Eight new schools are opening in Wake County this school year — but none like this one. It’s not just a school, it’s a YMCA. Plus, affordable housing. And, eventually grocery store, even a bank. It’s all happening on 32 acres of land in an area of the city where it’s needed the most: The Rock Quarry Road corridor near I-40. When you see the pool and the splash pad outside, it’s a dead giveaway that this is not your average Wake County elementary school.
In fact, there’s nothing average about the new Southeast Raleigh Elementary. It’s half-school (pre-K through 5), half-YMCA (fully-loaded with workout equipment, locker rooms/sauna, and yes that giant eight-lane pool).
“Our community has not seen anything like this before,” said Kia Baker, the director of the non-profit Southeast Raleigh Promise, whose mission is to revitalize southeast Raleigh through what’s called a purpose-built community model.
So when talks began in 2012 to build a new YMCA in southeast Raleigh — in this part of town with some of the highest levels of poverty and lowest levels of education — they soon realized, they needed more than just a new “Y”. “And so that vision started getting bigger, with lots of community volunteers and folks engaging in the conversation,” Baker said
SE Raleigh Branch Director Dexter Hebert added, “I think what we realized was there’s a lot of inequities that existed in our community that a Y wouldn’t move the needle, a standalone wouldn’t move the needle on all those issues.”
It’s a big plan. The school and YMCA opens this month. But a hundred feet away, new affordable housing is under construction — brand new apartments set to open next summer. Next to that, a new shopping center is planned — with a much-needed grocery store and a bank to serve residents’ economic needs.
A Unique Project
Wake County Public School System, the largest district in the state, has never been involved with before with a project like this. It’s the district’s first foray into community re-development.
“Ambitious … bold,” said SE Raleigh School Board Rep. Keith Sutton about his first thoughts about the plan. “But you know this is a can-do community. It was a lot of work because it was a different type of collaboration, a different type of partnership, and a different way of thinking. So, it was a paradigm shift for a lot of us.”
Not Your Average School
Shared spaces like the community kitchen isn’t just for students — the Y will open it up for neighborhood use; Think: healthy cooking demonstrations. The rooftop garden is just big enough for students to use for their science classes.
The pool, of course, is a shared space. But each student who goes here is required to take swimming — a way to combat the issue of lack of access to swimming lessons in marginalized communities. And while Southeast Raleigh Promise is keeping its focus on this part of the city – there’s hope what it helped build here can be replicated in towns and cities across the Triangle. “Certainly we hope we can be a model,” Baker said. “And help other folks learn how to do this work.” Read more here.