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Perils And Promise: A New Superintendent Takes On Rural Problems

Anthony Jackson, Vance County Superintendent, Vance County Schools
Vance County Schools

Many of North Carolina’s rural school districts sit in the middle of communities with struggling economies resulting in high unemployment rates, poverty rates and high school dropout rates.

That means Anthony Jackson has his work cut out for him.  Jackson is the new schools superintendent in Vance County and we got the chance to speak with him for our continuing series – “Perils & Promise: Educating North Carolina’s Rural Students.”

Superintendent Jackson is cut like a football player.  But no, he’s not an athletic coach.  Actually his undergraduate degree from East Carolina University is in Music Education.  And after years as a teacher, principal and a superintendent, he’s the head of Vance County Schools in Henderson. 

Jackson has been on the job for almost four months. So there’s hardly a day when he’s not meeting someone new.

"How are you? Tell me your name? What school?" Jackson quizzed Lily Kanouff.

Fifteen-year-old Lily Kanouff, her younger sister and mother attended an open house for Jackson.  Nancy Kanouff is an elementary school teacher in the district.  She’s lived in Vance County for 20 years.

“There’s a lot of good things happening in Vance County and there’s a lot of things that are kind of stale and need to be re-energized.  And I just think because of the economics and where we are, we get a bad rap on a lot of things," said Nancy Kanouff.

Vance County School students are mostly minority, experience a high rate of poverty and have one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the state. But the area has also suffered from major job loss.  Kanouff  says it’s still early, but she supports Jackson, the new schools superintendent.

“So I’m looking for good things.  I am looking for him to spark some things that might have been stagnant," said Nancy Kanouff.  "Fresh blood to the county."

“Vance County provided me with the opportunity to come and serve kids who were truly, 25 years ago, 30 years ago, they were me," said Jackson.

Jackson, who is African American, knows he has a tough job ahead.  But he says he welcomes the challenge.

“Coming from DC as an individual, growing up in what I considered somewhat of a desperate situation, in what people call the projects of Washington, DC, I’ve learned that it’s truly about helping children close what we call the ‘opportunity gap.’  And having them understand that because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist," said Jackson.

Before coming to Vance County, Jackson was superintendent of Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools.  News reports say he was forced to resign and hinted that race and politics had a lot to do with him being forced out.  The vote was 6-5 in favor of his resignation.

Tony Habit is the President of North Carolina New Schools–Breakthrough Learning, a professional services agency focusing on developing high-performing school districts.

“That job has become much more conflicted than it was in the past," said Habit.

Habit says a superintendent’s job is not what it used to be 30 years ago.  Research out of Vanderbilt University shows that nearly half of district superintendents leave their jobs every three years.

“In the past it was a beginning, with an assumption that they were a leader in the community and respected and the community would seek their leadership around the future of their schools," said Habit.  "With the changing economy and what I think is hyper partisanship the job has become much more challenging.”

And the challenges come at a time when the skills and academic requirements of high school graduates has gone up significantly.

On this day, Superintendent Jackson is visiting a masonry class at Southern Vance High School.

“These are real programs where kids earn a skill where they can walk out of here and go and work. So if we’re really true about college and career, then we have to do both," said Jackson.

Jackson says the real challenge is mindset and believing that all kids can find success, just like he did.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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