Hallet S. Davis is the principal of a new regional school located at the Vernon G. James agricultural research center in Plymouth. Lawmakers approved special legislation to create the school, which draws on the student population of five counties in northeastern North Carolina.
The school is focused on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM education, and it incorporates a number of features designed to enhance rigor and prepare low-income students for college. Known as the Northeastern Regional School for Biotechnology and Agriscience, or NERSBA, it opened in August with 60 students.
Of those, some are high performing students, others are not; roughly 65 percent are economically disadvantaged; about half are boys and half are girls; one is Hispanic; and there’s pretty much a 50/50 split between the number of white and African American students.
To close the various academic, socioeconomic and racial gaps, Davis and his staff have spent a lot of time on activities designed to break the ice and engage students in collaborative learning.
In addition, Davis took the unusual step of talking about race.
Northeastern North Carolina is full of dividing lines. Interstate 95 separates it in many ways from the rest of the state; another thoroughfare – N.C. Highway 32 – delineates the region’s dark and sandy soils; and private schools often separate the rich from the poor. But the most entrenched dividing line is the one that separates blacks from whites.
Davis, 55, has spent most of his life in the region. He graduated from Jamesville High School in 1975, received a degree in education from N.C. State University and promptly moved back to the area, where for three decades he was a teacher and then principal of Bear Grass School.
Davis is old enough to remember when segregation was firmly in place and African Americans were relegated to separate schools, hospitals, churches and restrooms. In North Carolina, courthouse clerks even used separate Bibles to swear in black and white witnesses.
Davis saw the vestiges of segregation during his 31 years at Bear Grass School, and shortly after NERSBA’s first group of students walked through the door, he saw them again. From day one, he said, the students separated themselves by race.
Davis told the students that the school would not achieve what he wanted it to achieve, not “with white kids over here and black kids over there.”
“I think everybody was surprised,” he said, “because those kinds of discussions typically don’t happen in school.”
But, he added, “To get beyond some of the stigmas and beliefs that have held back northeastern North Carolina, we are going to have to overcome this.”