Northeast Academy graduates 'Legacy Class' of 50

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Bre'Onna Powell crosses the stage to accept both her diploma and associate degree during the Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies' first-ever high school graduation ceremony at the Elizabeth City State University Fine Arts Center, Saturday.


By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies graduated its first-ever high school class in an upbeat ceremony Saturday morning on the campus of Elizabeth City State University.

Billed as NEAAAT’s “Legacy Class” and “Pioneer Class,” the 50 graduates of the Elizabeth City-based charter school received their diplomas in the Robinson Auditorium at ECSU’s Fine Arts Center. Ten of the graduates also received associate degrees from College of The Albemarle. 

“As you have learned, being a pioneer can be hard work,” Joe Peel, one of the primary founders of NEAAAT, said in his address to the graduates.

Peel, a former mayor of Elizabeth City and former superintendent of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools, noted that the NEAAAT graduates had taken the initial risk of coming to the school and had been instrumental in creating a school culture that fosters community service, resiliency and risk-taking.

Calling NEAAAT Chief Executive Officer Andrew Harris “the finest educator I have ever worked with,” Peel said that in just a few years Harris had “developed this school into a national model.”

Peel said there were many people to thank for their role in seeing NEAAAT’s first graduating class all the way through.

“Today is a special day for each and every one of us that is here,” Peel said.

He thanked the students’ parents and guardians, and those who have served on NEAAAT’s board. He also thanked the school’s staff and instructional coaches.

“These are the people that make it happen for students on a daily basis,” he said.

Acknowledging that people often ask why the school uses the term “coach” rather than “teacher,” Peel said “coach” better describes what the NEAAAT faculty does in asking questions and challenging students to find their own answers.

“This simple word change is no small thing,” Peel said.

The coaches remain eager learners themselves, which is part of what makes the school work, he said.

A number of NEAAAT’s first class of graduates said they had a definite purpose in choosing to attend the STEM-based charter school. 

Jessica Huynh of Weeksville started at NEAAAT in ninth grade, eager to get an early start on college courses. She leaves high school having already taken courses at COA and ECSU that range from microbiology and health to humanities.

Huynh plans to enroll at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and study marine biology. She said she would like to take care of fish at an aquarium and eventually conduct research in marine biology.

One aspect of NEAAAT she liked is that its staff are focused on what each student is learning.

“The experience here has been really different from what I would say ‘traditional’ public high school is,” Huynh said. “I have a say in what and how I learn.”

With that freedom comes a lot of responsibility, she said, noting at times it has been a challenge to manage her time and balance the demands of college and high school courses.

“It was definitely a good experience,” Huynh said. “I think it was a good choice.”

She said she had a lot of wonderful opportunities at the school, such as building a miniature roller coaster of wood and building and programming a robot.

Huynh said if she had a child she would want her to attend a school like NEAAAT that stresses project-based learning.

Destiny Cook said she felt the significance of being a member of NEAAAT’s “Legacy Class,” including helping create a school culture that emphasizes volunteer service.

“We took a chance on this school — and dare I say, it paid off,” Cook said. “We did not have the typical high school experience. But we are not typical high school students. We are trailblazers and risk-takers.”

Whitney Williams, the class “chief executive officer” or president, noted the graduating class has earned $1.5 million in scholarships. Graduates have learned to be flexible and have learned how to make presentations, she said.

Bre’Onna Powell, who lives in Perquimans County, said NEAAAT’s emphasis on making presentations was one of the special things about the school.

“Before I came here I had no idea how to properly do a presentation,” she said.

Powell plans to major in biology at ECSU and hopes to attend dental school at East Carolina University. Her goal is to become a dentist. 

Being able to earn an associate of arts degree from COA was one of her favorite things about attending NEAAAT, she said. And the flexible scheduling was good preparation for college, she said.

“Honestly I would say this school is not for everybody,” Powell said. “You have to be willing and motivated. You have to want what they’re giving.”

Isaac Shaw, who lives in Edenton, said the decision to attend NEAAAT seemed like a difficult decision at the time but he’s glad he did it.

“I tired to put all these other things aside such as sports and friends that would hold me to where I was and I decided to branch out and take the risk and see where it would lead me,” Shaw said. “I saw the opportunity that would be ahead of me. I left it up to God and prayed about it. After just a little while here I saw all the benefits of being here.”

Shaw said he has made new friends and has appreciated NEAAAT’s emphasis on education.

He plans to attend High Point University to study engineering and would like to become a bio-mechanical engineer, working on prosthetics. Shaw said he hopes to make advances that will enable people with prosthetic limbs to lead better lives.

The biggest challenge at NEAAAT has been “being part of the creation process,” Shaw said. “I guess you could call it being the guinea pigs, for lack of a better word.”

But in just a few years the school already has hit its stride “and it’s only on the upward progression,” Shaw said. “It will just keep on improving, in my opinion.”

NEAAAT Principal T.J. Worrell, who presented Peel a signed photo of the 2019 graduating class, said NEAAAT students this school year earned 1,660 transferable hours of college credit and half of those were earned by Saturday’s graduates.

Ten of this year’s graduates earned associate degrees from COA in addition to their high school diplomas, Worrell said. Many graduates have completed internships with businesses in the region, some are pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and some plan to serve in the military, he said.