By Jamie Smith
As he walks through classrooms of high school students learning to weld and navigate computer-integrated machinery, Greene County Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Miller '05 '11 smiles.
"This is how you put your thumbprint on the future," he says.
East Carolina University College of Education graduates such as Miller, Leondus Farrow '96 '04, Tonya Faison '00 '06 '13 and Colleen Burt '02 '09 serve in schools or districts with high poverty rates and work to find ways to put success into action for their students.
"Their basic needs have to be met first. If a child is hungry, they can't learn," says Burt. "If they didn't sleep at all the night before or are emotionally distraught, they're not going to be able to learn."
The College of Education is the largest producer of educators in North Carolina. Each year, hundreds of teachers and principals from ECU set out across the state to put their mark on the schools and share ECU's commitment to student success, public service and regional transformation.
Raising graduation rates
Miller is a second-generation graduate of Greene Central High School and returned to his hometown to teach after completing his undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a member of the COE Educators Hall of Fame and was named regional superintendent of the year in 2014.
When Miller became superintendent, the graduation rate was 62.3 percent. He says many students dropped out to work, help their families or would get so far behind they couldn't catch up. In 2016, the graduation rate for Greene County Schools was 93.3 percent, far above the state average and fifth-best in the state.
"We realized a rigid eight-to-three schedule is not what every kid in every family needs," says Miller. "We began to really pay attention and understand that every student has a story and began working with them to craft individual plans to help them graduate."
In addition to the individual graduation plans, Greene County started offering classes outside the normal 8 a.m.-3 p.m. school hours to allow students to finish credits. Before these programs were implemented, 64 students dropped out of school. Last year, only 14 chose not to complete high school.
Now that Miller has more students graduating, he is focusing on keeping them in Greene County after they finish college or learn a trade to help the community thrive. A new computer-integrated machining class was created during the 2016-2017 school year because Miller listened to the needs of employers in and around Greene County who had high-paying trade positions open but no one to fill them.
"The good thing about having these conversations with employers is that we know what they perceive as skills gaps, and it's our job to figure out programs or ways to shrink those gaps," says Miller.
In addition to the machining class, students may take welding or other courses through Lenoir Community College and earn an associate's degree or trade certification while completing high school.
Additionally, Miller spends time during the year advocating for public education policy change in Washington, D.C.
He has served in leadership positions at the state and national level of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Miller is part of the 16-member legislative committee that puts together the legislative agenda for the 130,000-member national group. After the agenda is approved, he meets with North Carolina's representatives in Congress.
"It's basically what our organization feels should be considered when any education law or act is reauthorized," says Miller.
Success despite circumstance
Leondus Farrow is the principal of Rocky Mount High School and knows about struggles and second chances. He also knows what it's like to overcome those obstacles to succeed.
"I was a kid who grew up in poverty, in a single-parent home. I know what it feels like to look at the world from a perspective of not knowing if things will ever change for you," says Farrow.
When Farrow graduated from ECU, he knew he wanted to help students realize there was a life outside of whatever difficulties they may face.
He has been principal at RMHS for nine years and was recognized as principal of the year at the district and regional levels. Since he arrived at RMHS, the graduation rate has increased from the 60s to almost 80 percent, and the dropout rate is 2 percent. That is no small feat considering the school serves communities where violence, drugs and gangs are a distraction for his students. Farrow estimates nearly 10 percent of students are in a gang or affiliated with one.
Even with the distractions, approximately 90 percent of RMHS graduates move on to pursue education or training beyond high school. Farrow says most of the graduates moving on to college are the first in their family to have the opportunity. Each year, school counselors review what they can do to provide more opportunities for students and their families navigating the college application and funding process for the first time.
"I was a first-generation college student, and the process was intimidating for my mother and me in many ways. We didn't want to look ignorant, so you didn't ask questions, so we made mistakes trying to figure it out on our own," says Farrow. "We have to make sure we are a resource for families."
