Rural communities across North Carolina have been working hard to re-build their economies and prepare a future workforce.
In Vance County, the public school district has two career academies in place to provide professional development for students and help them focus early on a career. Plus, academies have been proven to help with student attendance and dropout rates.
In our series Perils and Promise: Educating North Carolina's Rural Students, we visited the Fire and Public Safety Academy at Southern Vance High School.
The students in this Public Safety II class smile as they walk in. They see a section of their large classroom set up like a living room, even with a flat screen TV made of cardboard.
Instructor Frank Brown says it’s time to get to work and save some lives.
“You are going to set up a three man team that’s going to go in and rescue personnel in our living room," said Brown.
The dozen or so students have to quickly figure out the scenario they want to play out. Was there a tornado, a hurricane, a fire or a flood?
“You are also going to advise your team what you’ve been told about the people inside our living room. If they are deceased, if they are trapped, if there is a baby and so forth," said Brown, while passing out walkie talkie-type radios.
Brown’s students form a huddle to figure things out. 18-year-old Cortevis Bullock missed class the previous day. He was on a field trip at the State Fair. His price for having fun? He would have to be one of the victims in the living room.
“How about I die while you all are there, so I die in the middle of being saved," said Cortevis Bullock.
Bullock and his classmates decided he would die in a fire, but they would rescue the baby.
Bullock lives with his grandmother in Vance County these days. His immediate family recently moved to Florida, his mother got a new job. Bullock says he enjoyed the Public Safety one class so much, he opted to stay behind and graduate from high school and the academy, and then join his family.
“I’m moving to Florida and hopefully become a fire fighter or something like that or join a CERT a Community Emergency Response Team down there in Florida, ‘cause they have a lot of fires down there," said Bullock.
That’s what school officials want to hear. They have discovered a key to success for many rural school districts is giving the kids what they want, career options to aim for upon graduation.
Today there are close to 60 students in the Fire and Public Safety Academy that officially started in Fall 2013. The academy is based at Southern Vance High School but students also commute from Northern Vance. The classroom is so big, a fire truck can pull in.
At Southern Vance, there is also a Medical Academy and several other CTE or Career and Technical Education classrooms. In one room there’s wood construction and in another there is masonry.
Superintendent Anthony Jackson has been assessing the district his first few months on the job and visiting a lot of classrooms. He recently sampled some cookies in a Foods Lab, after some prodding.
I asked Jackson what are the biggest obstacles facing his kids?
“You’re talking about outcomes, graduation rates, being ready for the workforce. I’ll take a different shot at it. I think the real challenge here is mindset, and believing that all kids can do," said Jackson. "That all kids are capable of full-filling whatever their destinies are so they can in fact pursue a career or a vocation in life of their choice.”
The state of North Carolina supports 13 of 16 national career clusters. And school districts don’t need state approval to set up an academy. This could be a good thing, giving rural communities the power to layout their own pathways to success.