school. For a community to develop and invest in itself, it needs education,” he said
O’Connor, who is also the director of the academy’s parent-teacher organization, said she’s noticed a lot of community interest in volunteering at the school.
Sheree Vaickus also hopes the school will change the island’s demographics, shifting it from a seasonal vacation destination to one where young families can easily raise children. She said it’s possible for anyone to move to Bald Head Island and that it’s a community, not a place for the elite.
However, if an equal experience for students is the goal, why not start a public school?
Quinn said the island’s tax base most likely would not support a public school. According to US Census data, an estimated 76.6% of island residents are 65 years of age or older.
A fair approach
Bald Head Island Academy has a consistent policy that Sheree Vaickus says aims to level the playing field for students.
Through the school’s philanthropic efforts, the academy works to welcome students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and foster a diverse learning environment.
Vaickus said the school’s nonprofit fundraising arm, the Bald Head Island Academy Foundation, recently received 501(c)(3) status, which means donors are eligible for tax benefits. She added that the foundation is important for all students, including those whose families can currently afford the tuition.
Through the foundation, the school plans to award scholarships to those in need. According to the academy’s website, tuition is $11,600 for one year.
future of the academy
The academy will be built in two phases. Phase 1, currently under construction, is a new commercial property at 2 Maritime Way where the Academy will lease space.
The academy is studying plans for phase 2, which would consist of building a school on a now vacant lot adjacent to the property where the academy is leasing space.
The academy is accredited by its partner institution Charlotte Lab School. Vaickus could not comment on the partnership for legal reasons.
Vaickus said construction for Bald Head Island Academy is on track to welcome students on August 29, the first day of school.