Farrow uses the experiences he had as a teen and young adult to relate to the students in his school. He attributes his success to his family and the teachers and professors who encouraged him along the way.
Former RMHS student Tevin Taylor says Farrow helped boost his confidence when he was struggling academically in the international baccalaureate program at the school.
"Mr. Farrow was someone I could talk to about anything. He connected with the students in a way some principals could not," says Taylor, who is pursuing a doctor of physical therapy degree at Duke University.
Like Farrow, Tonya Faison became an educator so she could be for the students of James Martin Middle School what so many people were for her.
Faison is the principal of the Charlotte school and has been known as a turnaround principal. She has been assigned to schools labeled as low-performing in the district and works to improve academic progress. Faison will tell you there is a lot that goes into growing a school academically. For the self-described "high-energy" principal, relationships are key.
"If staff and students know you are there to support them and the learning taking place in the classroom, it helps move the school forward," says Faison.
Before going to JMMS, she was principal of Hawthorne Academy in Charlotte and helped raise the graduation rate from 59 percent to 90.6 percent. Since Faison arrived at JMMS three years ago, the school's proficiency score has improved from 32 to 38 percent. The school added the mentoring groups Girls to Pearls and Boys at Martin, which stress academics, social skills and community service.
"I was one of those students that would fight all the time and get suspended. I had a teacher stop me one day and tell me I was fighting the wrong fight; I needed to fight to be a better person," says Faison.
After attending North Carolina A&T State University, Faison pursued a career in finance until colleagues who worked alongside her at a nonprofit for youth saw how she interacted with teenagers and encouraged her to pursue teaching.
After receiving her teaching certification and master's degree from ECU, she returned to get an educational specialist degree. A new job as a principal and life as a single parent had her questioning her ability to finish the program. Faison says when she called ECU's Art Rouse, who chairs the Department of Educational Leadership, about her concerns, he assured her she could complete it.
"If I didn't have that support I don't think I would have made it through the Ed.S. degree. They kept telling me I could do it-you can run that school and get your Ed.S.," says Faison.
"Education is a calling for me. I couldn't see myself doing anything else," she adds.
Never too early
The phrase college- and career-ready is one most teachers are familiar with. But what does being college- and career-ready mean for a kindergarten class?
Colleen Burt, principal of Elmhurst Elementary School in Greenville, says asking children what types of problems they like to solve and how they want to help the world are ways to encourage college and career readiness early on. She also says that giving them hope is a key piece to their success.
"You can't teach hope; you have to instill it in them. A lot of these kids come from poverty, and they have to see something beyond the street they live on," said Burt.
Originally from Maryland, Burt received her undergraduate degree from ECU and returned two years later for her master's degree in education. She also completed the Principal Fellows program at ECU in 2009.
She was the assistant principal at Eastern Elementary and was named assistant principal of the year for Pitt County in 2012 before moving to Elmhurst three years ago. Elmhurst is across the street from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
During an assembly for the school's annual Career Week this year, Burt told her students, "It doesn't matter if you have a big house, a lot of money or if anyone in your family went to college. What matters is what's in your heart and your attitude."
Jessie Jordan '09 is a second-grade teacher at Elmhurst and says Burt "is here, there and everywhere making sure learning is taking place. She's an advocate for learning outside the classroom."
Burt encourages students and teachers to take advantage of opportunities to experience things outside of Pitt County. The school's robotics team traveled to Raleigh for a competition, and it was the first time the students competed with other students outside their hometown.
"It was a great eye-opening experience for them to see teams from other areas," says Burt.
Burt has also implemented strategies that helped pull her school out of low-performing status. One strategy added a 45-minute enrichment period the entire school participates in at the same time where students are separated into small groups for more one-on-one attention.
It takes everyone working together, she says.
"We use everybody in the building - I teach a fifth-grade group each morning. We have to do everything we can to help here."