Well Above Average - Carolina Country

Well Above Average

Students and teachers at Greene Early College do what they love and love what they do

By Michael E.C. Gery

Well Above Average

Look at this particular public high school:

  • Every student is the first in their families to finish high school, and every one of them graduates and goes to college.
  • There are no discipline problems, no suspensions in three years.
  • There’s next to no teacher turnover.
  • There’s 100 percent proficiency on all North Carolina End-of-Year tests.
  • The 25 graduating seniors this year were offered $1.7 million in college scholarships.
  • All 160 students go to school year-round for five years.

Look at this community (U.S. Census):

  • 35 percent of children grow up in poverty.
  • Median household income is $35,050.
  • One in 10 adults has a college degree.
  • In 15 percent of families, English is not the spoken language.
  • The racial identity is 47 percent Caucasian, 36 percent African American, 15 percent Hispanic.

This is Greene Early College High School in Greene County, N.C. It’s on the Snow Hill campus of Lenoir Community College, across the road from a substation maintained by Pitt & Greene EMC, the electric cooperative that proudly serves the communities here.

“The students here really want to go to school,” says principal Rodney McNeill. “They want to do more with their lives, see more. They are of average ability, with well above average achievement.”

English teacher Emily Garris has been at this school since doors opened in 2005. “Our students love coming to school,” she says. “They want to be here.”

And Emily Garris is a major reason why the students want to be here. Her brown eyes shine and she grins in amazement while watching a student video production based on “The Crucible,” the Arthur Miller play conjuring up the Salem witch trials of the late 1690s. Her students study the early 19th century American transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, as well as today’s popular culture.


Senior Cruz Alarcon said, “Teachers here get to know you and become like family.”

When Aiven Aguilar, 17, learned he could get a new glass eye, the first thing he did was call his English teacher Emily Garris. (See his story.)

There are eight full-time teachers and a half-time teacher at Greene Early College, plus principal McNeill, a secretary, a guidance counselor, and Carolyn Newcomb, student support and energizer.

Less than half who apply to the Early College’s ninth grade are admitted. The successful ones show good grades, sharp testing ability, steady attendance, self-discipline and a marked eagerness to learn and achieve. They come from families that historically are underrepresented in college and economically distressed. With about 12 students per class, their courses are all honors level and college level. They use the East Carolina University Library. After five years, they graduate. They earn a Greene County Public Schools high school diploma and an associate degree from Lenoir Community College transferrable to a four-year college.

Community service is part of the culture

There are no Greene Early College sports teams. “Academics are our sports,” the principal says. But there is community service. During the most recent school year, these young people volunteered 3,778 hours for community projects.

Ever since the school first opened and received a national Learn and Serve America Grant, community service has been engrained in the school’s operation. Students attend Early College tuition-free and have free textbooks and technology, so “giving back” comes naturally. An arranged Community Service Fair introduced students to leaders from school, civic, religious, government and non-profit organizations willing to take volunteers. The students did the rest. They devoted some 1,600 hours to local schools, translating for parents, helping at events, gardening at Snow Hill Primary, helping with Read Across America, teaching English. Other service went to, among others, Interfaith, Greene County Museum, blood drives, American Legion, Parks and Recreation, Big Sweep, Adopt a Highway, Proud to Be an American Day, scouts, Latino Festival, fire departments.

“Community service has become a part of the culture,” says Emily Garris, co-sponsor with Heather Davis of the GEC Community Service Club. “The students learned far more from this project than they could have ever learned from a textbook.”


About the Author

Michael E.C. Gery is the editor of Carolina Country.

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