North Carolina is one of the leading states in the school choice movement, offering a variety of traditional public, public charter, private, and home schools. One of the more unique options that we have as a part of this is what is known as University-Model Schools. These schools are hybrid, giving children both the benefits of in-class instruction and the flexibility of homeschooling.
This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Georgeanna Wiest, founder of Heritage Leadership Academy in North Carolina, to discuss how University-Model schools have the benefits of both private schools and homeschools.
This episode is a part of a series highlighting the school choice movement across North Carolina. Tune in each week to learn more!
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. We’re continuing our Back to School series of interviews looking at the many faces of education here in North Carolina, which is considered a school choice leader in the nation. Well, today we’re joined by Georgeanna Wiest, a North Carolina wife and mother of five who founded a unique school in her own community. Heritage Leadership Academy is a revolutionary University-Model home and classroom hybrid school serving pre-K to 12th grade students in four locations around the Triangle area. Georgeanna Weast, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
GEORGEANNA WIEST: Thank you so much for having me.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Tell us about this hybrid model. How does that work, where you’re doing both homeschool and in-person education?
GEORGEANNA WIEST: The University-Model is a unique hybrid school model because it is recognized as a full-time program. So it means we can register with the state as a private school, and because of that, we must meet all the standards and requirements that any other private school would have to meet. But it is different in structure in that it maximizes the benefits of both the private and homeschool models. So kids are on campus two to three days a week, depending on their grade. Pre-K through sixth grade are two days a week, seventh and up are three days a week, and they complete their remaining school days at home, which is referred to as the satellite classroom. And all lesson plans are created and implemented by experienced classroom teachers. And the parents, who you would hear referred to as a co-teacher in the model, are responsible for carrying out those lesson plans on the satellite days. What is also unique is that on those satellite days, our classroom teachers are available to the parents as a resource if they have questions or need any help.
So it is really the best of both worlds. And as the child ages, the role of the parent changes. So you’ll find that early on, the parents are very hands-on as the kids are learning to read and write and do all of those things. And in this model, in particular, especially if they start in this model, you’ll see very early on, I mean, these kids are almost completely independent, you know, checking their lesson plans, doing their work, even reaching out to their teachers for help. So it not only gives the gift of time back to the family, it also allows the children to learn the skill of time management and individual ownership and responsibility, which I believe prepares them for anything that God has for them in the future.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, that sounds wonderful. So tell us, how did this happen? How did you come up with this idea? Tell us about your educational journey and what motivated you to begin the Heritage Leadership Academy.
GEORGEANNA WIEST: My degree is actually in nursing. So I graduated in 2006 and went straight into working full-time as a nurse. So I had lots of babies in that time, those seven years, went to part-time. We ended up adopting our daughter Emmy from Taiwan. And when we got home with her, realized that she was very sick and I would need to quit my job to be home full-time with her. At that point, I was homeschooling our oldest and had two other little ones. And I didn’t really have any long-term plans of what I was going to do. I just knew we were traveling to Taiwan, we were bringing home this child and integrating her into our family and I felt that Jenna needed to be home. And it was kindergarten, you know, I could manage that, I could manage that a couple hours a day and still work.
So that is kind of where the decision to homeschool came at first. And then each year, we just reevaluated our situation based on who our kids were, what they needed. And every year, it just seemed like homeschooling was the best option given the choices that we had in our area. And then Emmy, actually, went to a public preschool and then went on to a public elementary school. So my motivation for starting HLA really came from that, and I was never truly content with our choice to homeschool. I was also not at peace with all of my children being gone five days a week, and, you know, also, the price of private school really limited us in having that as an option for our family. So I just kept homeschooling. It was year after year. That was what I did with my other kids, and Emmy, based on just her needs, she would not have been served well at home full-time.
