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Perspective | The future of education will require learning from the past

The following is part of my monthly column, One Day and One Goal: Expanding opportunity in NC. I invite you to follow along as I share stories from classrooms and explore critical issues facing education in our state. Go here for past columns.


In my last column, I shared the voices and impact of rural school leaders from across our state. Now, as we enter a season of reflection and thankfulness, I want to highlight the work of even more people who have impacted education in North Carolina — both present and past. 

I want to begin by highlighting the 99,542 Native North Carolinians who comprise the largest indigenous community east of the Mississippi River. As we leave Native American Heritage Month, we must recognize and honor the critical contributions for which the Native community has fought to ensure North Carolina’s schools are a place where all students are included. 

Today and every day, we stand on the shoulders of the Lumbee and other North Carolinian tribes who successfully petitioned the state in order to create the Croatan Normal School in 1887, now known as UNC-Pembroke — with an aim to specifically train and employ American Indian educators.

Looking toward the future of education, we see schools where all students see their full selves represented in their classrooms. This early move to provide students with educators that looked like them inspires us to reflect on the work we have done and must continue to do to follow their lead. 

Our history is important

In 1868, when North Carolina rejoined the United States, its new constitution included the establishment of a free public school system for all children between the ages of 6 and 21. Seven years later, this constitution was amended to specify the separation of white and non-white students in that public school system. 

The effort to keep schools segregated continued well into the 20th century, long after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In North Carolina, the Pearsall Plan was put into effect, granting families the ability to use state money to send children to private schools using a system of vouchers.

While this certainly privileged some communities, it also provided an opportunity for local tribes to petition for support in rural parts of North Carolina, at a time when there were no local institutions accepting of Native students. In Halifax and Warren counties, for instance, the Haliwa-Saponi Indian community employed the tenets of the Pearsall Plan to access state money to establish a private school in 1957. 

With these stories of our past, and many others from today, I continually see a pattern of North Carolina returning to its constitution with a magnifying glass, eager to see how its commitment to sound, basic public education can be improved.

At Teach For America (TFA), we believe deeply that our education system should be built in a way that ensures all of North Carolina’s students are able to learn, lead, and thrive. We also believe that schools should be adequately funded, a future we see being built off of the successful bipartisan budget recently passed by the North Carolina legislature and signed by Governor Roy Cooper.

Building a stronger, high-quality education system is going to take people from all sectors working toward this goal. We need to expand the table and make room for diversity of thought while building a coalition of leaders working on behalf of students. 

We’ve seen progress

When TFA began partnering with North Carolina schools in 1990, it was only about twenty years after some of the last vestiges of segregation were legally upheld. In that time, community leaders and students alike have been relentless in their pursuit of excellence in education for all — from the earliest days of pre-K to the graduation stage.

TFA is proud to have followed in this legacy by introducing a stream of diverse, qualified educators to central, piedmont, and eastern North Carolina schools — nearly 4,000 since 1990. We’re also proud that our TFA educators across North Carolina mirror the makeup of the overall North Carolina student population — a goal for the state as defined in the DRIVE report. It’s only part of the solution, but we know it’s a critical lever for student success.

This effort has been essential, because we know that when students have teachers that look like them, achievement improves for everyone. As we develop these educators, we must also do our part to acknowledge that remnants of old, unfair systems may still play out while being deliberate in our commitment to bettering those systems. 

We’re optimistic about our future

Every person who joins TFA joins with the primary aim of working alongside students in the classroom and becoming lifelong advocates of their leadership. It’s hard work. 

There are more teachers leaving the classroom and fewer people taking their place. Supporting the wellbeing of educators — particularly the educators of color we hope to retain — is a priority we must all share.

Exceptional, diverse, equity-minded leaders drive positive, sustainable change. We need to do more to recruit, develop, and empower such leaders. At TFA, we’re doing that by: 

  • Piloting programs and coaching for integrating teacher and student-focused social emotional learning.
  • Engaging with community groups to host ongoing training sessions that ensure our teachers are entering their classrooms with a diversified set of mindsets and skills so that we don’t revert to our past.
  • Launching a partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership which will accelerate the work of our alumni , giving them access to world-class leadership development opportunities, especially for our alumni middle-senior level leaders leading at the nonprofit, school, and district levels. This is critical for their retention too.

Leadership matters, and it’s one of the most important contributions we’ve made to North Carolina. We’re eager to share our learnings from the strategies above, but we’re also energized by what our leaders are currently doing. 

Like CJ Alfonso, a fourth year teacher in Charlotte working to better expose his high school students to the many fields and career pathways of medicine through an extracurricular medical club. 

Or, like Nicollette Jones-Flowers and Gregsha’ Lee, two teachers in Guilford County who were recently awarded grants through Black Educators Promise Fellowship in order to pursue their ambitions: curriculum development and Black educator retention, respectively. 

“Black educators give and give of themselves, and want so much for their students,” Lee explains. “We see ourselves in them, they’re us. Our children, our siblings, our younger selves. The investment is completely different. The gravity of what’s at stake for us can lead to burn out. And when they don’t return, the cycle continues for their students. I want to create a support [for Black teachers] so that doesn’t happen so often.” 

It can also look like community-level advocacy. Greg Asciutto is a TFA alumnus leading the East Charlotte Education Committee and organizing local advocates as the board of education revisits feeder patterns, so that all students are given equitable access to an education regardless of what they look like or where they live. 

That’s why, when we look toward the future of education, we are optimistic. Inspired by the ability of our students, in the capable hands of teachers and leaders who want them to thrive, we know that when history continues to repeat itself — and boy, does history like to do that — we will be ready. 

Many thanks to Jefferson Currie II, the NC Museum of History, the UNC American Indian Center, and the North Carolina Office of State Archeology for their work and findings, referenced in this article. 

Monique Perry-Graves

Monique Perry-Graves is an award-winning leader, educator, speaker, and author. As of June 2021, she is the first statewide executive director for Teach for America (TFA), North Carolina. In this role, Perry-Graves is serving as the chief executive for the state in support of TFA’s mission to find, develop, and support a diverse network of leaders working together to end educational inequity and leading over 50 TFA staff across the state. She is a proud graduate of North Carolina Central University where she earned her undergraduate degree in English. Perry-Graves continued her educational pursuits by earning a master’s degree in strategic communications and leadership from Seton Hall University. She then earned a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Florida.