The Case for a Gap Year

Some high school grads are experiencing independence and growth before heading off to college


Published:

Sarah Montross, who is now a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, spent a year in Ecuador working with an organization called Global Citizen.

Photos courtesy of Sarah Montross

Sarah Montross threw her parents a curveball when, following her senior year of high school, she announced that she wasn’t going to UNC-Chapel Hill ... right away. Instead, she wanted to spend a year in Ecuador working in a fellowship program with an organization called Global Citizen. She would be teaching English, living with a family she had never met, using public transportation and managing her own finances. She was taking a gap year.

Montross had a few weeks of tension with her parents, but eventually, they came around. 

“It took some convincing,” she says. “It’s a new concept for a lot of people. They think kids should go straight to college. It’s not that I wasn’t ready, I just wanted time to grow.” 

Unlike a college study abroad program, Montross’ gap year was totally immersive. 

“It throws you into being super independent. It was the most challenging nine months of my life, but I’m glad I did it,” says Montross, now a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill. “I’m more excited now and prepared to study what I love.”

 

Transformative Experiences

For Montross and others, a gap year can be transformative, setting them up for collegiate success and personal growth. Bethany Nolan’s parents of Asheville actually encouraged their daughter to pursue a gap year. Bethany pieced together her own, working long hours at a restaurant in Colorado, enrolling in a National Outdoor Leadership School semester in Utah, traveling through South Dakota and Wyoming — where she learned self-reliance — and an intensive summer internship in the Caribbean through Raleigh-based, Broadreach Summer Adventures. 

“The terms were that I’d be working toward something,” Nolan says, adding that she would have been nervous to start college on her own, had she not taken a gap year. “I have no reservations. I’m so glad I did it.”

William Clayton, a 2012 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and Morehead-Cain scholar, used his gap year to work and explore the world. His experiences included a National Outdoor Leadership School semester in Mexico, a church missionary project in Peru, time with Habitat for Humanity in Chile, a trip to Greece and a computer science teaching gig in Ecuador. Clayton says attending UNC-Chapel Hill as a freshman after a taking gap year was like coming home. 

“Suddenly everyone understands you, you’re comfortable,” he says. “I had been moving every four or five weeks. I’d build these great relationships, then I’d leave and not know if I’d see them again.” 

Clayton credits his ability to adapt to his yearlong, nomadic lifestyle. He decided to study economics after observing large contrasts in wealth and uncorrelated differences in happiness while living with a wealthy family in Venezuela.

 

Opening Doors

Clayton, Nolan, and Montross all had some form of financial assistance — whether from financial aid, scholarship or parent support — to help execute their gap year. UNC-Chapel Hill is working to open doors for students who might not come by gap year opportunities so easily. 

Sarah Smith, director of the Global Gap Year Fellowship at UNC-Chapel Hill and Gap Year Association board of directors member, says the university seeks out interested students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, first-generation students, students of color and students from rural communities for gap year opportunities. 

“We definitely find students who fit that demographic, who are ready and open to this opportunity,” Smith says. 

 

A Growing Concept

The primary challenge for students who want to take a gap year, Smith says, is convincing their parents to support them and showing them the value of it 

“The plan was to go to college,” she says. But Smith notices the students who go through the program find their footing in college a little easier. 

PHOTOS COURTESY OF SARAH MONTROSS AND WILLIAM CLAYTON

“They’re flexible. College is less of a challenge for them. It sets them up to succeed,” she says. 

The students commit to at least six months of service, with assistance; do their own planning and budgeting; learn conversation skills; and are required to regularly recount their experiences. Interest in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Global Gap Year Fellowship program is increasing, Smith says.

“In the first year, we had about five students do the fellowship, and now we have plans to support 21,” she says. 

If your teen is interested in taking a gap year, here are some resources to consider. 

• UNC-Chapel Hill’s Global Gap Year Fellowship program: globalgap.unc.edu

• Duke University Gap Year Program: dukegapyear.duke.edu

• National Outdoor Leadership School: nols.edu

• Thinking Beyond Borders: thinkingbeyondborders.org

• International Wilderness Leadership School: iwls.com

• International School for Earth Studies: gapearthstudies.com

 

Addie Ladner lives in Raleigh with her husband, two young children and beagle mix.

