Rural North Carolinians Address Important Education Policies

Last Updated: March 30, 2011

This article appeared in the March 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

Many schools use harsh and punitive disciplinary policies against students, often for minor infractions. Many such schools also implement harsh punishments unevenly among groups of students.

When the North Carolina Rural Education Working Group (NCREWG) got started, one of the issues many members were concerned about was disciplinary practices in their schools. They looked at the data, which confirmed that many North Carolina schools are suspending students, especially black males, at disproportionately high rates. Then members got active in their own communities to help parents understand the rights of their children — and to help schools find better ways to promote appropriate behavior among students.

So when the group held their first conference, earlier this month, discipline issues figured prominently in the agenda.

“We picked topics for the conference that were affecting a lot of us,” explains Marvis Henderson-Daye, REWG board member from Vance County. “And we picked presenters who were addressing those things effectively. It was a way to reach out to other people who are dealing with the same things that we are.

North Carolina Rural Education Working Group

NCREWG began in 2006 as a way to bring together people from rural communities who were interested in addressing issues and policies affecting their schools.

Alonzo Braggs, Vice Chair of NCREWG explains: “We were dealing with Title I issues, parental rights and privileges, an alarming suspension rate, a dropout problem, and working for better health for our children and our rural communities, matters that rural school districts may not have had someone doing research or advocacy on. Most of our problems have to do with legislation and policy.”

NCREWG members are active in their communities on issues affecting children and young people. Several members operate after school and summer programs for students, help families find the resources they need, and work on community development. NCREWG is a way to leverage their common interests to make a difference, especially in issues that relate to policy.

Marvis Henderson-Daye says that by bringing people together NCREWG helps share information. “NCREWG rejuvenates me and gets me energized for my own non-profit work. It’s good to have camaraderie with the group and not feel like it’s all just you.”

The group also works to educate people in their own communities. “We educate parents on the issues. There’s a lot they don’t know about what their students are entitled to and what’s available to them,” explains Doris Mack, NCREWG treasurer and Halifax County resident. “We get legislative updates that we share with our communities. When we need answers we try to get information from the best sources so parents and community residents can let their legislators know how they feel.”

NCREWG Conference

After working informally for several years, NCREWG decided to begin seeking non-profit status this year. “We are setting up our 501(c)3 [non-profit] organization,” explains Braggs. “And we wanted to do something to present ourselves to the community at large, to let the community know who we are, what we are doing, and why we are here. This was our debut event.”

The day-long March 5th conference in Wilson, North Carolina attracted some 60 participants from a number of counties. Attendees included local school board members, school staff, parents, community residents, and students. 

Anthony Clark, NCREWG President, welcomed participants and explained the purpose of the conference.

Brandy Bynum of Action for Children, delivered the keynote session, “Addressing Problems with School Suspension: Practice and Policy Strategies.” The address set the stage for much of the rest of the day.

Following the plenary, participants chose among four breakout sessions. In “Positive Behavior Intervention Support,” Canecca Davis, Principal of the Mariam Boyd School in Warren County described the ways her school had implemented the PBIS program, a school-wide program that supports and rewards positive behavior among all students and provides targeted positive interventions to students who are having difficulty. The program has improved the overall environment of the school and dramatically reduced the number of disciplinary incidents.

In “Student’s Rights and Responsibilities,” Keith Howard of Legal Aid North Carolina, presented information on the rights of students and parents when faced with school suspension. It also explored alternatives and options and discussed responsibilities of students and schools.

The “Building Leadership through Action Research,” session, led by Jereann King Johnson who lives in Warren County, North Carolina and works for the Rural Trust, engaged participants in planning a mini-project to learn about disciplinary practices and policies in their home districts. The group will meet again to share what they are learning and plan next steps.

Marty Strange, Policy Director of the Rural Trust, presented a session, “Formula Fairness Campaign,” which explained how the formulas used to distribute funding through the federal Title I program disfavor smaller, poorer school districts. 

The conference concluded with a legislative update presented by Representative Angela Bryant of House District 7 and Matt Ellinwood of the North Carolina Justice Center.

Conference Outcomes

“People seem to have been thrilled about the information they received,” says Doris Mack.

Information and resources related to disciplinary policy and suspension issues were especially powerful for participants. “We have a lot of bright children getting caught up in suspensions. If they used other strategies it would grab the attention of those children. The PBIS workshop showed us there are other ways to handle children,” adds Mack.

 “Some school systems don’t seem to know that PBIS even exists,” says Marvis Henderson-Daye. “A lot of times parents and advocates don’t know there are resources out there or better ways to deal with students. The conference helped people understand what they can do.”

A number of attendees joined NCREWG as a result of participating in the conference. Several people asked presenters or current NCREWG members to visit their communities and talk with parents about the issues addressed in the conference.

“I was very pleased with support from everyone involved,” says Alonzo Braggs. “It helped to validate our passion as well as our position and helped us gauge our progress.”

Mack agrees. “The conference did what we wanted it to for building awareness of our organization.” She continues, “We want people to know what NCREWG is about and to get involved. We want to stay on top of policies that affect rural areas. We want to let schools know what we do. We want to protect our children.”

Then she concludes: “We’re interested in responsible strategies.”

Read more from the March 2011 Rural Policy Matters.