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Making a school out of a former mall: NEAAAT, a charter in Elizabeth City, finally has a home

On Monday, Aug. 24, when classes start at Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies (NEAAAT) in Elizabeth City, the school year won’t be the only thing that’s new.

While it may be a while before all students and faculty can use it together, NEAAAT — for the first time since it was founded in 2015 — will have a building to call its own.

The outside of NEAAAT, which is in a former mall in Elizabeth City. It opens to students Aug. 24. Mary Willson/EducationNC

The 63,000-square-foot school is in a former shopping mall called Southgate near downtown Elizabeth City, which once was a bustling city center. Like many malls over the past two decades, the space has been reinvented. While a Belk store, a Burkes outlet and Hibbet Sports still occupy the shopping center, the back half of the space has been remodeled into a modern school building.

The location of NEAAAT, in the back of a shopping center in Elizabeth City. Google Images.

“We’ve had the need for additional space, and this facility has been a godsend,” NEAAAT CEO Andrew Harris said during a construction project site visit. “Over the past five years we’ve made tremendous strides toward breaking through traditional boundaries you see in traditional education, to truly innovate new methods for teaching and learning.”

Since the school’s founding in 2015, the student body has been learning in various sites on the Elizabeth City State University campus. Five years ago, it served 120 students.

The cafeteria doubles as an open area with flexible seating. CEO Andrew Harris says this is the largest meeting area in Elizabeth City. / Mary Willson, EducationNC

Now, the student population is more than 750 students, from nine northeastern North Carolina counties.

When classes return, fifth-graders will have the option to be there in person, sixth- and seventh-graders will have the option to rotate days, and high schoolers will be completely online. 

Because many students travel upwards of an hour to get to NEAAAT (it has a regional busing system), classes have had a remote element for years.

“It’s never been unusual to walk through our classrooms to see our students collaborating in teams with classmates who are being patched in from the northeast,” Harris said. “You’ll notice today as you walk through some of our classrooms, you’ll actually see configurations that will again create a new precedent for remote learning for students that are working here in person, collaborating in teams, and all over the northeast [counties].”

A flexible classroom space at NEAAAT. Most classrooms are in former stores of the mall. / Mary Willson/EducationNC

NEAAAT is a Title 1 public charter school, specializing in project-based learning (PBL) with a STEAM-heavy curriculum.

Elizabeth City is a hub for aerospace jobs and research. Pasquotank County is home to Air Station Elizabeth City, one of the largest Coast Guard sites in the country. The Aviation Research & Development Commerce Park will provide space and instruction for the Elizabeth City State University Aviation Science Program and the College of Albemarle FAA-Certified Air Frame and Power Plant Maintenance Program.

“As you travel through some of our labs and classrooms, some of the equipment you see is a little different than what we all remember from school,” Harris said. “We want to make sure our students graduate with real-world skills, not just content knowledge.”

While designing the new space, Harris worked with local businesses and visited local industries to plan what they could add to the building to help NEAAAT students be competitive in technological industries after graduation.

“We relied on them to help us select the same type of furniture and equipment they would expect in the workplace so when they graduate NEAAAT, it’s not new to them, it’s another day in the office,” he said.

A hydraulic instrumentation module used in classes at NEAAAT. Mary Willson/EducationNC

“On the instructional end, our team has been working for the last several years to design classroom instruction that also mirrors what students can expect to see as they go on to solve some of the challenges of the future,” Harris said.

Many classrooms at NEAAAT look more like labs and workshops. In some classes, students will build models of airplane wings, or learn hydraulics. Other classes include drone building and coding robotic vehicles with TI calculators.

TI calculators are provided to every student, supplied by grants. One use of these is to code coordinates for an autonomous model car to follow. Mary Willson/EducationNC

Project-based learning (PBL) is a foundation for NEAAAT. Most classes have a hands-on element, and all of the disciplines are interconnected through PBL. In one classroom, posters created by teachers during professional development can be seen defining parts of PBL.

One says, “Every PBL begins with a well-crafted question.”

A poster created about project-based learning at NEAAAT. Mary Willson/EducationNC

“The first thing they did was give us a project,” said Gabrielle Hoskins, a 10th-grade student. “PBLs have been a big part of my life now. I really enjoy projects and presenting and things like that.”

Gabrielle came to NEAAAT thinking she would pursue marketing and business when she graduated. Now, she’s interested in studying forensic science.

“I want to say thank you to all the people who helped make it come to life because this building means a lot,” she said of the new space. “More than what some people may know. It has been in the works for a very, very long time, so looking at it now and seeing the finished project is amazing.”

A robotics lab at NEAAAT. Tenth-grader Gabrielle Hoskins is on the robotics team. This space will be used to build, program, and test robots for competition. Mary Willson/EducationNC
Mary Willson

Mary Willson is the director of engagement at EducationNC.