But I struggled with a lot of insecurity of was I teaching them the right things? Was I choosing the right curriculum? Was I giving them everything that they needed? And then on top of that, you know, I’m trying to schedule all the things with all the people so that my kids are getting out of the house and having these social experiences that I was worried they were missing by being home. By the time my third was about to start kindergarten, I was desperate for something different for them. And I started doing research on part-time schools thinking, surely there’s something, surely this is not just the who wants to be able to choose something different for my kids. And there are plenty of homeschool coops that are hybrids, but I was looking for something that provided the educational standards of an accredited institution without having to give up all the flexibility that I loved about homeschooling.
So through a series of divine appointments, I learned about the university model. And the more I learned about it, the more I felt this calling on my heart that I needed to stop waiting for someone to do this and start walking forward. So I just kind of started putting one foot in front of the other, God opened the doors, and you know, He has been faithful to equip me to carry out that calling each step of the way.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So basically, you could not find a school situation that fit your kids’ needs, and so you just went out and started your own. Good for you! Tell us how that works. So do you have buildings? I mean, do the kids have sports? How does that work?
GEORGEANNA WIEST: We have grown a lot. We started, we opened our doors with 103 kids in 2017, which was honestly more than three times what we expected because, at the time, the University-Model Schools average starting roster was about 25 kids. So to open with 103 was obviously, we were meeting a need that we didn’t really even know existed. And so we kind of really skated through, we didn’t really have a honeymoon phase of growth, like it just kind of blew up immediately.
Right now, we are mobile at all of our campuses. So we have four different campuses across the Triangle, and we are planning on opening another one next year. But they’re all mobile, they’re all in churches. So we are renting facilities from churches at this point, which is limiting in space and just availability. But they do have a full load. So we are required, just like any other private school, to offer a full load of options for these children. And we are also accredited by Cognia, which is known worldwide for its standards in academic excellence. It’s actually not just an accrediting agency for private Christian schools, which a lot of schools are accredited through those, but it also accredits many public schools, and even in this area, several of the public schools are accredited by Cognia.
So we have those academic standards that we must meet. And we do. And we first met them, and then now, as we’re growing, you know, we definitely have the electives. We have our options. We have theater options, we have music options, and we’re now getting into sports. A couple of years ago, we had our first track team, cross country. We won the championship, it was amazing. And then, I think, now we’re adding, we had a basketball team last year. And so we’re slowly adding as we have people that come and want to help us make it happen. And we have the numbers of kids that can make these extracurricular things a reality.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right. So you said you started with 103? How many children do you have now?
GEORGEANNA WIEST: We’ve maxed out at 525 kids across the four campuses. And we’re only limited, really, by our facilities. But the people are there waiting. We just don’t, we don’t have the space to meet the need right now.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right. So you said you’ll have five locations, and I’m sure, I don’t think we’ve said yet, where exactly in the state we are. So people listening are probably wondering and hoping you’re in their backyard. But where are these campuses?
GEORGEANNA WIEST: We have two campuses in Apex, one is a K-6 and one is a 7-12. We have a K-6 in North Raleigh and one in Durham, and then we will be opening one in southern Wake County, that will hopefully grow to a whole K-12. But we have to do that slowly and wisely in what the demographics are for the location. But those are our locations right now, with another one coming next year. If you want to look on the website, it’s the National Association of University-Model Schools, so it’s NAUMSinc.org, has a list of all the University-Model schools in the whole world. And we are one, if you count our four as one, we are one of only 11 in the state. But they do cross the whole state.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, so if somebody hears this, and they want to know if there’s a similar University-Model School in their hometown, they can go to this website, tell us the address again.
GEORGEANNA WIEST: It’s NAUMSinc.org. So it stands for National Association of the University-Model School.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, so talk about why you were able to do this. We’ve heard so many things about how North Carolina is very friendly to different school models with different school choices. Was it unique, do you think, to North Carolina that you were able to just get this up and going as quickly as you did?
