ZSR invests in rural school district

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem will invest $1 million over two years in a partnership that aims to improve performance in the Northampton County Schools in northeastern North Carolina and generate a broader collaborative effort to spur economic growth in the rural county.

Teaming up with The Rensselaerville Institute, a think-tank in Rensselaerville, N.Y., the Reynolds Foundation will test in the entire school district the “School Turnaround” program the institute offers elsewhere to individual schools rated as underperforming.

The Reynolds funds will pay for consulting, staffing and coaching for the program, which provides leadership-development training for principals and teachers, and after-school and enrichment programs for students.

“The key is to be sure that the school gets what it needs to be successful,” says Tom Ross, the foundation’s executive director.

Reynolds for the past year has been developing the idea for the initiative, which will begin in the new school year, in an effort to “make a difference in the poorest and most rural parts of our state,” Ross says.

Rural counties trail the rest of the state in their “capacity” to seek grants and in their nonprofit “infrastructure,” he says, “so they get left out in terms of traditional philanthropy.”

The foundation concluded that efforts to boost the economy of a rural county should begin in the schools because they often serve as main hubs of community activity, Ross says.

“If you have success there,” he says, “the community will believe in what you are doing and will work with you in other areas.”

While the initial focus will be on improving school performance, he says, the foundation will work with the Rensselaerville Institute to enlist other funders to invest in the schools effort and in addressing interconnected issues like health and economic development.

Reynolds and the institute, for example, already have talked to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested in efforts to improve high schools throughout the United States, including North Carolina, and to the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in Winston-Salem and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, two big funders of health initiatives throughout the state.

“We made a commitment because we want people to see we are serious about this,” Ross says. “But we need partners if it’s going to be successful.”

Northampton County is poor: Among the county’s more than 22,000 residents in 2000, per-capita income totaled $15,413, compared to $20,307 among North Carolinians overall, and over one in five Northampton residents lived in poverty, including nearly three in 10 of the county’s children, according to the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center.

The county’s infant mortality rate in 2000 totaled 17.6 percent, compared to 8.5 percent for the state overall, the Rural Center says, and 23.6 percent of Northampton residents were uninsured.

Just under 69 percent of the county’s 3,200 students in 2000 passed the state’s end-of-grade exams, compared to just under 75 percent for the state overall.

Among black students, only 65.8 percent passed the exams, compared to 82.9 percent of white students, and six percent of the county’s students drop out of school, compared to 4.8 percent for the state overall.

The success of the Northampton County initiative, Ross says, will require the support of the entire community.

“You can’t do isolated work in areas that need significant change,” he says. “You have to have the community behind you.”

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