Recently I had the pleasure to speak at the graduation ceremony for the New Tech High School in Warren County. My trip to Warren County brought back memories of frequent trips through that community during my college years traveling back and forth to Chapel Hill from the northeast. Even then, this beautiful small town situated in rolling green hills seemed on the decline, and too many homes and storefronts looked neglected.
Time has challenged this community in much the same way as many other North Carolina rural communities. During the graduation ceremony I met with students and families and heard stories about how Warren New Tech inspired students and created a noticeable bond among the graduates, faculty and the town. But I found myself wondering about the future of this wonderful community and so many like it across our great state.
After the usual comments about the graduates’ future in my remarks, I reminded the gathered parents and the school community that advances in technology and automation will challenge Warren County like never before. Even the previous transitions in the manufacturing and agricultural economy will pale in comparison to what the next 25 years may bring in the loss of jobs. When fast food, garbage collection, cleaning, retail and so many other jobs are lost to automated systems, what becomes of places like Warrenton? And all the other towns like them?
Transforming public education—and making design decisions like blending K-12 with the economy and with higher education—has never been more important. At NC New Schools, and our new national brand Breakthrough Learning, we advance a comprehensive approach to transforming schools and their districts with an eye toward deep connections to business and industry and to ensure that every young person graduates with the skill to thrive in college and in life.
Our approach to excellence focuses in three areas: talent, design and quality. This simple framework assumes a model of continuous improvement and a new role for public education in the community. This new role will extend hope and build the capacity for a stronger future by graduating young people with the skill and drive to create new business and to solve complex problems. Warren New Tech is a fine example of the use of inquiry and project-based learning to foster creativity and a more entrepreneurial spirit in young people.
Visiting towns like Warrenton and joining students for their graduation is always a shot in the arm. But looking beyond their smiling faces to the future ahead is sobering. Public schools must play a major role in securing the future for them and for their community.