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Edgecombe County starts to think beyond school walls

Back in December, Edgecombe County Public Schools Superintendent John Farrelly told EducationNC he was planning something unique for his district — a visioning process that he thought would open raw community dialogue. 

“As education leaders,” Farrelly said, “we have a responsibility to talk about real issues.”

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Educational Equity, comprised of educators, local board of education members, faith-based leaders, parents, students, and policymakers, had its first meeting Thursday evening — and is designed to do just that. 

“It’s an evolving process for us, in Edgecombe County, in thinking about how we do school,” Farrelly said to the group while sharing what he saw as the commission’s purpose. “Thinking much (more) broadly beyond school walls, and about community impact.”

Although the kickoff event was a time for commission members to come together internally, get to know one another, and agree to common goals, three town hall-style meetings — located inside schools — are planned to open the discussion up to the public. The input from the commission and the community will help shape the district’s three-year plan.

Farrelly said, since he feels there are great leaders at each school, he thinks his duties as superintendent should move to focusing on how the district can move the entire community forward in the face of complicated socioeconomic challenges.

When outsiders asked about Hurricane Matthew’s impact on Edgecombe’s families in October of last year, Farrelly said he made sure to stress that the storm wasn’t the beginning of many residents’ larger struggles.

“Part of my response is, ‘We have families who are in chaos every day,'” he said. 

Doris Williams, a principal consultant and senior fellow at The Rural School and Community Trust, led the group in asking the question: “What is our vision for the success of our children?”

Williams spoke of how impressed she was — given her experience in rural communities — with Edgecombe’s leadership and ability to retain talented people who care. She said she’s seen the area’s unique success in keeping Teach for America participants around.

“There’s something about here that holds them,” she said. “They say, ‘I want to stay here, I want to be here, and I want to make a difference.’ There’s a lot of rural places that are struggling with this issue.”

Williams said a lot of educators don’t want social justice to be a part of the conversation around education in rural areas — that there’s a certain type of “separation of church and state” that most people apply to education. 

But Williams said the only reason things ever stay the same is that it serves someone’s purpose. She said the fact that educational equality isn’t a reality is due to a lack of public will. 

“All education is with a purpose, and that purpose can only be political,” she said. “Either we educate to liberate or we educate to dominate.”

Williams facilitated a “silent conversation,” splitting around 20 people into smaller groups that wrote their answers to the question with markers on posters around the room. She encouraged commission members to stay away from canned expressions like “community engagement” — to really unpack terms and elaborate on what exactly success for children looks like. 

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Afterwards, they came together to discuss common themes that emerged. Exposure, openness, community conversations, connectedness, and a diversity of perspectives were just some of the ideas that kept coming up. Williams continued to ask questions like, “What does that mean?” and “Why do you think that is?” 

Tarrell Perry, a parent who has students in three of the district’s schools, expressed his frustration about a lack of community involvement. Perry said he volunteers in his children’s schools as much as possible, but doesn’t know how to get other people on board. 

Another community member pointed out issues outside of education that she wasn’t sure the school system could fix, like teenage pregnancy and cycles of poverty. 

Williams said educators can’t control how children come to them. She said the outside factors that negatively impact many students’ lives are indeed a reality that can’t be changed immediately. 

“That’s the hand we’re dealt,” she said. “That’s who we have in front of us every day…but we can’t use that as an excuse. Because if we’re going to use it as an excuse, why are we here?”

Everyone was asked to invite five people in their networks to attend the next meeting, on March 21st at North Edgecombe High School. Williams ended her remarks by emphasizing the importance of a school system in being a catalyst for change in a community. 

“The education system, in most of our rural communities, is the largest employer, it’s got the largest payroll, it’s the storehouse of knowledge, it’s got the most educated people,” Williams said. “If we don’t do it, who’s going to do it?”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.