Ned Barnett

Boosting education where eastern NC schools struggle

ENC STEM students work in a lab as part of summer program to help students in low-income NC districts learn advanced science and math.
ENC STEM students work in a lab as part of summer program to help students in low-income NC districts learn advanced science and math. ENC STEM

The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham is housed in the former Watts Hospital. And in this hospital-turned-school, three idealistic, dedicated and exceptionally smart young people are working to cure the debilitating effect poverty has on education.

Dale Hammer, Grayson Cooper and Liz Chen are former Teach For America teachers who’ve created an intense summer learning program focused on four low-income school districts and KIPP charter schools in the state’s northeast corner. The program runs on their abundant faith in the power of education to transform children by bringing forth their full potential.

Jamal Deloatch, who graduated this year from Northampton County High School, said the program changed him from a shy person to one who will be the first in his family to go college. He credited the program’s founders for drawing him into science and math studies.

“You can’t get away from them,” he said. “It changed me a lot. I’m glad I can go to college and stand before people I don’t know.”

Now in its fourth year, the program known as Eastern North Carolina STEM puts 90 students from the four districts through a two-week summer school in Northampton County with coursework in science, technology, math and leadership. Sixty-two students from the group are selected to attend a third week in residence at the School of Science and Mathematics, where they get 25 hours of instruction in a science or math subject taught by the school’s faculty, with some former ENC STEM students serving as teacher assistants.

It is an extraordinary sight to see these students, most of them African-American and many qualified for free and reduced-price lunch, filling the classrooms of a school that serves some of the state’s brightest high school students, many from affluent backgrounds.

ENC STEM accepts all students. What gets them into the program and on to Durham is their desire to learn and to persevere. Those are the only entrance requirements. But once in the program, every graduate has gone on to attend college. Some plan to go back to their communities to teach.

Last Tuesday, a small group of state officials went to see this work of educational wonder in action. The group included three state representatives, Leo Daughtry, a Smithfield Republican who has championed the program from its start; Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs a House subcommittee on education; and Michael Wray, a Northampton County Democrat. Also on hand was June Atkinson, the state superintendent of public instruction.

The representatives were drawn to the entrepreneurial style of the program and the big results it produces with only about $180,000 in state funding.

Horn asked Chen – a co-director of the program, a Princeton graduate and a UNC doctoral student – to tell him what they need from the state to grow. Chen said the program still had to develop locally before it could be taken up to a statewide scale.

And in that, it became clear that beyond the bright light of one program was the gloom of how many children are being missed. Those kids won’t be coming to Durham for a taste of high-quality education. The state will have to bring it to them.

After the presentation, Atkinson said in an interview that the program is a testimony to its founders’ dedication and its students’ desire, but there will be no miracle cures to educating children in low-income rural areas. Even as the ENC STEM program shows the potential of such students, it also highlights the need for more help. These students may spend a week in the wonderland of the School of Science and Mathematics, but they will go back to schools that are ill-equipped and have the highest turnover in the state of both teachers and principals.

Rural school districts throughout much of Eastern North Carolina and Western North Carolina lack the tax base to pay teachers well, attract top administrators or fully equip their schools with technology and support staff.

The state must do that, but under Republican leadership it is avoiding that burden. Instead, lawmakers are looking to charter schools, vouchers and virtual charters and having school systems rent their buildings from private contractors. The state continues to be near the bottom in teacher pay and in per-pupil funding.

If Horn wants to know what he can do to expand the good work ENC STEM is doing, he could start by taking back tax cuts that are costing the state $1 billion a year and put that money into public schools.

Said Atkinson, who has recommended giving all teachers a 10 percent pay hike, “If we want each child to blossom, it’s going to have to be done in a systematic way.”

Barnett: 919-829- 4512,