Last week’s decision by the Carteret County School Board, (6-1) to close the Marine Science and Technology Early College High School (MaST) was not a surprise. That decision was foreshadowed with continuing challenges and earlier votes. But what was disclosed in comments made during the final vote raises the specter of influence and interference on the part of the Carteret County Board of Commissioners, which should concern voters.
MaST is one of over 133 Cooperative Innovative High School (CIHS) programs currently in operation, spread out in 97 of the state’s 115 school districts. The program, first initiated by the legislature’s Innovative Education Act of 2012, matches high schools with either public or private colleges. It targets a wide array of students, including those at risk of dropping out, first generation college students and students who will benefit from advanced learning experiences.
The first shot at closing the county school came in 2019 when the N.C. Legislature failed to include funding for its innovative high school program in the state’s 2020 budget. This decision opened the door for several county school board members who opposed the creation of MaST to decry the cost, approximately $200,000, as being too much for the county’s coffers to handle.
Opposition to MaST, which meets on the Carteret Community College campus, has been led by school board member Travis Day, who has worked diligently from the day he joined the school board until now to close the school.
Mr. Day’s complaint centered on the fact that the school program, which is limited to 200 due to the amount of space available for students grades 9-12 at the community college, is in his opinion, exclusionary.
Carteret County’s decision to close its Early College High School will be a first in the state. No other county has voted to close a school, but many have worked to expand the program. Guilford County has 11 early college programs and nearby Craven County has two.
The success in the program was further justified recently with the release of the past year’s state testing scores, showing that MaST and Croatan High School were the only schools in the county, out of 16 campuses, to receive an A rating from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction grading system.
The obvious successes of the program, along with pleadings to keep it going from both MaST students and their parents, fell on deaf ears. And, despite the success of N.C. Rep. Pat McElraft, Emerald Isle, who worked to insert $180,000 in recurring annual support for the program in the state’s budget, the school board plowed ahead to close the school once the senior class graduates in the spring of 2023.
Anticipating this closure, the school board has not allowed any students to enter the program over the past three years, which leaves only the 50 seniors now enrolled to finish out the year.
This year’s class will have an interesting story to tell their children. They’ve watched over the past four years as the school board has fought over their education without any interest in what they were learning, but more interested in scoring political points. Amidst the political turmoil this year’s graduating class also had to deal with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent quarantines and interrupted educational experience. But they have persevered.
The real question that the public is left with is why has this school been such a threat to the county school board? Could it be political and not educational?
Katie Statler, the only board member who has maintained support for the program since her election in 2020, noted that this decision will be this board’s legacy and that it will most likely intimidate any future efforts by parents to seek alternative public school options. She’s right in that conclusion.
Several board members continued to ply the old complaint that the program was expensive, despite the state funding support, and that it was discriminatory since only a select number could attend the program. These arguments ignored other high school programs that are exclusionary such as Advanced Placement or Dual Enrollment programs whereby students can attend the community college while also pursuing their high school degrees.
The board members voting to close the school stressed the need to open the program up for all students. That of course begs the question - why not expand the Early College High School opportunities as is happening in other counties rather than close a successful program?
School Board member Dennis Goodwin, responding to board chairman Clark Jenkins’ request that each vote be explained, may have raised the bigger reason that the school is to be closed – it is what the County Board of Commissioners want.
Mr. Goodwin explained that the Early College High School program was originally presented as a career and technical education program. But because the school meets on the college campus, students also have taken opportunities to earn college and high school credits simultaneously, as do students who are Dual Enrolled.
This ability to gain college credits, Mr. Goodwin noted, has resulted in negative feelings about the program from the commissioners. “They have had a bad taste in their mouth about this,” he stated.
At no time over the past three years of debate about the program have the county commissioners raised the complaints as articulated by Mr. Goodwin. In fact, the county commissioners have been very coy about the program, stating its future rested with the school board. But that, according to Mr. Goodwin, is not the case.
While Mr. Goodwin’s statement was the only one to mention the opinion of the county commissioners, it is one that should concern voters and those interested in the county’s public education system. If the county commissioners are going to micromanage the county’s school operations, it negates the necessity to have a school board. County voters should take note.