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NEAAAT's first grad class a 'Legacy' for Peel, too

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By Peter Thomson
Columnist

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Perhaps only in a small town in America could a stubborn visionary overcome convention-bound bureaucracy and find success. Recently the “Legacy” class graduated from the Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies, a public, charter school concentrating on STEM and project-based learning. The class was a cross-section of public school students from across the region whose parents decided to take a chance on a new innovative program. It had the same demographic and racial mix as the traditional public schools in the area. So the students were not elite, but the results were extraordinary.

Fifty students graduated. Over a quarter of them had two years or more of transferrable college credits, meaning that their parents saved hundreds of thousands in college fees. This class won more than $1.5 million in scholarships and its members have been accepted into a total of 32 different colleges and universities. Importantly, those who chose not to go to college know how to research, present in public, write logically, and work as members of a team. So they’re ready for a career.

Dr. Joseph Peel made it happen. As Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools superintendent, and later three-term mayor of Elizabeth City, he discovered that low-rated schools were causing major problems with economic growth. Professionals were shunning the town. Business executives would point to low standardized test scores as a reason for not coming here, and high-tech companies would point to the lack of trained technical workers and go elsewhere. So Joe formulated a plan for the local school system to have a special school for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to help the situation. And he was turned down. He came back a second time, and was turned down a second time. He tried the school boards of nearby counties with the same results. Their story was: their systems were fine, there was no need to change.

Joe Peel is a pretty darn persistent guy. He had a dream to help his hometown, and he had research that said ordinary students could become extraordinary students if they became invested in the process. With the help of New Schools of North Carolina, and Andrew Harris, an educator from right here in the region, he set out to build a school like no other. Teachers became coaches. Students worked in teams on class and school projects. There were no weather days since groups could meet electronically. Schedules were flexible. Students were encouraged to gain credits from local colleges and universities. Students knew why they were learning and, when possible were hands-on. While state standardized testing bore out the methodology, the real proof was in the school corridors: students came out of class talking, not about football and movies, but robots and drones and school projects. They looked forward to internships, and dedicated down time to area nonprofits. They thrived, and educators from across the country took notice and visited.

Four years later, at NEAAAT’s first graduation ceremony, Joe gave the commencement address and shook hands with each graduate. NEAAAT was a going concern recognized across the state and the country as a cutting-edge educational program. 

NEAAAT’s “Legacy” class marks a turn in the scholastic fortunes of the area. Today, highly qualified leaders head our institutions of learning. Harris was instrumental in the growth and success of NEAAAT. Chancellor Karrie Dixon is leading the charge at Elizabeth City State University. Dr. Catherine Edmunds takes over in July as our new ECPPS superintendent. Hopefully they can all work together to make Elizabeth City an outstanding educational center. ECSU is already partnering with NEAAAT to help train new student teachers. Perhaps Dr. Edmunds will be able to use NEAAAT’s experiences and resources to help ECPPS modernize and flourish. Working in unison can only be beneficial and potentially transformative: bringing together a growing ECSU, and a changing ECPPS helped by an innovative, highly successful NEAAAT. Thank you, Joe.

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.

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