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Perspective | Schools embrace being the hub of the community

All students in the community deserve excellent education opportunities. As school districts compete for students, an unusual approach is found in Mount Airy to embrace all students no matter where they attend school. Mount Airy City Schools (MACS) believes that every single child in its community deserves to be prepared to graduate with the workforce and problem-solving skills necessary to succeed. This is regardless of whether they attend a private school, charter school, homeschool, or innovative traditional public school.  

“Choosing Mount Airy City Schools is the best decision we have made for our child,” states a homeschooling family who has partnered with MACS. In a recent visit from The Innovation Project (TIP), an innovative nonprofit organization that supports 17 school districts from across the state, MACS shared their collective vision. 

TIP has provided tools to districts that help them reach all children in their community with tools such as locating homeschool networks, gathering addresses, and contacts for homeschool families. TIP believes as a core value that every child is capable of reaching their full potential regardless of where they attend school. TIP has helped MACS succeed in this very endeavor. 

MACS partners with many homeschoolers and has brought back over 50% of students who have chosen charter school previously. This nonjudgmental approach helps families make good decisions about where to attend school and helps create a family-school partnership creating success for their children.

On this visit to MACS, attendees from 12 other school districts embraced the vision of creating a “hub of the community” in our schools.

The group saw this in action starting with a visit to the Community Central Office (CCO). This office was recently renovated with money from the Surry County Commissioners creating a control center over the last two years where meals, technology, and supplies were taken out to families during COVID. 

The CCO brings a lot of partners into this space including Surry Sunrise Rotary, the Mount Airy Chamber Ambassadors, and other community groups — creating a beehive of activity in the office serving others. TIP attendees toured this facility seeing where backpacks are filled and stored, food is taken in and sent out to families, and a presence of Surry Community College exists teaching college courses on our campus.

A micro-school, summer learning, and a bus

TIP and MACS have been long-time partners working on innovative initiatives. One most recent was the beginning of a “micro-school” for MACS. This is a small, 20-member school that allows students to learn at home most of the week. These students meet virtually with a certified teacher each day and come together once a week to conduct a “place-based” lesson. This hybrid approach helps students learn STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) lessons together such as planting a flower garden, cooking a meal, learning to swim, visiting the Greensboro Science Center, and spending time with the Surry Arts Council. 

During the TIP visit, students from the micro-school were on campus and showed the attendees their lesson that included creating a playground on paper — measuring and building a 3D model of the playground before bringing their ideas to life and sharing those out. Visitors were so impressed that they wanted logistical information to see if a micro-school would work for them.  One third grade micro-school parent noted, “Jackson truly loves the micro school. It has helped his reading improve over the last couple months. When I have any questions, his teacher is always quick to answer. I would recommend the MACS Micro-School to anyone. Not only is it a great school, but it has become a family and I truly appreciate his teacher for being so good to my child!”

Another component of MACS vision to be the hub of the community was the description of the free summer enrichment experiences (SEE). In addition to typical summer school and athletic camps, MACS offers over 50 STEAM enrichment experiences. Over half of the students in the district attend a summer opportunity. This helps minimize the notorious summer slide and keeps students and families engaged with the school family. SEE offerings include Baking Bears Camp, Camp for Mad Scientist, Preparing College Applications Camp, and many other engaging themes for students. MACS has outstanding K-12 summer opportunities where learning never stops for children; no matter where they attend during the school year, they are welcome to grow and learn over the summer.

Our tour group made its way through the Blue Bear Bus that is used throughout the year and the summer to take STEAM on the road.  The Blue Bear Bus, a vision of Polly Long and Jon Doss, takes technology, wifi, hands-on STEAM activities, meals, and love to the neighborhoods. When children see the Blue Bear Bus coming, they know a day of fun is ahead. Attendees were extremely interested in this innovation and looked to replicate it in their communities.

Photo Courtesy of Mount Airy City Schools

Career-ready students

The group then headed to Mount Airy High School (MAHS) where STEAM teacher Garrett Howlett and students showcased the aviation science and drone program. Students shared all of the companies in the community that use drones and held a drone demonstration. Four students have worked and acquired their drone pilot’s license. Students Allie Bowers, George Kriek, Owen Greenstreet, and Jesse Bilyeu have earned their Part 107 small Unmanned Aerial System (sUAS) Pilot’s License. They can now fly drones for commercial purposes. Various administrators and teachers from other districts were excited and impressed to see how the students are prepared for future careers today.

The trip concluded with a visit to the Blue Bear Cafe, where students from MAHS’s Occupational Course of Study class served cookies and specialty drinks. Student speakers shared their recent trip to Wilmington, where they attended a TIP event and were tasked with the challenge of informing school districts how schools could improve. They shared testimonials of how powerful it is for students to be able to share strategies and ideas with district leaders to impact change in their own district.

The Blue Bear Cafe also houses the entrepreneurship program that allows students to become entrepreneurs in high school. These students are part of the YESurry competition where they can pitch their idea to a pretend funder. The winning pitch does in fact receive thousands of dollars to begin their business. This partnership was made possible by a connection to NC State University through TIP. Curriculum was provided between NC State and Will Pfitzner, a local entrepreneur who has also taught the class. MACS visited NC State to see their entrepreneur lab and program. MACS has one of the first high school entrepreneur programs in the state.  

This event at the Blue Bear Cafe brought to life the joint mission of TIP and MACS to make sure students’ voices are at the center of conversations and that innovative programs that are unique and different change districts for the positive. This event highlighted the impact of school districts, families, and community partners working together so that every child will graduate prepared to enter the workforce and live a life filled with success. With MACS as the hub of the community, all partners are working hard for successful outcomes for all.

Kim Morrison

Kim Morrison is the superintendent of Mount Airy City Schools.

Carrie Venable

Carrie Venable is the executive officer for communications at Mount Airy City Schools.