GEORGEANNA WIEST: I honestly don’t know. I think that we are, like you said, a leader in school choice, definitely helped me. But honestly, the ease in which we were able to open schools had more to do with the municipalities that we were in than it did the state in general. So you know, because we’re a private school and not a co-op, we have to jump through all the hoops of building code and zoning and traffic and all the things that any school would have to do. So that is probably one of the most challenging parts of operating. I mean, really, you look like a part-time school because you’re only physically at school half the time, but you’re treated like a full-time school which has its benefits. But in those situations, when it comes to all the red tape that comes into play, it can be difficult. But God has provided, and we have, I think, as these cities and towns have seen that we were meeting a need, it has become easier, much easier, to go in and share our story and start a new campus.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right, I can imagine. So you said that the municipalities played a role in the acceptance of this model? And what do you mean by that?
GEORGEANNA WIEST: It’s more of a facilities issue, just with zoning and the building code and things that limit who can be in what buildings and how that affects traffic. It just depends on how much that town or city is willing to work with you to make it happen. Because we are not building our own buildings with all the things that come along with that. And people knowing that we are meeting standard, we’re building to code, we’re having to walk into a facility and then kind of change what it’s used for and make it work. And that’s difficult.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you have a vision for what you think it could be?
GEORGEANNA WIEST: I’m already so blown away, I think the sky’s the limit. Because I think we’ve just hit the iceberg when it comes to the opportunities we have to meet the needs of the community and serve the families of North Carolina and even beyond. But I’m a dreamer, so that’s like my job. It’s been my dream from the beginning that we would be able to offer an affordable Christian option, not only for kids from all backgrounds and socio-economic situations but also children with significant special needs.
So you know, there were very limited options for kids like our daughter, Emmy, who had Down syndrome and a lot of other delays, outside of the public school system. And I’d love to see children of all abilities to have the same options as everybody else, we would all benefit from that, everybody would. And I hope that through what HLA is doing, that we will start to see more overall diversity in the private school sector.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you think that you’re an example that is encouraging to parents and grandparents as they look at our schooling situation these days?
GEORGEANNA WIEST: You know, I hope so. But I also would encourage these parents who maybe feel overwhelmed or very concerned about, especially the public school situation, is that you know, fear of man in the world is not of the Lord. God gives us not a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love, and sound judgment. And I think, a lot of times, the voices that we’re listening to are speaking fear in the name of truth, but the Bible is full of absolute truth. It is not full of prescriptions for your child’s education. And I think there’s a lot of very strong opinions and personal convictions out there that are fine. But I think it’s very individualized from child to child and family to family.
And I would just encourage these parents who are feeling that heaviness of this decision or feeling trapped in a certain situation, to not let fear be the driving force behind our decisions. And to understand concern is healthy. But we should truly examine the root of our discontent in whatever school situation we find ourselves in. And I would also tell everyone, as they’re navigating their school situation, that each child is different. And I think we do our kids a disservice by not looking at them as individuals with unique needs and purposes. I mean, even in my own family, we’ve done homeschool, we’ve sent our kids to private school, we’ve had a child in public school. So we have had our feet and all those areas. They’ve all been the best choice for a kid at a different season in life.
And so I want to also encourage parents in that, and looking at their children as individuals and not comparing them to others and to also remind them that no decision is permanent, you’re not signing a blood oath when you sign your kid up for a program that says that they have to attend from pre-K to 12th grade in the same program. So I think we just need to give that decision the weight it deserves but not too much, and not let ourselves get overwhelmed by fear and making the wrong choice, resting in our God-ordained role as the primary authority and discipler of our children, but then trusting Him to lead us where He wants them to be.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Before we go. Georgeanna Wiest, founder of Heritage Leadership Academy, tell us again where our listeners can go to learn more about your fine schools.
GEORGEANNA WIEST: Our website is heritageacademy-nc.org, where you can find all the information, we have interest meetings monthly at our different campuses where you can go and tour and ask questions and really hear the heart of the school and what we’re about. You can also keep up with us on Facebook and Instagram and our name on there is Heritage Leadership Academy.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, Georgeanna Wiest, thank you for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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