How one rural North Carolina school district is focusing on top-performing students

By Sarah Nagem

Melissa Ocean often felt left behind in school – not because she was struggling, but because she was more advanced than many of her peers who required extra attention from teachers. 

“I was one of those kids pushed by the wayside, because my teachers automatically thought that I knew (the material),” Ocean said. 

Now a member of the Robeson County school board, Ocean wants her daughter, a rising fifth-grader identified as gifted, to be challenged in ways that she wasn’t. 

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Robeson County schools, which serve about 20,000 students, have been focusing on just that, implementing new initiatives to serve top-performing students in elementary through high school.  

The district identified 266 academically or intellectually gifted (AIG) students this past school year, up from 126 the prior year, said Windy Dorsey-Carr, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and accountability. 

Using a screening system, an additional 130 rising third-graders could also receive AIG services next school year, she said. 

Meanwhile, the district is partnering with the North Carolina School of Science and Math to offer more honors classes and also Advanced Placement courses in which students have the opportunity to earn college credits. 

The efforts are part of Robeson schools’ answer to a dilemma many resource-strapped rural school districts face: How can they increase student performance overall while also nurturing the brightest students? 

Rural school districts across the state have less than half the number of Advanced Placement (commonly called AP) classes as urban districts, according to the nonprofit Public Schools First NC. 

About 1.4% of Robeson County students took AP classes in 2021-2022, compared to 4.7% statewide, according to the Department of Public Instruction

More Robeson County students – 2.5% – took Career & College Promise courses that carry college credits, while the statewide rate was 3.9%. 

One of the challenges for Robeson and many other districts has been finding enough teachers for advanced classes. In many cases, there also aren’t enough students interested in a particular course to fill a class. 

The partnership with the North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM), which was ranked the top public school in America this year by the website Niche, eliminates those challenges, Dorsey-Carr said. 

Five Robeson County high school students enrolled in Advanced Placement and honors classes through NCSSM last semester, and about 20 students are signed up for the upcoming semester, according to Andrew Davis, director of curriculum, instruction and accountability for the district. 

NCCSM, which has residential programs in Durham and Morganton, has been offering free advanced classes to school districts across the state for nearly two decades. 

Through NCSSM Connect, students from across the state learn remotely through video conference calls in classes that include AP history, computer science, calculus and African American studies, and honors forensic science and aerospace engineering. 

The program currently serves 51 of North Carolina’s 115 public school districts, according to Jamie Lathan, vice chancellor for extended learning at the school. (The school districts in Bladen, Columbus and Scotland counties do not participate.) 

“A key theme is access (for) students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a rigorous curriculum, like-minded peers,” Lathan said, adding that the goal is to supplement the learning that’s already happening in school districts. 

Ray Spain, a retired superintendent at Warren County Schools who now serves on the NCSSM board of trustees, said he helped set up the partnership with Robeson County. 

Spain said he has seen first hand, as an educator and a father, how school districts with less money and fewer resources to create science labs and other opportunities can impact “very bright” students. 

His daughter was at the top of her class in Bertie County but struggled her first year at NCSSM, he said. 

“It’s a matter of the students catching up,” Spain said. “They are very capable students. They’re just behind.” 

Robeson County, where 20 of the district’s 35 schools are considered low-performing by the state, lags behind statewide figures in most education measurements. 

In 2021-2022, 73% of Robeson County students in third through eighth grades were not proficient in math and reading, compared to about half of students statewide, data shows. That year, the district’s four-year graduation rate was nearly 2 percentage points behind the state. 

Davis said the district’s strategic plan calls for “equitable, rigorous opportunities for our students,” including the most academically advanced. Students can also enroll in honors and Advanced Placement classes through the North Carolina Virtual School, he said. 

The school district has also put in place new math and English curricula that provide “lessons with increased rigor” to challenge students to become independent learners, officials said in announcing the program last summer.  

Starting next school year, AIG students will get more special instruction during the school day, Dorsey-Carr said. 

That’s welcome news for Ocean, who said her daughter has enjoyed the extra attention and has increased her vocabulary. 

“Her confidence level is really high,” Ocean said. “She wanted me to let everybody know she had gotten into AIG.” 

Steven Sinclair, principal of St. Pauls Middle School, reviews end-of-grade testing material with students.
Public Schools of Robeson County