In Florence funds, no money for a new Isaac Bear school

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A parent committee has been pushing for a permanent building at UNCW

WILMINGTON — Melissa Story closely monitored damage reports from the University of North Carolina Wilmington after Hurricane Florence. If Isaac Bear Early College High School, at the south edge of campus, was impacted, it might be guaranteed money for a facelift, or even the new brick-and-mortar building of her dreams.

But when the clouds parted, the 11-year-old modular building was miraculously untouched. The rest of campus was not so lucky, sustaining nearly $140 million in damage.

One year into her push for a permanent Isaac Bear building at UNCW, Story, whose daughter attends the school, is reorganizing her efforts. With the university in the midst of what will be a months-long — maybe years-long — process to repair its priority buildings, Story is focused on getting local legislators invested in Isaac Bear.

“I know that UNCW has been very challenged by the hurricane, and that’s an understatement,” Story said. “I wish there could be just a magic wand.”

Cramped quarters

Isaac Bear opened in 2006, and moved to its modular home at UNCW in 2007. UNCW’s Watson College of Education manages the school, while New Hanover County Schools pays student fees and reimburses the university for some staff costs.

Composed of a single hallway flanked by classrooms, teachers and students say they’ve outgrown Isaac Bear. There are not enough classrooms for each teacher to have her own space, and the cafeteria fits roughly a third of the school’s 230 students.

This semester, Story formed a new building committee which sent out a survey to the Isaac Bear community. Out of 122 respondents, 93 were students, and they overwhelmingly said they need more room.

“We need an actual building that can support the people of our school,” one person wrote. “The trailer is far too old and in bad condition.”

“If your school is smaller than your home and teachers refer to it as ‘the cottage,’ then it’s time for the ‘temporary’ trailer you go to school in to get expanded at the very least,” another wrote.

Legislative shake-up

UNCW officials have estimated a permanent Isaac Bear building would cost $20 million.

The initiative had become something of a pet project for outgoing Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, but he was unable to get a new Isaac Bear in this year’s state budget or Hurricane Florence relief legislation. Lee lost his reelection bid in November to Democrat Harper Peterson.

Lee did not return a request for comment this week.

Story, who actually used to work for Peterson when he owned Island Passage clothing store, said she’s optimistic about working with him on Isaac Bear, though she’s yet to make contact with the senator-elect. On Jan. 3, her committee plans to host local legislators, including Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, for a tour of the school.

One option she sees is having Isaac Bear move deeper into campus, even if it occupies just part of a larger campus building. The current space backs up to the vacant building and lot that formerly housed Kmart, which she fears is a safety hazard, especially because the school does not have a school resource officer.

“It just is illogical to have 15- and 16-year-olds in that kind of vulnerable situation,” she said. “I think they need to be moved onto campus.”

Reporter Cammie Bellamy can be reached at