Rural counties across the state are not experiencing the economic recovery underway in the Triangle, Triad or in the Charlotte Mecklenburg region. The unemployment rate is higher, the poverty rate is higher and the high school drop-out rate is higher.
For the next several months, WUNC will take a closer look at schools in Vance County and what’s being done to prepare students for a changing workplace in our series: “Perils and Promise: Educating North Carolina’s Rural Students.”
Western Vance High School is not your traditional high school. For many years, it used to be what some called a “holding pen for bad students.” But 13 years ago, that changed.
“We decided we needed to do something to give kids hope," said Eric Pierce.
Eric Pierce is the first official principal at Western Vance, the district’s alternative high school. But he wasn’t always at Western.
“And I was one of those principals at one of those schools sending students to the alternative program, they would stay for six weeks or so and come back to the regular program, declared cured," said Pierce. "And they wouldn’t last two weeks and they ended up dropping out of school. Well, that’s not working for kids.”
And it’s not working for Vance County. The county is less than an hour north of the Triangle, but its make-up is worlds apart.
The Public School Forum of North Carolina’s latest “Roadmap of Need” ranks Vance County 93 out of 100 counties for Child Food Insecurity. The Teen Pregnancy ranking is 78 out of 100 counties. And the high school graduation rate was 65 percent in 2014—the lowest in the state.
Principal Eric Pierce recently retired. On this day, he’s walking through Western Vance for one of the last times, smiling at students and admiring what he has helped build.
“That’s our premise, when you come to Western, you come to Western to graduate," said Pierce.
In the 13 years Pierce has lead Western Vance, 578 students have graduated. And for the last few years, it has had a 100-percent high school graduation rate. Well, they sort of don’t have a choice. Students stay here until they meet the state requirements for graduation.
There are posters encouraging students to graduate all over the nearly 100 year-old building. Western Vance Counselor Marsha Harris says everything is intentional.
“We try to look at each child’s individual needs and develop that child to the fullest potential that we can, so they can just go out and be successful and work and enjoy life," said Harris.
Anthony Jackson is the new Vance County Schools superintendent. He is starting his 28th year in public education.
Jackson says in order for students to find success, they will need alternative pathways.
“There are some kids who shouldn’t go through a traditional high school program. They can finish high school a lot faster, why do we make them stay 4 years," said Jackson. "There are some kids who need more time in high school, why do we make them leave after 4 years when we know they are not ready.”
The school district has been working for years to find success wherever they can. There is an Early College program at Vance-Granville Community College and newer high school programs in Medicine and for future Fire Fighters. The goal is to prepare students for work, whether they make a detour towards college or not.
Students and teachers at Western Vance High School are glad to get a second chance.
“It seemed like teachers at the other school, they didn’t really just teach, they just give us the work and say here do it," said Kayland Henderson, a new student at Western Vance.
Teacher, Sheila Brockers-White, is a product of a rural school district and knows the obstacles.
"I just feel like I’m needed here," said Brockers-White.