A first look (and a look back) at the historic W.B. Wicker School, which has undergone a facelift and will become Lee County’s ninth elementary school this month.
By Gordon Anderson | Photos by Billy Liggett
When students walk through the doors of Lee County’s newest school late this month, they’ll also be entering a place that’s been home to nearly a century’s-worth of educational history, ranging from a time when public schooling was little more than a shadow of what it’s come to be, to an era of forward progress in race relations, and even the evolution of how community colleges educate people beyond high school.
It may sound like a paradox, but Lee County’s ninth public elementary school — the W.B. Wicker Elementary School on South Vance Street near downtown Sanford — is also one of its oldest and most significant.
Wicker began its life in 1927 as the Lee County Training Center, a school for black students that had been funded at least in part by Chicago-based philanthropist Julius Rosenwald during a time when he was contributing to the progress of education for black students across the country. The Rosenwald fund helped establish more than 5,000 black schools across the south, including at least 800 in North Carolina
Even in 1927, and certainly before, educational opportunities for African Americans — who constituted sizable portions of Sanford and Lee County’s populations in their early days — were severely limited.
“The first well-documented black school was the South Sanford Graded School, an unpainted two-story frame building constructed in the early twentieth century on Washington Street,” reads a nomination for the Wicker property to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
When William Bartelle Wicker, who eventually became the Lee County Training School’s namesake, took over as principal of the South Sanford Graded School in 1924, the school had just nine students. Nine. But a testament to Wicker’s effectiveness as a principal is visible in a review of history. According to the National Register nomination, by the time the Lee County Training School opened its doors three years later, that number had tripled.
It would only continue to grow.
By the late 60s, at the end of the segregation era, the school — renamed after its founding principal by the 1950s — was graduating classes of more than 100 kids.
After desegregation was implemented in 1969, the campus served for another two decades as one of Lee County’s middle and elementary schools before closing altogether in 1990. It fell into disrepair fairly quickly, but found new life in 2006 after Central Carolina Community College renovated the original classroom building for use as an auxiliary campus.
On Sept. 8, 2015, the Lee County Board of Education selected the W.B. Wicker campus as its “preferred site” for the county’s next elementary school, which would be its first since 1998.
What’s followed in the nearly four years since has been both both boringly procedural (votes by the school board and the county board of commissioners to purchase the site, to secure financing, to choose an architect, to approve site plans and so on) and frustratingly political (some opponents of the school made misleading claims about the level of crime in the neighborhood, calling it a “known threat” to students, and made use of a decades-old sexual assault against a student to cast doubt on the location as a viable choice for a new school in 2019).
But for the most part, things have gone according to plan. Ground broke in 2018. Wendy Carlyle, a former school board member and then-employee at the district’s Central Office, was named the next principal in January of this year. Construction has proceeded without any major hiccups, and as of this writing, not only has the entirety of the original campus been restored and repurposed, but new buildings have been added, creating a striking contrast that uniquely captures the project’s spirit.
One minute, you’ll be walking through a hallway that even the most casual observer could tell you had been built nearly a century ago. The next, you’re in an area that boasts an almost futuristic, glass-walled dance studio or maker space where students will experience the full benefit of the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) approach the school will use.
“That’s why it’s such a cool project,” said Dr. Andy Bryan, Lee County Schools’ superintendent. “It celebrates the history and the future at the same time. None of the buildings on the original campus were demolished. It’s all either new, or part of the original construction.”
Ruby Maxwell is one of many, many African American graduates of the W.B. Wicker School who recalls her years at the school with not just fondness, but pride.
“The school was fine. The school was wonderful,” Maxwell told the Rant recently. “It was our home away from home. We realized what was happening with segregation and it upset us, but Mr. Wicker taught us to be humble. It was a place for our community.”
Maxwell, who had graduated in the 1950s, knew Wicker as a child — “back in those days, we shared phone lines, and we had a phone line with him, so I knew him ever since I could remember,” she said — and was glad to accept his offer to return to the school as its librarian in 1962, shortly before his retirement.
W.B. Wicker — who died just two years later in 1964 — remains moderately well known in Sanford, and more so since the completion of a mural on a South Horner Boulevard building dedicated to him and A.L. Boykin, a local black builder who helped build the school, which which was added to in 1934 and 1949. The National Register application indicates that Wicker was raised on Washington Avenue (Washington Street at the time) and was the son of a laundress and an oil mill foreman. He even worked as a laborer for Boykin, among other jobs, before earning a degree from the Virginia Seminary and Normal School in Lynchburg in the early 1920s.
“Mr. Wicker was known all over. He had connections all over the state,” Maxwell said. “He was a disciplinarian, but I always liked him. Everything we were taught then helped us represent the school and the community well.”
