RALEIGH — Ninety years after it became Raleigh’s newest public school, the Thompson School reclaimed the distinction Monday as the new home for the Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy.
More than 230 middle and high school students at Wake’s one boys-only school started the new school year at a campus that opened in 1923 but hadn’t been used as a school in more than 40 years. It took a $3.5 million renovation project to convert and outfit the downtown Raleigh building to modern standards while still keeping some of the remaining historic features.
“It looks pretty good for a 90-year-old school,” said Jerrick Darden, 15, a sophomore. “Everything looks pretty nice.”
Monday also marked the first day of classes for the Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy, the district’s one girls-only school. The 200 middle and high school students celebrated a $4.7 million renovation project that expanded the academy’s space at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh.
The female students walked through a spirit tunnel surrounded by cheering parents. The sixth-grade students received yellow roses from the older students to welcome them into the fellowship of sisters they’d be joining for the next seven years.
Both Wake County single-gender schools opened for the first time last school year. The demand from parents and students has been strong.
Eventually offering sixth through 12th grades, both schools will follow a leadership theme in a single-sex environment that supporters say will benefit the learning for those students. The eventual goal, once an agreement is worked with one of the local colleges or universities, is to allow students to graduate from the academies with a high school diploma and two years of college credit.
“The potential for you young ladies is infinite,” new Wake County Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill said at an assembly at the women’s academy. “I honor you and your families because you are pioneers.”
The first day was more low-key at the men’s academy, and the school district held a rededication ceremony for the building Friday. But the students and staff were glad to finally have a permanent home to call their own.
A change of plans
The school district had initially planned last school year to house both academies at William Peace University as part of a partnership with the institution. When the deal fell through, Wake scrambled to find alternative locations.
Wake signed a lease with the state to use the Morehead School for the women’s academy while the men’s academy was housed in modular classroom trailers next to East Millbrook Middle School in North Raleigh.
The district found a permanent home for the men by leasing back the former Thompson School for $1 a year.
The Thompson School was built in 1923 on East Hargett Street. Ironically, the site was used as a girls school before the Civil War.
It initially opened as an all-white school, but by the early 1970s it had become almost entirely all-black. The Raleigh City School System closed Thompson in 1971 as part of desegregation efforts that saw several black schools close or change grade levels to send black students to white schools.
The building sat vacant before Wake County converted it into space for its Human Services Department in 1984.The county relocated the agencies to other space after the new lease was signed.
Ideal for leaders
“It’s great to have it used as a school again,” said Sheri Green, the school system’s director of planning and design. “That’s what it was built for.”
In addition to the value of the school having a permanent home, Ian Solomon, the principal of the men’s academy, said the building’s location is ideal for its leadership theme. He said there are so many government institutions, museums and private businesses they can partner with because of their proximity to the campus.
The school system still uses several Raleigh school buildings that date to the 1920s, including Hunter, Underwood, Washington and Wiley elementary schools. Those schools have seen extensive renovations over the past 90 years.
At Thompson, Green said they had to convert back to classroom space the offices that the county had created for its agencies. The 27,000-square-foot school is the smallest in the school system.
Green said that former Thompson students will be able to recall some of the original features such as the proscenium. That’s a part of the old auditorium stage that’s been converted into the “cafe” for lunch and to house many of the school’s library books.
The gymnasium on the second floor was kept and will be used again for physical education and assemblies.
The building also retains its original terrazzo floor tiles in the hallways and original wood flooring in the classrooms.
“I’m impressed that they kept so much of the historic character,” Solomon said.