State officials visit charter school, discuss STEM

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N.C. Revenue Secretary Ronald Penny (center) speaks as Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies Chief Operations Officer Tonya Little (behind Penny) and NEAAAT founder Joe Peel listen during a roundtable discussion on STEM education at the charter school Tuesday morning.


By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

State officials visiting Elizabeth City this week as part of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Hometown Strong initiative heard from both students and school leaders Tuesday how education focused on real-word challenges is preparing young people for the future.

N.C. Revenue Secretary Ronald Penny, for one, seemed impressed with what he heard. He told students at the Northeast Academy of Aerospace and Advanced Technologies that their presentation skills were “phenomenal.”

Noting that he had taught a number of years ago at Elizabeth City State University, Penny told students their public speaking skills and ability to answer questions about their research projects were on a par with most college students.

Penny was especially impressed that the NEAAAT students he was talking to were in the 8th and 9th grades.

“How proud we are of what you are doing,” Penny told the students who participated in the discussion.

The roundtable discussion on STEM education was held at NEAAAT, a charter school focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Though currently located on the ECSU campus, NEAAAT is working to move to property at Southgate Mall, the school’s chief executive officer, Andrew Harris, explained Tuesday.

Besides Penny, the state delegation that visited NEAAAT on Tuesday also included other high-level administrators such as Reuben Young, interim chief deputy secretary of N.C. Public Safety; and Kevin Cherry, director of the Office of Archives and History.

Harris explained to the officials that everything at NEAAAT is interdisciplinary, project-based, collaborative, and focused on how content will be used in the real world. He said university education departments need to educate their students in the methods involved in teaching at schools that are team-oriented and emphasize project-based learning.

Students don’t learn just from the finished project but from “the steps all along the way,” Harris said.

Joe Peel, former mayor of Elizabeth City and a founder of NEAAAT, said the charter school grew out of a strategic planing initiative in Elizabeth City that identified K-12 education as the most important challenge in economic development and community development.

Peel said that since NEAAAT opened, school districts in the area have new superintendents, have started additional early college high schools and are making advances in STEM education.

“I think we have seen a significant step-up in everybody’s game,” Peel said.

Harris said one purpose of a charter school is to “be a hub of innovation,” adding “we try to be as innovative as we can.

Tonya Little, the school’s chief operations officer, said teachers at the school are known as “coaches,” reflecting the team-oriented philosophy of education.

NEAAAT student Gabby Hoskins said coaches at the school helped her identify her strengths. She said she got individual help from the coaches.

“The overall experience has been really, really good for me,” Hoskins said.

Hoskins said she has learned that she has good leadership skills. She has been able to develop those skills, she said, and also has improved her grasp of basic skills such as reading and math.

She said she enjoys the collaboration and teamwork that are central to education at NEAAAT. One of the projects Hoskins has worked on involves collecting items for the local domestic violence shelter.

Harris said students are encouraged to think about how their work can affect the community.

Sam Kleinschuster, a NEAAAT student, recently has been working on a civic action plan with other team members. The plan looks at music and the arts in the community and considers economic factors and other aspects of how to strengthen local opportunities in music and the arts.

Kleinschuster explained that two different classes worked on the project. They made a presentation and were critiqued by Little and state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan. Steinburg’s critique in particular was extensive, Kleinschuster said, but the input will be helpful in finalizing the plan.

Harris said feedback is an important part of project-based learning at the school.

“We try to model the real world,” he said.

Peel said that because the school is located in a rural area it has been necessary to offer students transportation and free and reduced lunch, which are services many charter schools do not provide.

Harris explained that costs for transportation and free and reduced lunch come out of the school’s operating budget.

Interim ECSU Chancellor Karrie Dixon told the group of state officials that the governor’s Hometown Strong initiative fits well with what ECSU is doing.

Community partnerships are critical to the economic development of Elizabeth City, Dixon said. Partnerships that are in place and new ones being forged will benefit Elizabeth City and ECSU, she said.

“We want to continue to invest in Elizabeth City — the community, the university,” Dixon said. “We are focused on stability, student success and the future.”