The northeast corner of North Carolina, or the Albemarle region, is commonly known as pass-through country for vacationers headed to Virginia or the Outer Banks.
Nearly one resident in every five lives in poverty, and one in four is over the age of 60, according to local government statistics. Community members say a lack of economic and educational opportunity push and keep young people out.
“Some people [in the Northeast] talk about the three R's: reading, writing, and the road to Virginia,” said Andrew Harris, an educator who grew up in Perquimans County. "That's what you learn."
Harris taught at local public schools before traveling around the state to study innovative education models. While on the road, he saw opportunities for kids that didn’t exist back home, like project-based learning and specialized coursework.
“We had to do this here, we had to bring something that was truly innovative here, because our students here are just as capable as students anywhere,” he said.
Harris signed on to run Pasquotank County’s first charter school. The Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies, or NEAAAT, opened its doors in the fall of 2015. Its mission: to inspire and prepare middle and high schoolers in the region for careers related to the aerospace industry.
Joe Peel is chairman of that school’s board, as well as the mayor of Elizabeth City, where the school is located. The town is home to a Coast Guard airplane facility and an aviation program based at Elizabeth City State University.
“So all of those things are already here and we thought, these are jobs, these are opportunities for young people,” Peel said. “And so this school could be a feeder to some of those kinds of jobs.”
NEAAAT is housed on the campus of Elizabeth City State University, so its 250 students can take college courses. Classes are centered around projects and group work.
“I really like the hands-on learning, because I think it helps you learn better than just reading it or watching a video on it,” said Mikayla Cisneros, a seventh-grader at NEAAAT. “And you get to actually do it instead of watching someone else do it or hearing about how someone else did it.”
Mikayla’s house is about a 40-minute drive away from Elizabeth City. As a charter school, NEAAAT is not legally required to provide her with transportation. But it does so anyway. The school operates its own buses, with several pickup points for students.
“We knew if we were going to open up a regional school, in one of the highest-need areas of our state,” Harris said, “that we would have to provide transportation, if it really was going to be open.”
The school is not required to subsidize lunches for low-income students either. With the help of grants, however, it does -- and it serves free breakfast for all of its students, by partnering with a local food bank.
Still, recruiting low-income students to NEAAAT has been tough.
Teachers and administrators said a big challenge is the community’s loyalty to local public schools, and a fear that the charter will hurt existing schools.
Rob Jackson, superintendent of Edenton-Chowan County schools, said he supports increased educational options for parents, but that charters do impact traditional public schools. Fifty students from his district are attending NEAAAT this school year.
“As students leave the school system, then funding is decreased,” he said. “And so we have less funds, of course, to support the students who are here in the school system.”
Yet Jackson recognizes the competition that NEAAAT provides.
“It does force us to continue to look at what we offer for students, and to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to meet the needs of the children in our area,” he said.
So Jackson’s district and NEAAAT are trying to keep young people from hitting the road. It remains to be seen how successful they will be. NEAAAT’s first class of students will graduate in two years.