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Bertie ECHS gains approval

WINDSOR – If you plant it, it will grow.

Bertie County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Chip Zullinger and has staff have planted the seeds of having an agriculture school in the district. Through the last year, they have watered and nurtured the program through hard work, planning and organization.

Monday night, the plant began to grow.

During the regular meeting of the Bertie County Board of Education Monday evening, Executive Director for Educational Programs Carol Atkins announced the official approval of Bertie’s Early College High School (ECHS).

“We were notified today that we received $295,000 for each of the next five years,” Atkins told the board. “Bertie Early College High School will open in August with a program focused on Agri-Science.”

The new school, which will be housed at the former Southwestern Middle School site on Governor’s Road, will be open to 75 incoming freshmen with a program of study which will allow those students to earn a high school diploma along with either two years of transferable credit or a two-year associate degree.

Students will follow a traditional college schedule, but will be required to attend at least one summer school session so they can complete the requirements for both their diploma and college credits in four years.

Since students at the Early College High School will complete their schedule in May, they can return for a summer session and still end the school year shortly after the June completion of the traditional high school.

The ECHS will focus on Agri-Science because of research done by Zullinger that showed 75 percent of income in Bertie County comes from agriculture.

“If that’s the case, and the data backs it up, then our students must know something about agriculture and how it is changing today if they’re going to thrive in Bertie County,” Atkins said.

Bertie County Schools is partnering with North Carolina State University to provide the Agri-Science program for the first year of Early College High School. Atkins explained the program would be similar to the way college programs are set up.

“In colleges, there are different schools in which you focus study,” Atkins said. “Basically, we will be doing the same thing with the Early College High School. Our first school will be the School of Agri-Science.”

She said the next track would likely focus on education and then the third would be either animal sciences or health sciences.

Students will be able to avail themselves to any of those tracks once established.

Board member Melinda Eure asked how students would find out about the school’s official opening.

Atkins said she had already gotten interest in the ECHS and that she believed additional students would find out once newspaper articles about the approval appeared in two local publications.

Board Chairman Rickey Freeman said by telephone Wednesday that he and his fellow board members were excited about the opportunities provided by the Early College High School.

“It’s kind of been a quick moving process,” Freeman said. “We’ve worked hard and the staff had worked hard getting the program going.

“I am excited about the opportunity it will provide for our students,” he continued. “I just want to make sure the prospective students know the program is about more than driving a tractor and working on a farm.”

Freeman said it would give Bertie schools the opportunity to be a model school district not only in the state, but the county.

“I think a lot of schools are already looking at us to be a model and watching to see how well we do,” he said. “This will put us on the map, not only in North Carolina, but in the country.”

What’s next?

As Bertie County Schools prepares for the opening of the Early College High School, Atkins is working diligently with Dr. Zullinger to identify staff and students and work with N.C. State to finalize curriculum.

The first deadline is today (Thursday) when staff has to be identified to attend training later this month. The teachers for the school will basically be taken care of through transfers, Atkins said.

“There won’t necessarily be new hires,” Atkins said of the staff. “We’re talking about transferring 75 students from the high school, not bringing in new students so the staff will follow the students. Dr. Zullinger has insisted that dollars follow students.”

One new hire will be the addition of an agriculture teacher, which Bertie High School currently does not employ.

Curriculum decisions will also be made later this month when Atkins and other staff from Bertie County Schools meet with officials from N.C. State including Dr. Ken Esbenshade, associate dean and director of education programs.

In that meeting, the two entities will discuss transferable credits and make decisions about what will be taught at the new school and by whom.

Dr. Johnny Wynne, dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NCSU, said that meeting would provide some framework for the future.

“We’re still in the preliminary stages,” he said. “Our next step will be a meeting with our academic dean to discuss what kinds of courses and curriculum and what can be counted and not counted.”

Dr. Wynne said it was, to his knowledge, the first such collaborative N.C. State was involved in that had come to fruition and said it was a program the university was excited about.

“We think it’s an opportunity to improve our K-12 educational system and we’re very interested in seeing that happen in rural areas,” he said. “Our school depends on graduates in those areas who are interested in agriculture.”

Staff from North Carolina State will teach courses on site at the ECHS and will also provide instruction virtually.

The first semester of academics will be primarily high school required courses and an introduction to business, according to Atkins and Wynne.

While those processes continue, the ECHS will also be in the process of identifying students who are interested in starting this fall.

“I would encourage anyone who has a child that is interested to contact us,” Freeman said. “Our administrators can help answer any questions parents or students may have.”

Atkins said applications for the new school are already available in the guidance office at Bertie High School and at the front desk of the school system administrative offices on County Farm Road in Windsor.

She said the application was simple and asked for an expository essay on why a student wanted to attend the Early College High School.

For more information about the Early College High School, contact Atkins at 794-6018.

The Early College High School means freshmen in Bertie County can choose from three different high school tracks. In addition to the traditional high school setting at Bertie High School, students can choose the Bertie Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) School and now the ECHS.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to give students in Bertie County the best opportunity to succeed in the world,” Freeman said.