KINSTON — Down in Eastern North Carolina, rural counties struggle with economic disparities ranging from poverty to single-family homes to lack of financial resources for infrastructure needs. Children in the educational system are managing challenges in their home life before they ever get to the classrooms. School budgets are stretched thin and teacher resources are limited in rural counties.
For Jones County Public Schools, located in Trenton, they know their county demographics, they’ve witnessed the needs of their students and now they’re helping them overcome obstacles with high success.
“Our motto with Jones County Schools is every ‘student matters and every moment counts.’ We really strive that motto statement because we are a small rural district,” said Superintendent Dr. Michael Bracy. “We’re small but strong. All of our students will achieve with their maximum potential.”
Jones County has a population of approximately 10,000 with 1,200 children in the public schools. Jones County Schools is a six-school system with four elementary schools, one middle school and one high school.
Jones County Schools are helping students achieve maximum potential by ensuring administration and teachers are customizing learning, knowing each student by name, tracking their progress from kindergarten to 12th grade, evaluating school and district data, and ultimately progressing students toward success.
“We must pride ourselves in meeting our students needs with high-quality teaching and standards,” said Bracy. “Professional development of our teachers is important. We want them to continuously improve their craft so they are providing more rigorous instruction and lessons for students. Students shouldn’t be just performing tasks and doing work, we should be encouraging critical thinking and questioning.”
Jones County Schools joins ECU’s College of Education, the Panasonic Foundation (a nonprofit foundation geared toward bridging gaps in race, poverty and education across the nation) and the Duplin, Sampson and Pender school districts in a consortium focused on training and improving education for those facing economic disparities.
“We are fortunate to be a part of this group,” said Bracy. “When we sit down for training across the United States, we are sitting down with large urban and suburban districts and finding their needs are similar to ours.
“Increasing graduate rates, dropout prevention, collaborative work are the issues of focus. We are planning and providing learning opportunities for students that focuses on equity and access for all students — that is ultimate mission of our work.”
Jones Senior High School ranked No. 6 in the state in terms of highest graduation rate, and hopes with new rankings being released by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction in the coming week, their ranking will continue to rise. The only high school in the county, the senior class of 2017 graduated 76 students.
Jones Senior is currently the highest ranked traditional comprehensive high school — those ahead of them are charter schools and early college high schools.
“It all starts with relationships. If you can build a relationship with a student, they will move mountains for you,” said Bracy. “Our students are overcoming the obstacles of being in a rural and poverty-stricken district and doing great things.
“We are so rural that we do not have the industry to pull in the tax base to help us with infrastructure, building and capital needs for the schools,” he continued. “We are not able to generate enough money as a Tier 1 county to provide upgrades to our schools as far as capital needs. We’ve got the learning in place, we are producing results, and these kids deserve these opportunities no matter if we are a Tier 1, 2 or 3.”
Jones County has plans to open a new K-12 school for the 2019-20 academic year. After reviewing the needs of the systems and its students, a consolidation of Trenton Elementary, Jones Middle and Jones Senior High was deemed necessary.
“This is very exciting for us,” said Bracy. “We are a rural district with low wealth where all of our students eat breakfast and lunch for free. This will provide additional opportunities for our students to continue to succeed.”
To be built on available land on the campus of the existing high school, Jones Senior, the new consolidated school will host advanced learning facilities, classrooms that open into collaboration spaces, and updated technology. Designed by SfL+a Architects of Raleigh, the school will be “green” in that it will be cost and energy efficient.
Due to the financial commitments from the North Carolina General Assembly and the Golden LEAF Foundation, the $15 million project can come to fruition.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R-Jones) and Rep. Pat McElraft (R-Carteret) were pioneers in the legislature to ensure funds would be allocated in the state budget for the project.
“I grew up in Jones County and went to both the high school and middle school — schools that were built in 1951,” said Brown. “The elementary school was built in the 1950s as well. These schools are in what I would call poor shape and need replacing. A lot of the rural counties such as Jones County do not have a revenue source to do that. I’ve had an interest for a while now to find funds to help these rural counties with infrastructure needs.”
In the state’s budget. $30 million will go toward infrastructure needs in Tier 1 counties such as Jones. The N.C. Department of Commerce annually ranks the state’s 100 counties on economic well-being. The first 40 counties deemed most distressed in the state are ranked Tier 1.
“Jones County is 10,200 people roughly. Onslow County is approaching 200,000 people,” said Brown. “I get an opportunity to see a difference between a growing, fairly wealthy county compared to a poor rural county. The kids in Jones County don’t have the same opportunities as a kid in Onslow or Wake counties, just because of the revenue difference.”
Bracy added, “Our results are there. We have no low-performing schools in the district. We have good people across all schools and know our students are prepared to succeed.”