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In Watauga County, ‘every school is a community school’

The stories EdNC tells about schools are also stories about place. As we traveled last year, we were reminded over and over again of the strength of rural places, and we want more people to understand that our public schools — in addition to being one of the largest employers in the 100 counties — are anchor institutions for the families and communities they serve.

Many people only know the school their child attends or the school where they teach. Very few people understand how schools within districts are different, much less how districts are different.

“There are a lot of places in our community where folks never go and folks never see.”

— Superintendent Scott Elliott

This week is national Public Schools Week.

We want to give you an inside glimpse into the magic of place. We want you to “go and see” these places with us.

Last week, EdNC offered you an in-depth look at how and why one district provides pre-K to as many young learners in its district as it can. Stay tuned for an in-depth look at North Carolina’s renewal school district, Rowan-Salisbury Schools. Today, here’s a look at the schools in Watauga County, but even more importantly, a look at people and place.

Watauga County Schools

Watauga County is in northwestern North Carolina. It is home to Appalachian State University. The Blue Ridge Parkway winds through it, offering incredible views. People travel to Boone and Blowing Rock for skiing, hiking, rock climbing, biking, fishing, and many other outdoor activities.

About 56,000 people call Watauga County home — of them, 11,306 are registered Democrats, 12,488 are registered Republicans, and 18,026 are registered unaffiliated. Just more than 90% are white, and 21.4% live in poverty. The county is just a little bit bigger than New York City, and it averages 30 inches of snow each year. A sign posted by a gas station in a rural part of the county says, “Live here. Work anywhere.”

Scott Elliott is the superintendent. I had heard that he sometimes visits all of his schools in one day.

So, on October 27, 2020, we did.

There are eight K-8 schools and one high school in the district. According to the formula our state uses to grade schools, seven are B schools, two are C schools, and all of them met or exceeded growth. There is a cooperative and innovative high school too, the Watauga Innovation Academy.

This article is about the character of these schools and the role they play in the communities they serve.

In this audiogram, take a listen as Elliott talks about the meaning of public in public education.

You can learn a lot riding shotgun with a superintendent. You can tell how often they show up in classrooms and schools, the relationship they have with their principals, whether they are an introvert or extrovert. My favorite reveal is whether they have to use GPS to get from school to school.

“Every school, in my opinion,” Elliott said at the start of the day, “is a community school.”

“It’s hard to imagine these communities without these schools.”

Parkway School

We started at 7:30 a.m. at Parkway School. Patty Buckner is the principal, and there are 578 students at this K-8 school that sits just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.

This is Elliott’s “home school.” His son attended Parkway School, his daughter is in seventh grade, and his wife teaches eighth grade science and social studies. His daughter told me he works a lot, and before he introduced me to his wife, Laura Elliott, he told me she is his most special person. Having his wife work in the district, his kids attending district schools, he said, “It keeps me grounded and connected to people.”

Each graduating class creates a “tile” for the school.

We wound our way through the school to meet Erin Ellington. Ellington teaches music in two K-8 schools, Parkway School and Mabel School. She is the district and regional teacher of the year, and she believes music is a “community-making activity.” COVID-19 created real challenges as Ellington figured out how to provide music instruction with kids sitting in cars in parking lots to connect to the internet. She is happy students are back in person.

“It’s so good,” she said. “As music should be, we should be together.”Elliott beamed and said, “She’s most awesomest.”

Elliott with the district’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, Erin Ellington.

But Elliott doesn’t just beam about the teacher of the year. He beamed as he greeted students and parents waiting in the carpool line for a temperature check. He checked in on the child nutrition team as they distributed biscuits to students for breakfast. They told me Elliott served corn dogs himself for three hours the day before and went on to pack 200 servings of salsa. He popped in on a beginning teacher who is pregnant but chose to stay in the classroom during COVID-19. “Keep Athena [his daughter] straight today,” he said to her friend as they passed in the hall.

Throughout the day, at every school we visited and in all of our conversations with community members, Elliott’s message was consistent…

“I appreciate what you are doing.”

In between schools

Looks like this…

Elliott knows every nook and cranny, every back road in the county. No GPS needed.

Blowing Rock School

Just before 9 a.m., we arrive at Blowing Rock School. Patrick Sukow is the principal, and there are 381 students at this K-8 school located in the heart of Blowing Rock. Sukow has been principal for 16 years and in education for 24 years. His wife, Anne Sukow, teaches fifth grade at Bethel School. They are long time educators.

