The conference “Energizing Rural North Carolina: The Building Blocks of Successful Economic Development,” will explore how infrastructure, workforce, education, health, and leadership—the five building blocks—shape economic outcomes in rural communities, according to the event organizers from the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC), which is headquartered in Cary.

This is the third  of a multi-part story previewing the conference and key issues.

Workforce and Education

“We’re not a large district, but within our region, we’re one of the larger districts,” said Dr. David Sutton, assistant superintendent for Rutherford County Schools. The district educates 8,500 K–12 students out of 18 school facilities and also operates one pre-kindergarten center.

The district is nearly ten years into an effort to realign education to take advantage of digital technology, and is currently operating on a one-to-one model where every student has an Internet-connected device. Sutton is presenting at the EDPNC event, focusing on this project.

It wasn’t enough to just purchase devices, said Sutton, the district had to make comprehensive systemic changes and invest significant resources beyond the price tag for devices. “People may oversimplify the kind of long-term commitment it takes by leadership in a community to embrace these changes and sustain it.”

The district has now been named an Apple Distinguished Program for the past five years. “We’re not a one-hit wonder,” said Sutton. “We’ve invested in an eight-year and running ongoing series of professional learning opportunities to induct new teachers coming into the environment and support the continued growth of our teachers that remain.”

Student achievement is also improving, said Sutton, with substantial improvement in the past three years. “Today, the distribution of school performance grades compares quite favorably to a number of benchmarks that we’ve established around the state.” Students are earning As and Bs at more than 1.5 times the statewide average, said Sutton, and the district is leading the state in awarding grades at the highest end of the distribution.

First, the district determined a framework of goals that included but wasn’t limited to deploying devices, said Sutton. Then, the district developed a plan to support teachers in changing pedagogy to incorporate technology. Next, the district relied on teachers and administrators to rethink the way the district approached and defined the learning environment. Finally, the district determined ways to create access points to technology and resources that didn’t previously exist in the schools or in the communities in the district, and made them accessible to students and families. Only then were devices secured.

“It’s not just about acquiring or deploying devices,” said Sutton, “at least not in isolation.”

“If you truly want to install devices to support a transition to how you approach teaching and learning, that’s not an easy proposition,” said Sutton. “That said, it has to be, and remain, a priority.”

“It isn’t easy, but it is very much worth doing,” said Sutton. “The influence on students can be transformational if you approach it in a strategic, systemic, and sustainable way.”

Across the state, the Wilson Academy of Applied Technology is turning an idea into reality, said principal Krystal Lane Cox. The institution is about to begin its third year as an early college high school in Wilson, with a curricular focus on manufacturing and applied technology.

This effort connects two of the building blocks for rural economic development, education and workforce development support. Manufacturing is the largest industry in Wilson, and so it makes a lot of sense for the school district to align curriculum and learning opportunities with the industry standards, said Cox.

“A lot of our facilities have evolved,” said Cox, and what many people in North Carolina think of when they think of manufacturing is no longer the case. “Technology has improved, and there are a lot of safety requirements that have transformed manufacturing from what it was in the past.”

The five-year program provides students the opportunity to earn their high school diploma and an associate’s degree in applied technology along four different pathways. The school also provides opportunities for students to earn nationally-recognized credentials in technology, security, and manufacturing. The program is overseen by an advisory board from educational, community, and business leaders in Wilson.

“Together, we’ve determined what types of skills were needed in our community,” said Cox, including the soft skills required for workplace success and the general competencies and technical skills that would help give students a jumpstart in the manufacturing industry.

“If you’re in a place where your county doesn’t have a robust education budget, think about the implications for attracting qualified teachers, allocating resources for students, and workforce development connections to your community’s employers,” said Frank Emory, Jr., who grew up in Wilson.

“We want to make sure that we create the most favorable conditions for success,” said Emory.

Next: Health and leadership




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