LAURINBURG — Taking the microphone during Thursday’s “State of Education” breakfast, Scotland County Schools’ superintendent almost immediately yielded the floor to allow two others to testify to the value of the public school system.
Both Scotland High School junior Caroline Bounds and senior Walter Jackson, IV identified the school’s diversity, opportunities to take challenging college preparatory courses, and ongoing support from teachers as highlights of their educational careers.
“The teachers, and really everyone, are so helpful and caring,” said Bounds. “You’d think that with 1,500 students it would be so easy to be treated like just a number, but teachers and staff know students by name and on a personal level too. They check up on you even when you’re not in their class anymore. They cheer you on from the sidelines and in the audience, they are proud of us when we succeed, and they work with us and help us make better choices.”
Jackson also applauded the staff who provide Scotland High students with guidance as they prepare to apply for college.
“College Central gives students the opportunity to explore what options they have, how to prepare their resume and common applications,” he said. “I have been by College Central several times this year — I’m probably going to camp out there for the next few weeks. Mrs. (Holly) Goodwin gave all the seniors a scholarship packet this week that lists all different type of scholarships, due dates, requirements, and that’s very helpful.”
Friday’s breakfast, where Superintendent Ron Hargrave spoke alongside Richmond Community College President Dale McInnis, St. Andrews University President Paul Baldasare, and new The University of North Carolina at Pembroke Chancellor Robin Cummings, was organized by the Laurinburg-Scotland County Area Chamber of Commerce and held at Laurinburg Presbyterian Church.
Hargrave mentioned a few of the school system’s recent successes: a graduation rate at an all-time high of 81.8 percent, a recent clean financial audit, and smooth transition of students from Sycamore Lane Middle School to Carver and Spring Hill and conversion of Sycamore Lane to an elementary school.
But funding, he said, is almost certain to pose challenges in the future as the General Assembly prolongs budget settlements for the current year and as enrollment in the school system dwindles.
“We continue to see a decline in enrollment in our school system, and that is a big concern for us,” said Hargrave. “Some students, their families have moved out of the district. Some students, their families have chosen other options in terms of providing education for their children. I constantly share with our staff that it’s our job, and our focus should be for us to be the premier provider of K-12 education in this county.”
Of 2,600 students enrolled in for-credit courses at Richmond Community College, more than 750 reside in Scotland County. That interaction has led to partnerships like the offering of RCC courses at Scotland High School and at Scotland Early College High, where high school students obtain associate’s degrees alongside their diplomas in a five-year period, that McInnis credits with the community college’s growth in recent years.
“We’ve been able to grow while other community colleges have declined,” he said. “That’s a common trend: when the economy’s good, people go to work, they don’t get retrained, enrollment at our colleges declines across the state. We’ve bucked that trend, and a big part of that reason is because of our partnerships.”
For the first year, Scotland and Richmond County high school students graduating in 2016 will have the opportunity to receive two years of free RCC tuition provided that they earn at least a 3.0 high school GPA, complete two dual enrollment courses, and demonstrate financial need.
“If you invest in your education, we’re going to match that investment,” said McInnis.
Baldasare emphasized St. Andrews’ contribution to the economic welfare of Scotland County and the Sandhills region. The university currently enrolls 675 students and employs 200 people.
A study evaluating the 2012-2013 fiscal year found that St. Andrews adds $26.6 million of economic value — the equivalent of 508 jobs — based on its payroll and operations spending and the spending of its students, visitors, and alumni.
“There are wonderful things going on on all of our campuses for our students, and we all do that in our own ways and we do it, I think, really well,” Baldasare said. “But I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there’s an economic impact that’s incredibly powerful for our city, our county, and our region. We’re grateful to this community because this community gets that.”
At UNC-Pembroke, the university is on track to offer its first doctoral program, in physical therapy. That path begins this year with an early assurance program in partnership with East Carolina University, which will allot a certain number of places in its class for Pembroke graduates. ECU has a similar program in its medical school.
Cummings said that UNC-P is in the process of establishing similar agreements with the veterinary schools at N.C. State University and Tuskeegee University in Alabama.
“Same deal: you come to UNC-Pembroke, you get accepted, you maintain your standard, you have a position in one of those schools of veterinary medicine,” he said. “Those are pretty good deals.”
A cardiothoracic surgeon by training, Cummings stepped into the chancellor’s office at UNC-Pembroke in July after serving as the state’s Medicaid director. Navigating the series of transitions involved in his career, Cummings said, proved the value of his education.
“I’ve been through a transformation in my life where I had to sort of reconfigure some things and rethink some priorities, and it was because of the foundation that I had in education that I was able to shift from one area to another area, and now to a completely different area,” he said.
“Get as much education as you can: it’s valuable, and it’s a great investment,” Cummings advised as an aside to Bounds and Jackson. “And come look at UNC-Pembroke.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 901-506-3169.