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June Atkinson, who is running for her fourth term as superintendent of Public Instruction, took an early-morning walk last week with students of Hardin Park School in Boone.

Atkinson shook students’ hands and introduced herself to parents, teachers, and volunteers in the State Employee’s Credit Union parking lot — the starting point. Glow-in-the-dark sticks were passed out to children, and families got their bikes ready.

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The walk was part of a nationwide initiative to promote healthy lifestyle practices for students early in life. The morning before, Atkinson walked with a group of Avery County students in Blowing Rock.

Once they got to Hardin Park School school, Principal Mary Smalling gave Atkinson a tour of the K-8 school. Atkinson stopped in hallways and classrooms to chat with teachers, asked what they they planned on teaching for the day, and thanked them for their hard work.

“One of the responsibilities of the State Superintendent is to let the public know about the needs of public education,” Atkinson said. “And I don’t feel that I can do that adequately without visiting schools and talking with students and teachers.”

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On the way back, Atkinson shared stories from her week of school visits.

“So I always learn something every time I visit a school,” she said. “It may be a new idea that should be spread across North Carolina.”

In Avery County, Atkinson discovered the Scotty Bus—a school bus turned into a preschool on wheels that parks in church parking lots and provides preschool to kids in the area.

“Now that’s such an excellent idea of ‘if you can’t get the children to school, bring the school to the children,'” Atkinson said.

She talked about a Habitat for Humanity project she saw Avery County students working on to build homes for community members; a micropropagation class where students were learning to grow plants; the mental health services that schools in Caldwell County were able to provide to students through connections in their community.

“All of the seemingly isolated activities that I see and the initiatives I see really help to form a major direction for policy,” she said.

Atkinson said every time she visits a school, she has “a-ha moments” when teachers share their lesson plans.

“You recognize that our students are learning at higher levels, more complicated subject matter, than was true 10 years ago, or even five years ago,” Atkinson said. “And it’s just so gratifying to see teachers make different subjects come alive.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.