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Peel led progress with founding of STEM academy

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By Peter Thomson
Columnist

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part column. The first part was published in Wednesday’s edition.

The accomplishments of Dr. Joe Peel’s three terms as mayor of Elizabeth City have been noted in The Daily Advance: There was the $80 million in state reconstruction of downtown roads and businesses; and his leadership of a city council that helped fund the insulation of many homes, bolster downtown business and arts with grants, and bring in new retail. But closest to Joe’s heart was the founding of NEAAAT: the Northeast Academy of Aerospace and Advanced Technologies.

NEAAAT was a child of Vision 20/‚Äč20. One of the striking results of the reports from several Vision 20/20 committees was that our elementary education, perceived as poor, was responsible for chasing away businesses and professionals that otherwise would have located here, severely hampering economic development.

Peel, Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Economic Development Commission Director Wayne Harris and Pasquotank Commissioner Jeff Dixon traveled to Plymouth to hear a Golden LEAF presentation by the North Carolina New Schools, a progressive group funded by industry grants, including the Gates Foundation. For years Tony Habit and his organization badly wanted an innovative school in the Northeast. Joe and Jeff took on the task: the growth of the Elizabeth City area depended on it.

Joe pitched the idea of a STEM school to the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Board of Education and was rejected. He tried nearby boards, hoping that there might be a collective effort. But he got the same result. It became clear that the school system at that time was not ready for change.

Joe pushed ahead anyway, and with the help of the New Schools’ Andrew Harris (who later became NEAAAT’s first principal), decided to found a public, regional STEM school that would be open to all and chartered by the state. So, no tuition fees would be charged and students would be tested by the state of North Carolina — just as in regular school systems — to make sure standards were being met.

Some were enthusiastic. Golden LEAF gave a state grant. New Schools helped with grants and expertise. The Keenan Foundation chipped in, Sentara Albemarle Medical Center granted the school $100,000 in seed money, and Elizabeth City State University provided NEAAAT its first home. NEAAAT was on its way.

Some were less than enthusiastic. Joe’s attempt to help economic development was criticized as taking money from the local school system and using it to found an elitist school. The fact that NEAAAT was public and open to all, that students were chosen by lottery, that the demographic and racial profiles were exactly the same as the area, counted for nothing to the critics. Joe was accused by a small minority of making money from NEAAT: they just couldn’t believe that the work he put into the school was something he did for free. This criticism continued against all credible fact throughout his terms as mayor.

Fact is, Joe Peel, turned down initially by the school boards, went back to each board and showed how, by working with NEAAAT, it could recoup the money — and potentially more — the state granted it per student. His offers of help and cooperation were consistently turned down. While school boards and political opponents embraced the status quo, what NEAAAT has accomplished is nothing short of amazing. There are 34 NEAAAT students in the ECSU aerospace program and more than 100 in early college at ECSU and College of The Albemarle. In an area known for test scores below the state average, NEAAAT students’ scores are double-digit above the state average. The school is now featured on our economic development commission’s website as a bright educational spark for the region. And while unwanted by the local school system, NEAAAT’s success has created the impetus for the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools to finally relent and bring STEM education into its own schools.

There is an overall sense that with Dr. Joseph Peel as mayor, Elizabeth City changed for the better. Interest in relocating to Elizabeth City is up and house prices have started to respond to this interest. New retail has been built and more is coming. Downtown business is up and, as newly renovated buildings come online, the future for downtown is bright. The extensive infrastructure projects downtown and on area roads and bridges is over and we are now 40 minutes from downtown Norfolk on really good roads. Importantly, people are newly involved in city government and making their voices heard. We have our first African-American female mayor and a reconstituted city council, elected with a mandate to keep moving the city forward.

It’s always hard to say who’s responsible for progress, but when times are bad, there are worse things to do than call in someone who knows how to fix things. Thanks, Joe.

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.

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