Elliott greets students parading their Halloween costumes.

“I’m absolutely proud to be part of the system,” Sukow said. “No matter where you go, you are in good hands. It’s not school versus school. It’s us.”

COVID-19 was a good example, Sukow said. “It was a community effort to make sure education could be successful. That’s huge.”

All of the K-8 schools feed into one high school, noted Sukow. That contributes to the district’s spirit of “us.”

Blowing Rock School houses the district’s day treatment program, a mental health program where students receive therapy and education in the school setting. It serves between seven and 18 students depending on the need. It’s an invaluable community resource.

Before moving on to the next school, Elliott made a point of introducing me to Martha Trimble, a middle grades teacher at Blowing Rock School. This year, Trimble is working with students in the district’s virtual academy. It took leadership and perseverance, Elliott said, but in this video, Trimble talks about directly reflecting the classroom experience in remote instruction, meeting kids where they are, and how to get to smooth sailing for students of all abilities.

In between schools: Enrollment strategy

On the ride to the next school, Elliott talked about enrollment strategy for the district. He has a sheaf of paper with him. I’ve seen it with him before. He knows where every student or potential student is at all times in his district.

“These aren’t just numbers, statistics, or some business metrics,” he said. “These are real students, and I want us to be the best choice possible for every one of them.”

“Children have a short precious few years with us, and we shouldn’t ask them to be too patient with us.” — Superintendent Scott Elliott

Hardin Park

By 9:47 a.m., we are inside Hardin Park, picking up the pace to make sure we make it to all the schools before they release for the day. Philip Norman is the principal, and there are 847 K-8 students at this school located in Boone.

This is what an open concept pre-K classroom looks like.

Most of the district’s programs for exceptional children are housed at Hardin Park. The climate and culture of the school for accepting students is celebrated by the community, said Elliott. “Accepting students for the diversity that exists within the school, the overall student-centered can-do focus inside the school, that’s in no small part because of the diversity of abilities of students in the school with our programs for special needs children.”

Corrie Freeman is a teacher and cancer survivor at Hardin Park. She started what’s known locally as “the love bus.” Elliott’s mom was also a cancer survivor, and this matters to him. The idea, said Elliott, is to “Find ways to show love and appreciation for people in the community who might otherwise go unnoticed.” Elliott drives the bus and believes it is an important lesson in showing gratitude.

“I love this school,” said Elliott.

Green Valley School

Gordon Prince is the principal of Green Valley School, and he grew up in Watauga County. There are 326 K-8 students at this school, which is home to Dash the bunny. I’ve lost track of time at this point.

Elliott visits all of the schools in the district on the first day of school each year, and he always stops in to see Dash.

“Hi, Dr. Elliott,” said a young student, who remembers him from the last time he visited her class. They were using a scale to weigh rocks that day.

In another classroom, the students recognize Elliott and engage him in a conversation that moves from snowball fights to what it’s like to be superintendent.

I learned the one rule for snowball fights. Elliott told the students, “You and I are on the same team, and we will win.”

Being superintendent is also straight forward. “You get to go to all the different schools and take care of all the boys and girls,” said Elliott.

Mabel School

Mabel School is just up from Green Valley School across Tater Hill in Zionville. Out front, the school sign said, #INTHISTOGETHER.

Elin Rueben is the principal of Mabel School. There are 170 K-8 students at this school.

As we enter the school, stones from the old school built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 decorate the new lobby, and Elliott noted the importance of “holding on to bits of history” in community schools. Just down the hallway, there is a mural commemorating 9/11 made up of student handprints. Another bulletin board said “we are better together” with each piece of a puzzle representing a student.

Mabel School was was the last of the K-8 schools to add pre-K in Watauga County. Elliott said it’s a developmental day center, which means at least half of the children have an identified disability.

“It is a great team. They do a great job,” said Elliott before we exited through the school’s top secret back door.

Cove Creek School

Scott Carter is the principal of Cove Creek School, located in Vilas, and serving 284 K-8 students. This is the newest school in the district, built in 1995-96 on 70 acres including a creek, and just celebrating it’s 25th anniversary.

It is Carter’s first year here. His wife, Lauren Carter, is a behavioral specialist in the district, and his two kids attend the school. One of his first jobs as principal was to contact the neighboring farmer to let him know “the cows are out.”

The school has a solar array and a greenhouse, a honey bee hive in the media center, and raised beds and gardens.

