Local and regional educational leaders recently met at UNC Pembroke to examine the unique education challenges and needs facing students across rural North Carolina.
UNCP was the site of the Public School Forum of North Carolina’s third state-wide study group focusing on rural education. Among the panelists were Dr. Olivia Oxendine, associate professor at UNCP and member of the State Board of Education; Dr. Ron Hargrave, superintendent of Scotland County schools; Dr. Robert Taylor, superintendent of Bladen County schools; Dr. Shanita Wooten, superintendent of Robeson County schools; and Dr. Jim Simeon, Sandhills Region Education Consortium director.
Some of the challenges addressed included teacher recruitment, funding for school infrastructure and capital projects, competitive teacher salaries, increased access to mental health services, early literacy intervention, out-of-state teacher certification and closing the broadband access gap for rural students.
Hargrave said the culmination of these challenges have resulted in fewer high school students showing an interest in the teaching profession.
“Every time the General Assembly comes together there are so many headlines about how bad the public school systems are in the state of North Carolina,” Hargrave said. “But look at the facts. We have, as a state, the highest graduation rate in history. We have some of the highest performing grades and we have more children who have access to college courses.
“We must change the narrative around public education,” he said. “Public education is the backbone of our country. It leads to so many opportunities.”
Patrick Woodie, head of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center and Jeni Corn with MyFutureNC are serving as co-chairs of the study group. The purpose of the Study Group XVII is to consider what it would take to provide every student in rural North Carolina the opportunity to receive a sound basic education.
“I appreciate everything that the panel had to say, which is very similar to what we are hearing in other meetings of the study groups,” Woodie said. “We need to reclaim the narrative of what it means to be a public school teacher and we also have a need to reclaim the rural narrative because it has been hijacked to some extent.
“It’s not all doom and gloom and despair. There are plenty of examples of things that are going really well. We need to work together to share those stories of success.”
The work of the study group will conclude with a spring 2020 report cataloguing findings and a recommendation for policy changes.
“At that point we will talk about the resources that are needed in order to ensure that our rural counties and rural schools are served like our students in the urban areas,” said Michael Priddy, acting director of the Public School Forum.