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Building the future of rural North Carolina: One student, one school, one community at a time

EdNC is seeking funding to tell the story of rural districts including Edgecombe County. This EdNC-styled storyboard will give you an idea of how we would like to frame the series, profiling how regions across our state cope with situations that are diverse and complex, and the issues and opportunities that arise for students, families, teachers, school administrators, and community leaders. Mebane and Nation

EdNC owes its existence to about 70 rural superintendents across the state, all part of the low wealth schools consortium. With the decline in rural newspapers, they didn’t know who to trust, they didn’t have a voice in the conversation about public schools, and no one was going to come and tell their stories of everyday heroes working day in and day out to create the very best educational opportunities for the students they serve. This project will honor their investment, allow us to continue to focus on education in our rural communities, and spotlight the diversity of poverty across North Carolina.

Superintendent John Farrelly needed to “restore confidence in the entire school system.” He started with one school, Martin Millennium Academy (MMA), which he described as a “school on fire” with “horrific” rates of student achievement. He need a proof point for his community, a place to plant a flag to show that the public schools could teach every child. It’s beginning to work.

“I knew we needed something. And I believe in hope.” – John Farrelly

This is a short teaser video which underscores some of the changes at Martin Millennium Academy as they undertake a global schools curriculum:

This is a longer video about the impact of MMA on the broader Tarboro community:

John Farrelly told us that MMA is a place where the residents of Edgecombe County can see that, “Dreams come true.”

“Every kid deserves a shot.” – John Farrelly

Here is a brief story about the changes at MMA which we have already published:

Restoring pride in Tarboro

Sara Price grew up in Tarboro. Her dad was on the school board for Edgecombe County as she was growing up in the public schools. She taught first, third, and fourth grades in Charlotte and Chapel Hill before becoming the managing director of Teach for America-Eastern North Carolina’s alumni and community engagement team. Her life’s work is creating high-quality educational opportunities for all students in rural communities. She knows every nook and cranny of this community.

John Farrelly became the Superintendent of Edgecombe County Public Schools in the summer of 2012 facing a host of challenges, including the withdrawal of nearly one out of every six students from the school system, which had impacts on funding, morale, and direction. Farrelly, and others in leadership, understood intuitively that they would need to be innovative in the face of challenges.

“The question for our district as we looked at other success stories was why not us?” – John Farrelly

MMA embraces the mission of student leaders who can bring about positive social change, creating a ripple effect by both building the next generation of civic leaders in Edgecombe County and sending those leaders out into the world. It starts with meeting the needs of the whole child. Other schools in the district have embraced the Leader In Me curriculum and we hope to document their progress as well. Farrelly and his team believe in school by school strategic approaches as opposed to purely district wide initiatives.

On a Friday in April, Donnell Cannon, became the principal of North Edgecombe High School. A former teacher with TFA and a graduate of NELA, he asked us to pray for him. Even without our prayers, there is just no doubt his leadership will change the trajectory of his students, his school, and his community. We’ll be watching…and learning.







Inez and Robert Ribustello own the destination restaurant On the Square and a brewery called Tarboro Beverage Company. As many of their friends pulled their kids out of the public schools, this family stayed put, forcing other families to wrestle with the concept of “white flight.”

When students went on a field trip to visit a mosque, school administrators expected some push back from some families. There was none. District leaders credit a desire to see every child succeed with parental openness, alongside an approach emphasizing communication first.

Student reaction to House Bill 2 is also more nuanced than you might expect:

Farrelly and his team have begun to put new leadership in across the district. They are optimistic, but they remain grounded in the challenges ahead.

Over and over they note that their emphasis is on student growth, because they believe firmly that achievement will follow growth.

EdNC developed a mapping tool that allows districts to highlight their grades when growth is more heavily weighted than the current formula:

Consider it mapped and the 2014-15 school grades

Other possible storylines for Edgecombe we wish to explore:

  • The role of the church and nonprofits in the community. Principals make a point to rotate churches on Sundays to get to know the community better. Reverend Richard Joyner is leading a health-focused campaign with the Conetoe Family Life Center. The Down East Partnership for Children is a pioneer when it comes to early childhood education programs.
  • The role of race with a focus on the impact of the Nash/Rocky Mount reverse merger. Farrelly has commented on this issue publicly.
  • The 14 international faculty members of MMA, including their own culture shock and their perspective on American schools and students.

Other communities we could profile include:

Hoke County, where blacks, white, Latinos, and the military families are all poor.

Hickory, profiling a community with a primarily white homeless population.

Old Town, profiling poverty in urban areas with a focus on Latino children.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.