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My Future NC commission looks to fill education gaps

Elizabeth City My Future NC Forum

Area public school principals (from left) Laura Moreland, Michelle White and Andrew Harris discuss the challenges rural schools face during a My Future NC "listening session" at Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City on Thursday. My Future NC is a statewide initiative that's collecting educators' feedback on how to improve K-12 and higher education.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, April 20, 2018

A child must walk a very long road to become a productive citizen, and there are too many places they can fall off track.

To help fix that, local educators gathered Thursday at the Museum of the Albemarle for what organizers described as a “listening session” for the My Future NC initiative.

My Future NC is a statewide commission working to identify gaps in education and develop a statewide education plan for taking schoolchildren from prekindergarten through earning a degree and becoming career ready.

Announced in October by the heads of the University of North Carolina, the N.C. Community College System and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, the My Future NC commission aims to put out policy briefs next month and have a full, public report available by February 2019, initiative director Kristy Tesky said during Thursday's event.

As part of the commission's work, Tesky and deputy director Matthew Chamberlin said it's planned nine listening sessions across the state. The sessions feature panelists versed in different aspects of education, they said.

The session in Elizabeth City on Thursday was the commission’s fourth, and it featured the perspectives of principals at three local schools: Laura Moreland of Perquimans County Middle School; Michelle White of D.F. Walker Elementary School in Edenton; and Andrew Harris of the Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies.

White opened the discussion by noting local schools do have good news to share.

“Over 60 percent of our schools in northeastern North Carolina exceeded growth last year,” White said, referring to their performance on state testing results.

To that, Moreland added that rural schools often have the smaller enrollments that allow educators to build strong relationships with students.

However, rural schools also face the challenges of poverty and “connectivity,” Moreland and White said.

White said schools need the resources and curriculum for “taking care of the whole child.” Poor children may come to school without basic needs met, such as clean clothes, and may enter school far behind on their academics.

“Research shows us that they have been exposed to thousands and thousands of less words,” she said, calling for the state to offer universal prekindergarten.

White also said it's difficult to attract and keep quality teachers to small, rural school districts, as rural communities lack amenities such as major shopping malls and poor counties can't pay teachers as well as wealthier ones.

Moreland and Harris also noted it's difficult for schools in remote areas to give students hands-on, real-world experiences because major employers may be far away.

Harris said his school, Northeast Academy, is building an internship program with employers, but, when students can't afford a car, it's hard for them to get to employers miles away.

Harris also said it's critical for schools to relate academics to real-world scenarios — students need to know how math might be used by farmers, engineers and other professions.

White similarly commented that career preparation starts in kindergarten, and D.F. Walker invites graduating high school seniors to visit so elementary students see role models.

Moreland also said schools greatly need more community involvement, particularly as substitute teachers, bus drivers or classroom volunteers.

“I don't know that our communities know how much we need you,” she said. “We need you subbing, we need you as a bus driver, we need you volunteering in the classroom. … What I want is your time.”

During audience questions, a man describing himself as a science teacher said there was something missing in the discussion.

“'Citizenship' encompasses so much of what we're talking about,” the man said, calling it the “third C” in addition to schools' focus on career- and college-readiness. That engages students in their communities and their government, and ultimately ensures that informed people are elected to office, he said.

Though voter turnout is often low in northeastern North Carolina's elections, the panelists argued they were addressing citizenship through teaching character and work ethic.

Former Elizabeth City Mayor Joe Peel, a retired educator and former superintendent of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools, also joined the discussion. He told the audience that schools are not, and cannot be, the only entity responsible for children's success.

“I've been around over 50 years, and I'm still waiting to see the first report card about social services,” Peel said. “This community puts over $3 million a year into social services, so how many people that receive food stamps voted? How many people that received food stamps could be classified as good parents?

“We are looking at how do we break the cycle of poverty; how do educate kids to higher levels than ever before? I don't believe schools have the resources to do that alone, and yet we keep taking on more and more, and we do not hold social services accountable, health departments accountable. … That's a structure that has to be changed at the state level.”

He called for departments of social services to work more closely with school districts, and to look not just at children, but the “family unit.”

Speaking prior to the panelists' discussion, Tesky acknowledged that parental engagement is often a concern in schools' performance, but said the commission is focused on identifying and closing gaps in and between all levels of public education.

Its immediate focus is on what schools can do better, such as through better collection and coordination of data, making sure schools know all the resources available to them, and better collaboration between the K-12, university and community college systems, she said.

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