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Gov. Roy Cooper visited Forest Hill Elementary in Morganton on Tuesday, which is part of the Burke County Public Schools.

He delivered school supplies and fist bumps. He affirmed students and thanked educators. He listened and he preached.

“We won’t continue to be number one in business if we become last in education,” said Cooper. “The future of our state goes to public school every single day.”

Delivering school supplies

Governor Roy Cooper prepares to shake hands with Maximo Mendoza-Rodriguez, a fifth grader at Forest Hill Elementary. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

Maximo Mendoza-Rodriguez, a fifth grader, and Mary Bailey, his school counselor, were a little nervous and a lot excited to greet the governor.

Maximo loves to read, and Bailey loves working with students like Maximo.

Maximo wondered out loud how you get to be a governor, and Bailey went right into possible career pathways.

Maximo was Cooper’s first hand shake at Forest Hill Elementary, and he accepted the delivery of school supplies from the governor.

“There is a lot of heart at this school,” said Bailey. “Governor Cooper has a lot of heart.”

Maximo Mendoza-Rodriguez and Mary Bailey. Bailey was a student teacher at Forest Hill Elementary years before she became the school counselor. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

Meeting students and thanking teachers

Cooper visited three classrooms, talking to students and educators, and noting along the way things like the merits of flexible seating and teachers looping with students.

During a math class, he wondered out loud how our state budget could get more commas in the education budget.

Cooper thanked every teacher along the way, looking them in the eye and shaking their hand.

Leaders talk about Forest Hill Elementary

“We are a community. We are a family,” said Principal Nikki Costello, who went on to help the governor understand the diversity of the students she serves, and to explain the connections between home, school, and community.

Here are her full remarks:

Jocelyn Flores, now a parent at Forest Hill Elementary, grew up in the Burke County Public Schools.

Jocelyn Flores, a parent. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

“I cannot say how grateful I am for the teachers that I had growing up,” said Flores. “They helped me through a lot of mental health issues. When nobody believed in me, I had my teachers there that believed in me and helped me through a lot of rough moments in my life.”

As she went on to talk about her girls experience of Forest Hill Elementary, Flores had to hold back tears.

“I’m trying not to cry,” she said. “I think as parents our biggest worry is for our children — how they’re going to do in school… The Huskies have been phenomenal for my family.”

Flores noted the dedication of the educators and the principal. “Above and beyond,” she said.

Governor Roy Cooper with Jocelyn Flores, a parent at Forest Hill Elementary. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

“We are all in for the students of Burke County Public Schools,” said Superintendent Mike Swann. “We’re all in for academic achievement. We’re all in for physical and emotional well being. And we’re all in to connect our schools to the community.”

Superintendent Mike Swann. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

‘Our North Carolina public schools rock’

Gov. Roy Cooper. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

As Cooper visited the classrooms, it was clear he was remembering his kindergarten, third grade, and fifth grade teachers. He kicked off his remarks to local leaders with a story.

When he was in third grade, Cooper’s mom sent him on to school the morning his grandmother passed away. His teacher, Miss Batchelor, had heard about it, and she greeted Cooper with a hug.

“It was seven o’clock in the morning,” he said. “And I’ll never never, ever forget it.”

“Our public schools are extraordinary,” Cooper said. “I know firsthand the power of public schools. I’m a product of the public schools. My children went to public schools. My mom was the greatest public school teacher in the history of North Carolina.”

When Cooper asked his mom why she worked so hard, she explained, “Every child is different. Every class is different. Every year is different.”

“And that’s what public schools are about,” said Cooper. They are “safe places where children can learn from teachers and counselors and coaches and teacher assistants and others who care about them. Where they meet different kinds of people and make friends with them. Where they can get the opportunity for successful lives.”

“Our public schools are doing amazing work,” he said.

Cooper noted the 87% statewide graduation rate — which is even higher in Burke County.

He noted the record-setting 325,000 workforce credentials earned by high school students statewide in 2022-23 — 6,200 of them in Burke County.

He noted the 24,243 national board certified teachers in North Carolina, the most in any state in the country — including 88 in Burke County.

“The bottom line is our North Carolina public schools rock!”

— Gov. Roy Cooper

“Our public schools are so central to who we are,” said Cooper. “Think about the concerts, and the pancake suppers, and the football games, and the quiz bowls, and the art, the music, the theater, and the athletics.”

“Public schools are often the glue that hold our communities together,” he said.

‘Your voice makes a difference’

The governor has declared 2024 “The Year of Public Schools.”

Cooper asked everyone at the school, in the community, and across the state to tell legislators four things:

First, great things are happening in our public schools.

Second, put a moratorium on private school vouchers until we fully fund our public schools.

Third, pay teachers like the professionals that they are.

And fourth, expand access to early childhood education, pre K, and quality childcare.

— Gov. Roy Cooper

“Your voice makes a difference,” said Cooper.

Here is the governor’s proclamation.

Here are the governor’s remarks from the launch of “The Year of Public Schools.”

Here is the governor’s press release from the visit to Forest Hill Elementary.

Mebane Rash

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