The powers that be at one time looked askance at the behind-the-times schools in Surry County. Surry always managed to resist following the crowd and consolidating its schools.
The Elkin schools up on two hills overlooking Big Elkin Creek have long been a point of pride here in the hometown. Townsfolk like to think of their independent schools as unique, distinctive.
I imagine folks up in Mount Airy feel similarly about their schools.
To this day Surry carries three school districts: Elkin, Mount Airy and Surry County, the district that manages the rural schools. But some leaders in the state capital from time to time would grumble at the extra expense. It’s the state that has to pay three times for Surry, pay for three school district superintendents, three district staffs and so forth.
Surry is not unique. Asheville, Hickory, Lexington, Chapel Hill-Carrboro and some other cities also have school systems separate and independent from respective county districts.
Over the years calls from Raleigh for Surry and the others to consolidate their school districts were politely declined here. Though North Carolina can arbitrarily do whatever it wants with schools, and the state did manage to trim 167 school systems in the 1960s down to 115 now, Elkin always has managed somehow to maintain its academic freedom.
So it must be with some satisfaction to observe what is happening these days in the state capital. There’s a drive going on to jump off the school consolidation bandwagon of yesteryear and now actually break up big, countywide, consolidated school districts.
A joint legislative study committee in Raleigh just concluded hearings on deconsolidation. The Surry County school superintendent spoke to the panel earlier this month on the need for more money for the smaller schools.
Of particular interest are the consolidated Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg systems, the state’s two largest and among the top 20 in the country. Some blame poor performance in some inner-city schools on big, floated, bureaucratic school districts that they claim have grown too big for their britches and too distant from students and parents.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake, which encompasses Raleigh, tries to educate around 150,000 kids each. That’s about 13 times the state average. Elkin schools, for instance, are 10 times under the average with only some 1,200 students.
Often, before the state legislature makes big changes, it’ll hold such study committee hearings during breaks between General Assembly sessions such as now. Whatever a study committee recommends, the rest of the legislature often will go along when it returns to session.
“I think we would have to positively pay attention to the needs of all the community,” said study committee co-chairman Bill Brawley, who represents Mecklenburg County. “The intent of any of our changes would be to improve education.”
He and his big-city buddies ought to come to Elkin, where we could teach a thing or two about smaller, more intimate classrooms and schools where students, teachers and administrators know each other better and generally care for one another better.
And indeed the Raleigh study committee “positively paid attention” and concluded last week that smaller schools contribute to improved student performance. Aw, we could have told you that.
The committee stopped short of calling for the break-up of the big school districts. We await to see if things go that far.
I’ll always remember a touching scene one time at Ingles in North Elkin where I saw the superintendent of the Elkin schools at the time, Randy Bledsoe, greeting and chatting with one of his students working a checkout.
When I was a student in a school in consolidated Wilkes County, I did not even know the name of my superintendent way off in the county seat. I would have freaked out if he had came up to me at a store to talk.
We must not return to the old one-room schoolhouse days. But we can help teach some honchos in Raleigh that when it comes to schools, bigger is not always better.
Correction: Last week I gave the incorrect year that East Wilkes High School started its football program. The correct year is 1968; I was a year off. Sorry about that.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.