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Does Uptown Charlotte need a high school?

If you haven’t been to Uptown Charlotte recently, and perhaps even if you have, the first thing you notice is the growth.

Cranes dot the skyline. The sound of construction equipment echoes off buildings. Apartment projects pop up almost monthly. Development experts project that by 2018, more than 21,000 people will live in center city and, eventually, some of those people will need to go to school.

Currently there two CMS elementary schools within the I-277 loop—but no middle schools and no high schools.

This fall, Charlotte Lab School, a public charter school, will open in Uptown. The school will initially serve 280 students in grades K-4, and plans to expand to 540 in grades K-8. Earlier this year, The Charlotte Observer ran a fascinating profile of the school and its founder. But like the other schools, it won’t serve high schoolers.

About five years ago, there was talk about locating a CMS high school in Second Ward, off Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd. near the county’s aquatic center complex. But thanks to the budget crunch, and CMS’ decision to close schools, the project never came to be.

Now, there’s renewed talk about the concept, from a variety of sources. Jeffrey Robinson, who lives in the Fourth Ward neighborhood, has started a push to rally support for an uptown magnet school.

“Imagine a magnet school in the heart of the city that attracts the best and brightest– a place where students work together to learn leadership skills that enable them to impact the world around them for good,” Robinson’s website says. “Come help us shape the vision, organize a game plan, and establish a school that is second to none.”

Several weeks ago, a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board told me there’s still lots of interest around the idea, but tempered with the reality that locating a new school in the urban core will be different from any school the district currently operates.

One idea is to put a school inside a library, museum, or science center in the center city to allow for experiential learning. Or, CMS could partner with a private developer to create a modern, innovative school within a new mixed use project. City leaders are working on the vision for redevelopment along North Tryon Street, and some have suggested that corridor—which is already home to the county’s main library, the Discovery Place science center and the Levine Museum of the New South—would be a perfect place for a school.

There are plenty of challenges, of course, to creating a new high school in Uptown. Land is more expensive and parcels may be more difficult to assemble. A city environment offers unique problems for school security—both to keep students safe and to keep them from slipping off campus to a waiting transit line to skip class.

But if Charlotte continues to grow at its meteoric rate, an Uptown high school will be essential. We’ll need it to serve the children who will grow up in center city. And we’ll need it because a school is an essential component of a vibrant neighborhood—no matter what it looks like.

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.