“The agriculture helps to build common ground for community in this school,” said Elliott, binding together old timers and newcomers.

“It’s a beautiful school and a beautiful part of the community and beautiful people,” said Elliott.

In between schools: On risk and his students

“We now know the real harm to kids not being in school. I was up last night,” said Elliott. He gets notified any time there is risk of imminent harm to one of his students.

“A lot of our decision making has been about trying to strike a balance in mitigating all of the different risks that our students and our employees and our families face. Their risk from COVID is real and that has driven many of our decisions.

We made the decision to start with remote instruction for the first nine weeks because of the concern of COVID. We were also insistent that kids who are at high-risk in other ways could come to school from the first day in August. So we brought in our pre-K students and our self-contained EC students.

But as time has gone on, it’s become clearer and clearer that there are many other kinds of risks … risks from students not being in school, food insecurity, economic instability for our families, but also more instances than I care to take account of abuse, neglect, sexual assault, depression, suicidal ideation. The things that are affecting students by them not being in school weigh heavy on me.”

Bethel Creek School

Brian Bettis is the principal at Bethel Creek School in Sugar Grove. When he was a student at ASU, Bettis did an internship at this school that now serves 150 K-8 students.

We are greeted with a story about a student. He was hungry but wasn’t quite sure about the chicken casserole being served in school that day. “Well, I only eat my Granny’s,” the student said. How does she cook it, the child nutrition manager Melody Howell asked. When the student didn’t know, Howell followed up, tracked down Granny’s recipe, and now chicken casserole at the Bethel Creek School is offered with a biscuit on top. “Where else can you get that in a school cafeteria?” asked Elliott.

“They are my babies,” Howell responded. She’s pictured above dressed as a very large dalmatian.

We set out to find music teacher Beaver Robinette. Robinette’s parents were Elliott’s music teachers growing up. His father was an elementary music teacher and his mother was a band teacher in junior high school in McDowell County. “It’s a small world after all,” said Elliott.

Robinette showed us buckets donated by Lowe’s. He will use them to teach students how to play drums during the pandemic.

“Definitely a community that takes very good care of us and loves this school,” said Bettis.

Bettis has worked to build strong relationships with community members, said Elliott. He visits all the youth groups and churches, attends countless covered dish suppers, watches soccer games and t-ball games — whatever it takes.

“It’s hard to explain to people in other communities or cities,” said Elliott, “how much a rural school means to a very small community.”

Valle Crucis School

Bonnie Smith is the principal at Valle Crucis School. There are 349 K-8 students in the school. It’s about 1 p.m.

Because of flooding, a new school is being built in this community. It took 18 months to secure the land. “The only reason we got this land,” said Elliott, “I really believe, is that the family who owns it, the heirs to the property, their mother, grandmother, and aunt who owned it were all teachers or media specialists at the school.”

Meet Tabby Watson, the child nutrition manager at Valle Crucis School. “It’s a lot,” she said, talking in this video about the logistics of feeding kids who are being homeschooled, families coping with cancer, along with the other kids in school each day. She has served as many as 315 meals in one day. Today, she’s serving cheese quesadillas, black beans, salsa, and chips.

Elliott said, “I can’t imagine navigating all of this without all of these relationships in place, the amount of trust and interdependence this has required has been amazing.”

Watauga High School

Chris Blanton is the principal of Watauga High School. The only high school in the county, it serves about 1,450 students.

Elliott said, “I would say the story at the high school — as the one and only high school in a county like this — there is a lot of pressure to be everything to everybody.”

The district has transitioned the school to be a hub of services and opportunity, said Elliott, even for his own son.

Elliott said, “Students come and go based on their needs and preferences. This is not a school where students come and stay for the day necessarily. There are dual enrollment courses, vocational courses, online classes, arts, music, ceramics, theatre, strings, construction, welding, nursing, foreign languages.”

“There really is something here for everybody.”

The best place to learn and work

The motto of Watauga County Schools is that it is the best place to learn and work.

“This is what I want us to be,” said Elliott.

“We live in an era of school choice. We live in a time when people can move wherever they want. We need to be the best place a child can get an education in North Carolina.”

“And then for all of y’all,” he said to me, hoping you will read this article, “I want this to be the best place that you can choose to work.”

P.S. It helped that over the course of the day I was offered earthworms, fried pie, blueberry scones, and French press coffee. That will be hard to beat, Dr. Elliott.

Mebane Rash

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