HUNTERSVILLE – A nonprofit group plans to establish a campus featuring specialized private schools for students with learning difficulties and a unique public charter high school designed to place students directly into chosen career fields.

Aspire Carolinas Foundation leaders expect to finalize the purchase of a 24-acre parcel in the northwest corner of the Beatties Ford Road and Hambright Road intersection (beside the Hopewell High School campus) in October. The acquisition will come approximately one year after the nonprofit organization was formed with the targeted goal of serving students coping with a variety of learning difference issues.

Aspire expects to open a third- through eighth-grade school in an existing 6,000-square-foot home on the property in the fall of 2019, according to Jennifer Nichols, the organization's executive director. The school will be for students with learning differences (LD), including Asperger’s syndrome and others on the autism spectrum. In addition, Nichols said the foundation plans an aggressive fundraising and partnership-building campaign to pursue further development of the campus, including the opening of the state's first charter trade high school in 2020.

In addition, future plans for the campus also include the construction of a private K-12 school for LD students along with a gymnasium and cafeteria, playing fields, an outdoor classroom area, garden and parking areas.

Nichols said efforts leading to the creation of the Aspire Carolinas Foundation – led by a team of leaders in the education, business, philanthropy and public service fields – began years ago with an examination of the need for enhanced programs for LD students.

“We were meeting with groups and individuals and trying to figure out what to do to enhance opportunities and address needs,” Nichols said, emphasizing the goal was to serve areas outside of Charlotte. “We talked to people around Huntersville, and they said ‘Bring it up here. Bring it to Huntersville, and we’ll support it.’ That’s what we did.”

A touch of providence

Nichols and the Aspire board of directors – Marty McCarthy, Dale Halton, Sarah McAulay and James Secunda (their various achievements and resumés are detailed on www.aspirecarolinas.org) – had a vision for a tranquil, spacious, accessible and “home-like” setting best suited for their plans but no prospects. Then they learned acreage known locally as the McDaniel property was available.

The parcel off Beatties Ford Road features historic structures (the Barnette house and the McCoy house, both dating back to the 1880s) joined together in the 1980s and connected to a four-car garage. Additional acreage to accommodate future buildings, easy access off Hambright and Beatties Ford roads and a zoning designation permitting the proposed use made the property an ideal fit.

And the current property owners – sisters-in-law Donna and Barbara McDaniel – also supported the plans.

“I think it was really providential,” Donna McDaniel said. “We have had other offers. There have been other plans for the property, but for one reason or another, they all fell through. It seems like this was meant to be.”

Barbara McDaniel added she is eager to see the campus become a reality.

“I’m excited to see the plans come together,” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing it all take shape.”

The schools

The LD schools will be private, Nichols explained, so students can be properly matched with the curriculum and classes provided. She said the large rooms and comforting environment of the existing house will be a good setting for the third- through eighth-grade Asperger’s/autism programs scheduled to begin in the fall of 2019, and the planned K-12 LD school will have an interior wing to serve Asperger’s/autism students.

The ninth- through 12th-grade charter trade school, open to students from Mecklenburg and surrounding counties, will be the first of its kind in the state, according to Nichols. it will offer job preparatory training in a variety of fields and also be an option available for students in the K-12 LD school who want to pursue career training.

Nichols said the Aspire group wants to be the catalyst for informing the community about the schools and coordinating family involvement, fundraising and corporate partnership efforts. She said the foundation will also help “pull all the different groups together because it will take the whole village working together to make this happen.”

Board member McAulay, a former Huntersville mayor and longtime town commissioner, said she is “delighted to work on such a great project” that she expects will become a valuable addition for Huntersville and the surrounding area.

“People have asked me what I’ve been doing, and I’ve been telling them I’m involved in a project I’m very excited about,” she said. “They got me involved because I know the town and the people, and since we began this conversation I’ve had people tell me how their son, or their grandson, could have really benefited from something like this.

“There is a real need here. These schools will provide opportunities for some very special and very smart young people.”

McAulay added she also hopes to be involved in efforts to create a scholarship fund to help those who want to attend the schools.

Melinda Bales, a Huntersville town commissioner who has taken an active role in education and economic development issues, said the planned project has many positive attributes.

“Having a school serving children with learning difficulties will be a big plus because there is a huge need in the community,” Bales said. “And creating a high school focused on career and trade skills will be an enormous asset for the town and the entire region.

“I’m excited about all the possibilities, what this could mean for young people, their families, our community and the region’s future workforce.”

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