The Dare County school system is regarded to be a well-performing system. That’s not hyperbole; numbers, statistics and student performance bear that out. Lost in that conversation though, is a growing and steadily improving higher education facet to the story.
What has emerged over the past year are some interesting trends, and if they continue they will considerably expand the options available for students and adults in the area. There is no way to say with absolute certainty what the future may hold, but right now there are two very promising storylines emerging in higher education in the county that should be explored.
Dare County has made a considerable investment in improving the Dare County campus of the College of the Albemarle (COA) and East Carolina University (ECU) has made some changes in how they view the Coastal Studies Institute (CSI) that may signal a new vision for the institution.
Dare County Campus, COA
COA is a community college with campuses throughout the Albemarle region. Its main campus is in Elizabeth City, but the second largest student population is the Dare County campus which typically has around 600-800 students using its facilities.
At this time, the Dare Campus is found in two locations—at the end of Russell Twiford Road just south of the Manteo town line on Roanoke Island, and the Manteo Campus centered around what was once Manteo Middle School.
The old Manteo Middle School cannot be saved. Built in a low lying area—it may have been swamp at one time—parts of the building flood after a hard rain, and the constant damp environment has created issues that experts feel cannot be reasonably mitigated.
Dare County has set aside $8 million to build a new campus. There is a possibility of an additional $1.5 from the state, but regardless of what North Carolina does, the County is moving forward. Plans also call for selling the land the Russell Twiford Campus occupies to help with funding.
The end result will be a new, consolidated campus in downtown Manteo.
County Commissioners created the COA Task Force whose job was to determine what would be the educational priorities of the next few years. Those findings would be used to give guidance to architects designing the building or buildings that will replace the old middle school.
Some of the key information that came to light may have been surprising. As an example, 80% of the enrollment in Dare County was in college prep programs. In some ways that may not have been unforeseen; North Carolina community colleges are considered part of the state’s university system and credits are fully transferable, making North Carolina community colleges an extraordinary value.
Additionally, Dare County Schools have been very aggressive about enrolling high schools students in online, hybrid and classroom courses. The County pays for high school students taking COA classes, so it is theoretically possible for a student to graduate from high schools with an associate degree.
Community colleges, though, are also an important source of skills training and continuing education.
In a public hearing held by the Task Force, the Outer Banks business community came out in force, and the priorities they indicated match the employment picture of the area.
In particular, the building trades asked for classes that involve all things construction —carpentry, plumbing, HVAC. The Outer Banks Restaurant Association pointed to a desperate need for trained kitchen personnel and noted that the COA kitchen facilities were located in Edenton, an hour and a half drive from the Outer Banks.
COA has been working with property management companies on customer service skills, and that was an area that the hospitality industry felt should be expanded.
The final report from the Task Force took note of the varied and possibly changing needs of the community writing, “…the Task Force recommends that the new facility be designed with a “Flex Space” concept so that adaptations can easily and affordably be made as curriculum needs a change in the future.”
ECU’s Coastal Studies Institute
It took almost 10 years from the time CSI was established as part of the UNC system to fund and build the Roanoke Island campus that was completed in 2012. Located in an area historically named Skyco, the 213-acre campus is anchored by the main building that houses offices, labs, and meeting rooms. There are also facilities for ocean and sound research vessels.
CSI has built a remarkable reputation for the work its researchers have done in ecological studies, alternative energy, and marine archeology. However, it’s primary function is as a research institute—or at least it has been in the past.
Recently, Dr. Reide Corbett, one of the most respected research scientists on the staff, was promoted to director of the facility. ECU, however, which is the home university for CSI, went beyond promoting Dr. Corbett, elevating the director of the campus to a dean-level position.
That is a really big deal. It means Dr. Corbett will be part of the planning process for ECU, including plans that will focus on expanding course offerings at CSI.