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Global School In Rural Edgecombe Is 'Recipe For Success’

Kindergarten teacher Daly Romero Espinal teaches her students basic Spanish commands on the first day of school at Martin Millennium Academy.
Reema Khrais

In rural Edgecombe County, North Carolina, community members are welcoming a new school they say will help transform their district, and its academic reputation.

It’s a unique K-8 school with international teachers and a curriculum focused on global education. Some students will also have the opportunity to take all of their instruction in Spanish.

The new school is trying to create global communities for its students.

Before you even enter Martin Millennium Academy, you notice large flags from across the world that dot the front lawn. Inside, in the main lobby, visitors are greeted with a neat row of clocks showing different time zones.
“We’ve got Nairobi, Manila, Auckland, Kingston, Beijing, London, and Tarboro,” says Principal Erin Swanson.

Swanson and other school officials say Edgecombe County’s new global school will help transform their rural district and its poor academic reputation. The unique K-8 school has a strong global theme with each grade focusing on an area of the world that will be heavily incorporated into their daily instruction. It also includes the county’s first Spanish immersion program in a traditional public school. 

About a half dozen international teachers, who just arrived in Tarboro last month, will be leading much of the global curriculum. Marsha Smith from Jamaica teaches a third-grade class that will focus on Africa for the year.

“It’ll be as if they’re traveling to Africa and they’re still in the states,” Smith says. “This will be their visa to Africa without leaving home.”

Smith will integrate information about Africa every day – its economies, people and geography – in a way that complements their standard course of study.  

“A lot of our kids have not even left the city of Tarboro, so we want to bring the world to Tarboro,” says John Farrelly, superintendent of Edgecombe County Public Schools. “We feel like global education is part of our recipe for success.”

Farrelly says creating a school with a unique global strategy was a risk for the district. He especially didn’t know how the community would react to the Spanish immersion component of the school.

Along with its global theme, kindergarten students have the opportunity to receive all of their instruction - Science, Math, Social Studies - in Spanish. Teachers typically don't incorporate any English instruction until the students reach third-grade. The school's program will expand each year until the current kindergarten class reaches eighth grade.

“I didn’t know if parents would be invested in sending their children to a school where they’re teaching full immersion, students are going to be learning Spanish 100 percent of the day,” he says.

But Farrelly says the community response was overwhelmingly positive. For many, the school is seen as an exciting opportunity to revitalize the district’s academic standing. Edgecombe County has had three of the lowest-performing elementary schools in the state.

School administrators says there’s also been a charter school impact. Farrelly notes that about 700 students have left the school system in the last three years.

“I knew that some parents in the community wanted to have a different option and a different choice, so we’ve given them a new option,” he says.

Most of the students in the school district come from poverty and about 80 percent are African-American. But research shows that despite student backgrounds, those enrolled in dual language/immersion programs score significantly higher on state tests than their peers and are less likely to drop out. 

“I hope we’re able to show what is possible here,” says Swanson. “We want to provide our students with a really rigorous academic program.”

Swanson says she’s proud to be part of the school – she started her career in eastern North Carolina as a teacher for Teach for America. She then left to run the organization in Durham, before making the choice to go back into public schools. 

“I just really felt like I wanted to be back doing the work of being in schools,” she says. “You can really see such an impact when you’re working with teachers and you can see throughout the year, the difference they’re able to make in the lives of kids.”

Swanson and other officials say they hope to expand the school’s language and global education opportunities as the community becomes more familiar with the school. The hope, they say, is to create one of the best schools in northeast North Carolina. 

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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