Meet an Innovator

  • Barbara Tansey and Don Phipps

    Listening to Don Phipps and Barbara Tansey talk about innovation in public education in Beaufort County is inspiring. The Beaufort County school superintendent and community college president practically finish each other's sentences as they describe the close relationship between their two institutions.

    "We're changing the culture in our community, not just in the two organizations," says Tansey, the community college president.

    The energy and passion they share for making a difference in their eastern North Carolina community is palpable. "We're on the same page and we're not afraid to challenge the old way of thinking to benefit our county," Superintendent Phipps says, of working with Tansey.

    Through a partnership with NC New Schools, the county already offered students a chance to earn community college credits in high school at Beaufort County Early College and at the Northeast Regional School of Biotechnology and Agriscience. Those efforts have now expanded through the North Carolina Investing in Rural Innovative Schools initiative to bring NC New Schools' proven Design Principles and research-based early college high school strategies into three of the county's traditional high schools serving high-need students. The Rural Innovative Schools initiative is supported by a $15 million grant from the Department of Education over five years with matched private donations of $1.5 million under the federal Investing in Innovations (i3) initiative.

     "We got more involved through the i3 grant, but we were already having this conversation," Phipps says. "The grant allowed us to push down the accelerator, get things done more quickly and launch other opportunities. We don't duplicate efforts as we find out what we need to do to set up kids to be successful."

    They worked together to conduct an informal gap analysis for the two institutions to identify what they can do to support each other.

    "Neither one of us has an ego that needs to be stroked. It's about the needs of the community and how we make this a better place for all our citizens," Tansey says. "We have brutally honest conversations. We don't always agree, but we're always looking for the best opportunity and the best outcome. We work together to find the resources to fill the gaps on both sides so it's a seamless process k-14. The school system is supporting students to feed into programs we already have. Meanwhile, we're building an agribusiness program at the community college to meet the needs of our high school graduates."

    Both agree that the school system and the community college play a critical role in improving opportunities in Beaufort County. As a poor, rural county bisected by a river with no bridges connecting most of the towns, Tansey says, the community faces significant geographic and economic challenges.

    "We're still an old textile area and we have to convert to the new economy," Phipps says. "People graduating now need skill sets to carry them through the next 30 years and we want to develop things that keep our community here. There's a lot of work to be done to help the county grow and develop. There are things we'd like to do that won't happen as quickly, but you've got to go after the things you can do to prove you're successful and then you can talk about other areas to move into."

    One of the biggest challenges for Phipps and Tansey is transportation. With three distinct areas in the county, no city transportation to rely on and a river dividing the population, it's tough to provide all students with access to every program.

    "We've tried to take the programs to the people," Phipps says. "On the Southside area, we're taking a program from the community college into the community to let folks access programs at the high school. I don't want a person's zip code to dictate the quality of their education and the access they have to our programs. A kid in Aurora or Washington or Belhaven shouldn't have a different quality of education. We need innovative programs and risk takers to make that happen. I think folks are glad that we're doing it."

    Tansey says they consider every delivery method possible to connect students with college courses. Community college professors teach some classes at the high school campuses, in addition to offering online and hybrid courses and face-to-face classes on the college campus. For early exposure, student visits to the college campus begin as early as elementary school. The community college is also working with high school teachers to earn credentials to teach college courses, further expanding access for students.

    "Almost 40 high school teachers came to meet with our vice president to see about teaching at the college level," Tansey said. "We don't have one big concept or one funding source of how this has to happen, we just keep working away at it. We have strategy sessions all the time."

    Phipps and Tansey recognize that the ultimate success of their partnership hinges on the essential involvement of businesses, local government and other groups in the community. Monthly meetings with local business leaders and the county's economic development director keep everyone in touch with the needs of the community and create connections that benefit students.

    "We're erasing the boundaries and working together without worrying about who gets credit or blame," Phipps says. "It doesn't matter where the idea comes from if it will benefit the community. We've got to go into more places in the community to build trust, so I have a ministerial advisory committee to help us share opportunities in churches. As good as these programs are, a lot of families don't know about them, and guidance counselors can't do it all alone. By us going into the community, it removes barriers."

    Both leaders say the partnership with NC New Schools goes beyond the funding assistance to pay for courses and college liaisons. Support from instructional coaches, networking opportunities with other school leaders and study visits to innovative schools all help drive the districtwide focus on student success.

    "It's that spirit of collaboration across organizations and getting to know our students," Phipps says. "We had the lowest dropout rate ever last year, and I think it's because we're asking students what they're interested in and getting them plugged in. It's forcing folks to think about college before they get out of high school."

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