The pride Maxwell holds for her school is evident in much of its alumni. In the years since the old Wicker School closed its doors, the former students have organized regular reunions and even included students who began their schooling at Wicker but finished at Lee County High School after 1969 (as an employee, Maxwell made the same transition herself and served as the integrated high school’s librarian for another 21 years).
“The class of 1970 graduated from (Lee Senior), but they still consider themselves McIver kids,” she said.
As far as the idea to repurpose the campus for use by a new generation of students – of all races – Maxwell says she and many other alumni are thrilled.
“I think it’s an excellent idea. The school was a beacon for our whole community,” she said, noting that she will help maintain a museum on campus that showcases the school’s long history. “I am so happy they’ve decided to remodel it.”
While Kelli and James Laudate of Sanford have two children who are already in middle school, a third daughter, Carsen, opted to leave Tramway Elementary — the only school she’s ever known — to start third grade at Wicker in the fall.
“We made the decision together to ask her how she felt about going to a new school,” Kelli told the Rant recently. “A big part of the decision to give her this opportunity was that we had one child on a year round schedule and two others on a traditional schedule. But she made the decision on her own, and she’s excited. She thinks she’s going to be a pioneer.”
Carsen and her parents are both particularly excited about the STEAM model — for Carsen, it’s the opportunity to be involved with the arts, particularly dance, and for Kelli and James, it’s the opportunity to expose their daughter to things like coding, which James has taught in schools as a volunteer from time to time.
“That’s where everything is going these days,” Kelli said. “The only thing (Carsen) said was ‘I wish I could take all of my friends with me. But I definitely want to go.’”
As far as the political concerns about the safety of the surrounding neighborhood, Kelli says she’s not worried at all, and that she hopes the community as a whole will see what a benefit the new campus will be.
“If we live in a bubble, then nobody will ever get to experience anything new,” she said. “I just want to see people take a positive approach to this school and look at all the positives it’s going to bring.”
District leaders took The Rant on a walk through of the campus in mid July, and while progress remained to be made — there are outdoor concrete walkways to be poured and landscaping to be done, for example — the campus is largely complete, and it’s easy to envision the property teeming with children and teachers going about a typical school day.
The historic auditorium — “it was just a shell,” district Maintenance Director Chris McNeill said — has been completely redone, with new tinted windows, a new roof, new duct work, and a new concrete floor. The original gymnasium has also been redone, and now includes heating and air, amenities prior generations didn’t enjoy.
The oldest part of the campus, which Bryan calls “W.B. Wicker proper,” has been refitted for classrooms, a media center, offices, and the aforementioned history museum. That section is connected to the school’s new buildings by hallways that keep kids inside unless they’re on a playground or in the school’s outdoor learning lab, which has tables and raised beds for plants.
Those new parts of the campus even include a “third floor” that’s something of a trademark by architect Jimmy Hite. This third floor contains all of the building’s mechanical elements, making for easier access by repairmen needing to perform maintenance (SanLee Middle School is built the same way).
There’s a safety fence around the entire property, and access to the buildings by visitors, like at the district’s other schools, is gained via a secure buzzer system.
While the school can fit up to 969 students, making it something of a “school and a half,” it will open on Aug. 26 with about 700 kids.
“We wanted to make sure as the year started out that we had functional capacity and room to grow,” Bryan explained. “We’ll assess next spring to see where we are and check growth in the county and make adjustments if necessary.”
The STEAM approach isn’t necessarily new to the district — Bryan says STEM is already present in most of Lee County’s public schools, as are multiple opportunities for exposure to the arts — but he called the Wicker example “a more focused approach to integrating all of these disciplines.”
“A number of schools across the country have used a STEM approach, and there’s plenty of research showing a focus on STEM plus the arts helps students learn at a higher level,” he said. “There’s a great need for STEM skills across the state, and we think that by putting those things together in an elementary setting, we can continue to support our community and our entire state. It’s an opportunity to enhance how students will use those foundational skills as they are being taught.”
Further, in a time when “school choice” is a term used to apply to an ever-growing list of options for families that include private schools, charter schools, and even home-schooling, Bryan said the approach at Wicker — termed a “magnet school” which will host a mix of kids who applied via lottery (as in the case of Carsen Laudate) and others who will attend based on redistricting — is part of the district’s broader approach to offering that school choice in a public setting.
“We’ve always taken the approach that we offer a great deal of school choice, between the (application-based) year round model at Tramway, Lee Early College, and the various programs that offer choice within the schools themselves,” he said. “This felt like a logical extension. I think it’s something that’s been driven just by the evolution of schooling.”
Bryan said he’s heard far more positive feedback about the project than anything else.
“I’ve gotten a lot of comments from individuals who went to Wicker and who are proud we’re restoring the school,” he said. “I think it’s important from a historical perspective to pay tribute to what it’s meant to this community, but also to show how we’re moving forward.”