How a move to a specialty school in Durham convinced an Edgecombe County teen that North Carolina schools are funded unfairly.

[Editor’s Note: The following is written by an Edgecombe County student now enrolled at the NC School of Science and Math, a public, residential high school in Durham where students are chosen from a pool of competitive applicants. The student wanted to bring attention to the gap in resources between her local school system and schools like NCSSM.]

One of the most overused phrases of the pandemic has been “the new normal.” 

After transferring from Tarboro High in the fall of 2020 to the NC School of Science and Math (a public, residential high school that focuses on science and math studies) my eyes were  opened to so many inequities in education.

Pandemic or not, nothing was ever going to be “normal” for  me again.  

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I realized it wasn’t normal to have a substitute teacher the entire year. I realized it wasn’t normal  to share one nurse with an entire county of schools. I realized it wasn’t normal for students to lose a year  of education because of a lack of internet access at home. Yet these experiences were “normal” at  Tarboro High. 

This past summer I was introduced to the Leandro case. I learned my experience in Edgecombe  County wasn’t just abnormal, it is unconstitutional. 

The Leandro case is a lawsuit filed against the state of North Carolina over 27 years ago because  the North Carolina General Assembly was not upholding the constitution requiring that every student  receive a sound and basic education. Once I began research on the lawsuit it was as if all of the puzzle  pieces were finally clicking together.  

I conducted several interviews with people about the implementation of Leandro. One of the first  was with Andy Smith, a consultant for the public education advisory organization Education First

Smith and I discussed a chart created by the EveryChildNC coalition — a progressive K-12 group advocating for equitable public school funding— created to show the additional funding that would come to Edgecombe if the state complied with the Leandro ruling. 

Staring at these numbers was mind-blowing. The additional resources that the Leandro Plan would bring to schools across the state would cause improvement in the mental health of students, higher test scores, and motivate children in the classroom. 

I was infuriated that North Carolina could afford to put this money into our school districts, but hasn’t to this point. Every single person I interviewed emphasized that the state has the money to follow through with these plans yet is refusing to do so. 

At Tarboro High, we had two counselors for the entire school and one social worker for the entire county. This is unacceptable. The counselors’ sole purpose was to assign and create each student’s schedule. 

They had no time to assist in the college admissions process or mental health struggles.  

Related: Is this a game-changer for North Carolina school funding inequities?

Under Leandro, according to EveryChildNC, “funding for instructional support personnel would increase by $767 million, so that all support positions are funded at industry-recommended levels, and freeing classroom teachers from support roles that distract from teaching.” 

According to the Leandro Impact analyses, funding given to  Edgecombe County for instructional support would increase by 158% by 2028 — going from $1.9 million to $5.1 million. 

I met with state Rep. Rachel Hunt-Nilender and Rep. Ricky Hurtado, who are both very passionate about Leandro funding gaps because they are aware of the need for resources in many North Carolina schools. They were willing to listen to my stories and experiences with open minds and hearts. The real question is: “Why aren’t 100% of representatives agreeing that this is an issue needing to be fixed?” 

“Everything I Missed Out On”

Freshman year I went out to eat lunch with a friend from Raleigh.

We were chatting about school  and she was inquiring about what clubs and classes I was taking. I showed her my schedule and was a bit confused about clubs. I thought it was normal for schools to not have any. She raised an eyebrow and  asked about AP and language classes. I explained that my school only offered two AP classes and we  only have one Spanish that’s reserved for seniors. 

After she gave me a doubting look, I couldn’t stop thinking about this the rest of the day. I felt anxious already about applying to N.C. School of Science and Math, and how I would  be at a disadvantage compared to the students attending schools with more access to resources. 

In my first week at NCSSM, I realized everything I missed out on at Tarboro High. Leandro would allow for equal access to gifted programs, honors courses, and Advanced Placement courses. It would also increase funding for enrichment programs such as after-school programs, clubs, and other activities that  make school fun while promoting enrichment and growth. 

Stress about competing with other students from better-funded urban areas would be taken off the shoulders of so many high school students. Many don’t realize the importance of these things when it comes to applying to schools, but colleges look for these rigorous  courses and extracurriculars.  

This summer I interned at Stocks Elementary School in Edgecombe County. In 2019, Stocks was identified by the state as an elementary school in need of comprehensive support and improvement. It is one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in North Carolina. 

In 2020, Stocks was approved for a $1.5 million federal innovative partnership grant that can be renewed every year for up to three years. With this grant, they were able to hire new staff such as a social worker and several teaching coaches. They created a sensory room (a therapeutic room designed to assist students with limited communication skills) and a literacy room. They upgraded their teacher’s lounge. 

I learned from the faculty how disheartening it was that it had to get this bad before they received funding, and then when the three years are up, many are worried that the progress they’ve made will not continue. 

What about all of the other schools that didn’t receive this grant? How are they supposed to sustain the improvement that has been made?  

A Stocks Elementary student named Maya walked up to me one day and said, “Ms. Cynthia, why are we just now getting all of these nice things? I’m leaving Stocks next year and will go back to having an empty classroom.” 

At first, I felt a tinge of sadness but was soon replaced with pure anger. Why did my community have to struggle because legislators aren’t doing their jobs? 

“Maya, I promise you that you’ll have this and more at your next school,” I responded. How I’m going to keep this promise, I have no clue. 

As a 16-year-old girl, many don’t take what I say seriously but I’m asking for you to listen because the inequity of education occurs for my friends in Edgecombe and other rural counties every day. I faced these challenges for more than a decade and it’s time we end the suffering for all students in North Carolina. 

Just imagine if our textbooks weren’t falling apart at the binding, if we could afford an early childhood education program, or if we had working air conditioning so we could focus on the teacher  and not the sweat dripping down our back!  

We don’t have to imagine. The Leandro plan shows how we can provide students with the resources necessary to succeed. North Carolina can afford the basics of a sound education. It’s too easy  to continue to blame the students, teachers and staff. Instead, it’s time the people in charge take  responsibility. North Carolina’s leaders continue to tell rural administrators, teachers, and students to  build a cabin but then only give them sticks.