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A rural North Carolina school district welcomes affordable housing complex for teachers

This new 24-unit apartment complex is set to open in Windsor this summer and priority housing will go to teachers at Bertie County Schools.
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Courtesy of Bertie County Schools
This new 24-unit apartment complex is set to open in Windsor this summer and priority housing will go to teachers at Bertie County Schools.

When Otis Smallwood was hired to be superintendent of Bertie County Schools — a return home to the school district he once attended as a student — he knew his charge was to find a way to attract more teachers to the district and get them to stay.

“The [school] board had challenged me, ‘We've got to find some teachers, find some teachers find some teachers,’” Smallwood recalled. “And we’ve got to keep our teachers because they're leaving, going to other places.”

We knew housing was a challenge because we had teachers that were driving like over an hour away
Bertie Co Schools' Superintendent Otis Smallwood

A lack of housing in the area was one factor impacting poor teacher retention. Now after several years of work, Smallwood hopes that a new housing complex — that school administrators helped to spearhead — will help curtail teacher turnover.

This summer, a new foundation called Partners for Bertie County Public Schools will open a 24-unit apartment complex in Windsor designed to house teachers.

Other public employees will also be eligible to rent from the complex, but the intention is to house teachers first. The project was funded mostly by the State Employees Credit Union, with support from Golden Leaf Foundation, the county and school board.

Smallwood said the area has faced a dire lack of housing.

“There's not another apartment complex in the county — anywhere in the county,” Smallwood explained.

So, newly hired teachers often live outside the county, making them more likely to leave the district.

“We knew housing was a challenge because we had teachers that were driving, like, over an hour away from Greenville and Elizabeth City,” Smallwood said.

He said those teachers would often leave when jobs opened up closer to where they lived.

“We have a pretty high attrition rate for teachers, and we know we just need somewhere for teachers to stay if we want to be able to retain them to work with our kids,” Smallwood said.

According to the most recent state report, about 1-in-4 teachers left Bertie County Schools in 2022. Smallwood said he hopes this new housing will encourage more teachers to put down roots in the area, and ultimately lead to more consistency for students.

 Bertie County Schools' Superintendent Otis Smallwood at a cafeteria table with students.
Courtesy of Bertie County Schools
Bertie County Schools' Superintendent Otis Smallwood.

Other rural school districts also face this affordable housing issue. Neighboring Hertford County Schools first experimented with building teacher housing almost a decade ago, and the idea is continuing to spread.

Smallwood said the solution could work for counties across the state.

“Not only in rural North Carolina, but affordable housing is an issue across the state for teachers and you know, teachers are not the most highly paid people,” Smallwood said.

Smallwood said he also sees the new housing complex as a boon to economic development in Bertie County, because of the increased tax revenue from the new residents who otherwise may have lived somewhere else. He believes even 24 housing units will make a difference.

“They'll be here shopping in the grocery stores and restaurants and local restaurants,” Smallwood said. “It could just generate additional revenues for the county as a whole.

“We think it’s going to make a huge impact here in our area."

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org
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