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A textile installation at the Elsewhere Museum.

Through a partnership with the John M. Belk Endowment, MDC is profiling eight North Carolina communities to learn how they building infrastructure to improve economic conditions in North Carolina and strengthen the systems and supports that boost young people to higher rungs on the economic ladder. We’re looking at mobility, current and emerging living-wage employment opportunities, and patterns of postsecondary persistence. This week, Shun Robertson and I visited Guilford County, a county of half a million people with two large cities, several colleges and universities, and an economy that is undergoing economic restructuring after the loss of a number of manufacturing jobs in the last two decades. While we had enlightening conversations with education leaders, community foundations, workforce partners, and a fascinating trip through Elsewhere Museum, the highlight of our visit was an hour spent at Greensboro’s Walter Hines Page High School.

Page is led and loved by Dr. Patrice Faison, North Carolina’s 2011-12 Principal of the Year. We arrived as the final lunch was ending. Dr. Faison dropped her keys on her desk and said “Do you want to sit or do you want to visit some classrooms?” Despite some lingering anxiety about being in high school, we opted for a tour. As we walked Dr. Faison told us about the demographics of her school—50 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunch; many others are extremely affluent. Forty percent are African American; 40 percent are white. That is, she told us about the school when she wasn’t greeting students—“Hey bae! I love your new haircut. It looks great!—, stopping to hear a student’s good news about getting a job at a local elder care facility, and using her walkie talkie to request that someone pick up scattered paper in a hallway or direct staff that students shouldn’t be allowed to leave lunch time detention for bathroom breaks—“they’re only there for 25 minutes!”

We stopped in four classrooms—a life skills course, an honors math class, an inclusion math class (where two teachers support students with additional academic needs), and an IB English course. No one seemed particularly surprised to see Dr. Faison; she does at least five walk-throughs a day. Outside every door hung a “diploma” that hailed the high school the teacher graduated from—because graduation is the clear expectation at Page. But that’s not the end for these students; we asked them—mostly sophomores and juniors—“where are you headed next?” and the resounding answer was “college!” When we asked what they were going to study, someone inevitably said “math” or “English” to appease the teacher, but we also heard: architecture, engineering, cosmetology, finance, construction, and psychology.

And with a nearly 90 percent graduation rate, most Page students could have a good start on that college and career path, but some are facing severe headwinds in Guilford County. The following chart shows that Guilford County has a higher percentage of students from low-income families than most of North Carolina’s ten largest counties do, and low-income students and black students are much more likely to attend high-poverty schools than their more affluent or white peers:

NC Big 10 School Pov

Source: Urban Institute and Southern Education Foundation

In addition to these equity issues, the Greensboro area has some of the lowest levels of economic mobility in the nation. Ferrel Guillory’s column today for Education NC shines a light on low economic mobility in this state. Greensboro ranked 98th out of the largest 100 U.S. commuting zones:

Top 10 Bottom 10 CZs EdNC

“[O]ur state and city governments have a challenge before them to organize an array of initiatives to give more North Carolinians in the coming-of-age generation an opportunity to pursue the American Dream of doing as well or better than their parents,” says Guillory. “Schools can’t do it all…but schools remain a key component in boosting young people up the social and economic ladder.”

Dr. Faison sees certainly believes Page is a key component in eliminating barriers to economic mobility in her students’ lives. She’s doing what she can to clear the path, from restructuring the budget to create a full-time social work position to counseling parents on how to help their children be ambitious and successful. She says “I feel like we save people, but it can’t wait until high school.” When families are worried about housing and other basic needs, learning becomes even more difficult. Her hope is to continue building a school and community that can respond to the variety of needs that students bring with them to empower young people and their families so they can, as the Page mission statement says, “grow into responsible citizens who are engaged in a global community.”

If you’d like to see photos from our Guilford County visit, check out our Instagram feed.