Fifty years ago, in 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, public schools in Pitt County and most other places in North Carolina remained locked in segregation. Black children attended schools whose names in some places live on: C.M. Eppes, H.B. Sugg, G.R. Whitfield and W.H. Robinson. Other schools, Bethel Union and South Ayden among them, are but memories.
The graduates today remember the institutions fondly, and they produced exceptional people who went on to be doctors, lawyers, educators, entrepreneurs and community leaders. But the separate schools were far from equal to their counterparts that hosted white students. White leaders devoted less money to maintaining the black facilities and paying the black staff; they used hand-me-down equipment and books. The practice was unconscionable.
Fast forward to today, the day before what would have been the civil rights leader’s 89th birthday, and a look at Pitt County Schools shows the system is among our community’s greatest advocates of King’s dream of equality. Efforts by the school system’s leaders and educators aim to ensure that every young person has access to the best resources available, regardless of their race or religion, whether they are rich or poor.
Among the innovations is a new program to recruit, train, retain and reward great teachers. The effort that has allotted more than 60 facilitating teacher positions to schools across the county. Now in its first year, the program will build teams to improve student performance at each the county’s schools. The effort will grow as more teachers progress through training levels, achieving some bonus pay in the process.
The $16 million program is funded through state and federal grants secured by the work of veteran educators who developed detailed plans over several years. The three-year program earned Pitt County an exemption from new class size mandates that has most school districts in the state scrambling to hire new teachers find new class space while trying to avoid cuts to arts and physical education classes.
Many more initiatives are reaching out to students of every stripe and providing numerous opportunities. Hundreds of young people have now graduated from Health Sciences Academy, which focuses students at all the county’s high schools on careers in health care.
Pitt schools and Pitt Community College now operate an early college high school that allows students to earn a diploma and two years of college credit or an associate's degree. A second early college high school is opening next year at East Carolina University.
ECU also is operating a lab school at South Greenville Elementary to help struggling primary students, and focused curriculums at several schools coupled with open enrollment offer parents a chance to expose youngsters to the arts, health and fitness, language, science and math and more. STEM programs are abundant in the schools, as are AVID programs, which help students with the skills and behaviors they need to be high achievers.
The list of opportunities is varied and growing.
Of course the schools face challenges. Many facilities are crowded and old, and many students still lag behind. State and local funding is comparatively low, and the system has to adapt to political realities that peel even more money away for charter schools and private schools that are not held to the same standards and can turn away students that public schools must accept.
All the more reason to celebrate what the schools have achieved and consider how far we have come as we remember a man who helped bring such changes about.