Hyde County Schools face the test of limited resources

By on May 26, 2020

One of Superintendent Steve Basnight’s chief goals is to increase online access for students and staff. (Sandy Semans Ross)

While the bank is now gone in Engelhard, the Pamlico Ice and Light Co. — now Tideland Electric Cooperative — is still making an impact on the community in a way that none could have conceived of in the 1930’s – in education.

Pamlico Ice and Light Co. eventually changed its name to Pamlico Power and Light and was one of four electric companies which, after a series of mergers, formed Tideland in 1975. The Engelhard company was the oldest and the only investor-owned utility among the merged companies, and was owned by Peleg Dameron ‘P.D.’ Midgett, Jr. who also served on the East Carolina Bank executive committee. When he retired from the committee, he was replaced by Greg Gibbs, grandson of Closs and manager of the family-held store located right across the street.

This is the second of a three-part series on the history and struggles of the small rural Hyde County community of Engelhard, NC.

Tideland’s corporate office is in Pantego, but an office continues to be open in Engelhard and has been, due to school closures prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, an important part of education in Hyde County, which is one of the poorest school districts in the state.

Students have used the Tideland parking lot to access an internet “hot spot” donated by RiverStreet Networks, a communications company which has an antenna on a nearby water tower, said Heidi Jernigan Smith, Tideland’s corporate communications manager.

“We have three hot spots in the county and I’m looking for more,” said Hyde County Schools Superintendent Steve Basnight, referring to places where students and staff can go to log onto the internet so that they can participate in remote learning. 

“We are currently looking at multiple opportunities to extend online access to our students and staff throughout Hyde County,” he continued. “Just having a hot spot that doesn’t have connectivity to broadband is only a band-aid. We are hoping to get additional help from the state to increase broadband access.”

According to the recent state laws, in order for the district to receive a waiver/credit for their virtual days since March 13th, online learning cannot end until the end of the school’s approved calendar, said Basnight. Both Ocracoke School and Mattamuskeet Elementary are on regular school calendars, so their online learning will continue until June 14.  The early college program’s graduation was held on May 22.

When Basnight took the helm of the school district in October 2018, he arrived with a background in online learning. “I felt we needed to have the ability in staff and students to switch to online learning when needed, such as after hurricanes,” he said.

Prior to joining Hyde, Basnight served in a variety of positions from teacher, coach, assistant principal and district curriculum specialist, all in Dare County Schools before leaving in 2013 to become the principal of J. P. Knapp Early College High School in Currituck. Under his direction the school was recognized with a state performance grade of “A” and for exceeding expected growth for the last four years he served there. The school was recognized in 2017 and 2018 as “One of the Nation’s Best High Schools” by U. S. News and World Report.

As plans moved forward to teach students and staff how to use the technology, Basnight said he was surprised by how many students and staff members didn’t have computers or internet at home or had computers with spotty service.

“We had been working on getting distance learning up and running, and as we got closer, there was going to be a day learning basics such as how to log in and entering passwords and, the following week, a work day when teachers would use it working from home,” said Basnight. “But the week before, the schools were closed due to COVID-19 and we had to move fast.”

In an attempt to fill at least some of the needs related to distance learning, Chromebooks used by students in certain grades have been loaned out to students and staff.

Computers are just one of many needs at the Mattamuskeet campus that includes several buildings housing K-12 students. The school system has a long history of being underfunded, leaving many deferred repairs and maintenance as well as other unmet needs.

Earlier this year, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction gave Hyde County Schools $4.9 million for damage to the schools caused by Hurricane Dorian. Significant damage occurred to the schools on Ocracoke, leaving most of the buildings uninhabitable. Most of the money will be used to rebuild the portion of the Ocracoke campus where the administrative offices, middle school and high school classes were primarily housed.

Basnight said he hopes there will be enough money left to make roof repairs at the three buildings that house the Mattamuskeet Early College that have significant roof damage as well as the damaged school bus garage.

In addition to trying to find funds to repair schools and making sure that students continue to be educated during this crisis, the superintendent also is reaching out to other educators to help reach educational standards and practices.

“My focus is to bring the students up to the level everyone else in North Carolina has,” said Basnight, who is one of six superintendents from across the state who have been tapped to serve on the North Carolina Schools Reopening Task Force.

He’s leaving no stone unturned and uses creativity when needed. “The challenges are huge, and everywhere you turn,” said Basnight. “I’ve been leaning heavily on my background and finding help where I can. We are filling holes as we go.”

Frank Vrablic, who has a reputation as one of the state’s finest math teachers, came out of retirement. (Sandy Seemans Ross)

To offer more help with math, he has enlisted the aid of retired Manteo High School math teacher and coach, Frank Vrablic, who has a reputation as one of the finest math teachers in the state.

Basnight talked him out of retirement to serve as a Math Consultant for Mattamuskeet Early College “to help us improve student learning outcomes and instruction,” he said. Part of Vrablic’s efforts include making a series of YouTube videos to help students learn how to do higher math.

Another former Dare County math teacher and principal, Steve Blackstock, has been tapped to oversee instructional programs and assessments. Blackstock, former principal at Manteo Elementary School, was named Dare County Principal of the Year for 2018-19.  During his tenure, the school exceeded expected growth and increased one letter on the school performance grading rubric.

The superintendent said parents have been amazed to find out that their child can earn two years of college for free by enrolling in the early college program. “We are going to start growing that program,” said Basnight.

But it takes more than lesson plans and sturdy buildings when there are so many needs in a community.

Former Manteo Elementary School Principal Steve Blackstock moved to Hyde County to oversee instructional programs. (Sandy Semans Ross)

“Providing an education isn’t just providing academics, but you also have to pay attention to other things in children’s lives such as mental health,” said Basnight.

Hungry children don’t learn well, and the majority of Hyde County students received breakfast and lunch at school. Since the shutdown, school buses have been running their regular routes and leaving both breakfast and lunch at each child’s bus stop.

“There are 550 students and 91 percent of them have been eating either breakfast or lunch. We have been serving more than 1,000 each day. School bus drivers drive the buses, teaching assistants hand meals out and maintenance packs the meals on the buses,” said Basnight.

As of May 22, the program has delivered 46,608 meals. It is scheduled to continue until the end of the regular school year.

“We are in discussions to determine what that program will look like this summer. Funding will have a lot to do with our ability do that,” said Basnight. “We usually provide a Summer Meals Program on the Hyde County mainland anyway, so we will continue providing meals throughout the summer in some format.”

(Coming next: An iconic grocery store closes, leaving a gaping hole.)

Part 1: A community on the edge. The bank of Engelhard finally closes its doors.

See what people are saying:

  • OBX Resident

    Lest we forget that under Trump FEMA denied Ocracoke individual assistance emergency aid after Hurricane Dorian while increasing government spending more than any other President in modern time. The area is good enough for Don Trump Jr. to come hunt in, but not good enough for federal aid. I would ask those in Hyde County, how has the Trump Presidency been for them?

    Tuesday, May 26 @ 8:36 pm