 

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January 2020

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500 S Salisbury St
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7109 Leesville Road
Raleigh, NC  27613
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Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

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Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
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207 Old Lexington Road
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Cost: Free

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5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
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Cost: See website for fees

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Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
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Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
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Cost: $70/month

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Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
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Cost: $70/month

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Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
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Harris Lake County Park
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Cost: Free

Where:
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5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
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Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
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Raleigh, NC
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Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
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Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

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Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
View map »


Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

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Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


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Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
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5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
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Cost: $3

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Wilkerson Nature Preserve
5229 Awls Haven Drive
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-6764
Contact Name: Mandy Hunter
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Nature Stories: Welcoming Winter Wednesday, January 15  1-2 p.m  Brrrrr!  When it’s cold, you put on a coat.  What do you suppose critters do?  Learn how different animal groups deal with...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Road
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Telephone: 919-870-4330
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Cost: $400 per module

Where:
Wynns Family Psychology
130 Preston Executive Drive
#202
Cary, NC  27513
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Sponsor: Wynns Family Psychology
Telephone: 919-467-7777
Contact Name: Wynns Family Psychology
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Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
View map »


Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

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Cost: $75-$216

Where:
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156 E. Chatham St
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Cost: $225

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Hope Community Church- Apex
2080 E Williams Street
Apex, NC  27539
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Sponsor: Beyond Personal Finance
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Cost: $225

Where:
Hope Community Church- Apex
2080 E Williams Street
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Cost: $225

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Hope Community Church- Apex
2080 E Williams Street
Apex, NC  27539
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Cost: Free

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
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Sponsor: Azevedo Family Psychology
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Cost: $11

Where:
500 S Salisbury St
raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Website »

More information

Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
View map »


Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

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Cost: FREE

Where:
Hillsborough Library
137 West Margaret Lane
Hillsborough, NC  27278
View map »


Sponsor: Hillsborough Main Library
Telephone: 919-245-2525
Contact Name: Beth Hawkey
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Cost: Free

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
View map »


Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
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Cost: $2 members, $5 non members

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NC Museum of Natural Sciences
11 West Jones St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Contact Name: Hugo Romero Sanchez
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Cost: $11

Where:
500 S Salisbury St
raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Website »

More information

Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

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Willis R. Casey Aquatic Center
2611 Cates Ave.
Raleigh, NC  27695
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More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
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Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
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Preschoolers (ages 3-5 with an adult) learn what wild animals do in winter by pretending to be animals that hibernate, migrate or just stay warm in the cold, winter woods! Take a hike, do a craft,...

Cost: $3

Where:
Wilkerson Nature Preserve
5229 Awls Haven Drive
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-6764
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Explore nature through play!  The Main Library is partnering with local Tinkergarten leaders Heather Murphy and Kate MacCartney to bring the fun of nature indoors.  Join us as we investigate...

Cost: Free

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
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January Story Time, Puppet Show & Art Activity Puppet Show Incorporated https://www.puppetshowinc.org/ presents the classic Aesop fable The Lion and the Mouse. Activities include a story time,...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Carrboro Library
900 Old Fayetteville Road
Inside McDougle Middle School
Chapel Hill, NC  27516
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Sponsor: Carrboro Branch Library
Telephone: 919-969-3006
Contact Name: Beth Hawkey
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Want a wild start to your new year?When you’re facing the after-holiday blues after packing up the decorations and taking down the tree, never fear. Come celebrate the new year in a thrilling,...

Cost: $20 - $26

Where:
Animal Park at the Conservators Center
676 E Hughes Mill Rd
Burlington, NC  27217
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Sponsor: Animal Park at the Conservators Center
Telephone: 336-421-0883
Contact Name: Taylor Sharp

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Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
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Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
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Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
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Spanish Alive is providing Family Spanish classes starting in January! Join us to learn Spanish as an entire family in an immersive, fun environment. Our teachers are trained Spanish educators and...

Cost: $75-$216

Where:
Spanish Alive
156 E. Chatham St
Cary, NC
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Family Wildlife Series: Owl Prowl Saturday, January 18, 6-7:15 p.m. Venture into the night on a Blue Jay hike.  Learn about owl habits and adaptations as we listen for these nocturnal birds....

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Road
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Telephone: 919-870-4330
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Education Guide

The 2019-20 Education Guide offers 718 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools and academic resources.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. In our 2019-20 issue, explore 1,028 resources for family fun.