Community development: making public education a priority

Since about half of North Carolina’s counties showed population losses in the latest U.S. Census estimates, continuing the state’s trend of growth in and around urban areas and decline in rural counties, you probably weren’t surprised that Lenoir County was one of the counties in decline. What may be a little surprising, though — and may be a little more troubling — is that the county’s population loss is picking up pace.

The county’s population dropped by 1,010 between the 2010 census and the estimate as of July 1, 2014. About 40 percent of that loss happened between 2013 and 2014 and, at 426 souls, is the largest year-to-year decline of any since 2010.

We won’t dwell on that. You can see the data for yourself here http://tinyurl.com/ncalhud. It’s better to focus on what kinds of things might be called to the fore, championed by local government and the community, in hopes of making Lenoir County a place where people move to, rather than move out of. What, indeed, could we hang our hat on as a superlative?

We suggest this potential attraction: public schools.

Few things matter more to people looking to relocate or to companies looking for a place to site a plant than the educational opportunities available there. If they looked at Lenoir County, they would see a public school system in the process of reinventing itself, a school system that admittedly isn’t where it wants to be, but that is working mightily to get there.

As an example to these interested visitors, we would point to the long-term involvement of the School System Improvement Task Force in driving change. Earlier posts on this blog provide plenty of background on the work of the task force, but it’s worth pointing out the good mix of people on this community-based group — parents, teachers, community leaders and school administrators — and the good work they’ve set in motion just this year. For example:

— iLCPS, the digital learning initiative that put iPads in the hands of 4,300 K-5 students last fall and, by providing professional development and other support for teachers, has moved learning from the “sit and get” model of the last many decades to a process of discovery that mirrors the age we live in. We’re expanding this initiative into middle schools next school year and will be able to do the same for 2,800 high school students if we get the support LCPS is seeking from the county board of commissioners. A fully integrated K-12 digital learning program is not something parents will find for their children elsewhere. It’s the kind of innovation that attracts attention to the school system and to the county and impresses potential residents.

— Career Pathways, which provides students in our three traditional high schools detailed four-year, career-oriented courses of study in 14 different areas and the opportunity to earn up to 50 college credits in their chosen area — while in high school, for free. Developed in conjunction with Lenoir Community College this winter, Career Pathways kicks off next fall and greatly expands LCPS’s efforts to put college-level work in the high schools and to graduate students who not only have a plan for the future but who also have a head start on getting there. The 14 pathways, whether accounting or computer engineering or nursing, are designed around employment opportunities in eastern North Carolina, making this a program that can not only appeal to new arrivals but can also keep natives at home because they have an education tailored to high-paying jobs here.

— Expanded pre-K, an LCPS effort to make a small dent locally in a real need that North Carolina’s legislature has been incapable of meeting statewide. We’re opening up 18 new pre-K slots next fall for employees of the school system, with hopes of expanding this home-grown program down the road.

— Grade configuration, a response not only to research that raises questions about the traditional elementary-middle school model but also to parents who have asked the school system to try something different. A proposal for a K-6 configuration at one of our current K-5 schools is on the table and discussions are ongoing in the task force about K-8 schools, self-contained sixth grades and other options that might work better for students academically.

For extra credit, we’ll toss in two programs developed by district administration: no-cost meals, which provides breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost to them or their parents, and in-school mental health services, a program to begin next year that will not only serve students better but will also make it a lot easier for parents to access mental health services beyond the school day.

So this is what astute newcomers see, a school system absolutely not tied to the way things have always been done, a school system bent on improvement. If they also see a community that’s apathetic about education or a county government that’s outright obstructionist, they pick up on a very different vibe. And they probably move on.