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Treasuring Kids and
Their Educations on
Ocracoke Island,
North Carolina


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As the smallest K-12 public school in North Carolina, Ocracoke School strives to provide diverse learning opportunities in a place that can be reached only by ferry or plane. The small number of students and their isolation on their island home on the Outer Banks foster a close relationship between the school and community. Included: Principal George Ortman talks about how Ocracoke School achieves its success.

A student-created mural in the school's commons area reflects the island's swashbuckling past.
(Education World photo)
Far from the mainland and "mainstream" ideas, the landscape on Oracoke Island on North Carolina's Outer Banks is picturesque, and the residents practical. With access only by ferry or plane, the 14-mile-long Ocracoke Island is remote by almost any standard, and yet those who are tasked with educating its youth say its one school and fewer than 100 students lack for nothing.

"The geography of the area first drew me to Ocracoke," George Ortman, principal of the K-12 Ocracoke School, told Education World. "I decided to start a new chapter in my life in North Carolina near the coast. As an avid fisherman, the draw was a natural one. Having lived on a peninsula for almost 30 years, an island had its appeal -- sound on one side, and ocean on the other."

The island's beauty only was outdone by the friendliness of the residents. "They impressed me as honest and hardworking people," Ortman recalled. "They have an intense interest in the education and welfare of their children and demonstrate this through their involvement in all facets of their children's education."

IT TAKES A VILLAGE...

A Powerful Partnership

In such a challenging setting, what makes Ocracoke School work? George Ortman believes its island location has produced a strong and effective partnership between the school and community.
"The reason we have been so successful with our students is because of the cooperation between and among our teachers and our parents and community," said Ortman. "All are connected, one to the other. Students help students, parents know each other's children, and do not hesitate to correct any inappropriate behavior of their own as well as their neighbors' children. The children know that if they are rewarded for their accomplishments at school, they receive additional praise at home. On the other hand, if our children misbehave at school and receive a consequence here at school, they receive a consequence at home that is usually more severe. Parents work hand-in-hand with the school."

As the smallest school in the state with only 93 students, no one slips between the cracks at Ocracoke. Teachers become very involved with each student and his or her needs. "You get to know the children, where they live, their parents, their grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, cousins and even their dogs and cats," Ortman said. "It doesn't get much more personal than that."

The attention is paying off. All of Orackoke's students in grades 3-12 passed the state tests in 2003-2004, with only three of the students requiring a second try. The teachers are attuned to the students' educational needs, and the parents are very much involved in their children's education. The majority of the students strive to perform at the high benchmark established by both teachers and parents. As in other areas, some graduates choose to remain in the area or return after further education, while others move on.

On Ocracoke, island residents have only each other. They are truly a community. Parents, business owners, and other community members pull together to provide whatever the school needs. At Ortman's request, a local shopkeeper orders the finest hot dogs for the PTA to be served at the school's athletic functions. The fare and fellowship make the events a must-see for islanders.

School events on the island are special times for the community to come together to celebrate, such as the Halloween carnival, homecoming, and the Girl Scout and Boy Scout pinewood derby.

The school has a very active PTA and volunteer program. The PTA provides items that the school can't afford to purchase on its own, such as a laminating machine. The community donates items to a "caught being good" fund, and when staff members witness students going out of their way to be helpful or kind, the students' names go into a box. A drawing is held each nine weeks, and a lucky winner receives one of the donated gifts. Volunteers during the 2003-2004 school year included community members and service persons through a partnership with the Coast Guard.

A bulletin board at the entrance celebrates Ocracoke School's four graduating seniors.
(Education World photo)

"Despite the fact that Ocracoke is isolated somewhat, we lack for nothing," said Ortman. "Moreover, when you run out of something, you make do with what you have. The islanders are quite self-sufficient. When electric power was out due to Hurricane Isabel [in September 2003], Ocracoke had its generators running, providing its own power to the residents during part of every day. Ocracoke Island had power when others on the mainland went without."

Ortman has experienced everything Mother Nature has to offer in his short tenure at the school.

"In short order, I experienced snow the first week, two or three nor'easters, and lots of rain," he recalled. "We do the same thing others do in bad weather, close or delay school as necessary. The difference here is that you pay very close attention to the direction of the wind, which will determine during storms whether or not there will be overwash from the ocean tides and windblown seas. Overwash will block roads and prevent travel."

FROM BLACKBEARD'S BACKYARD TO VIRTUAL LEARNING

Of course, the unique location and unusual weather also affords Ocracoke's science teachers educational opportunities that many teachers can only simulate. The marine environment is at the students' fingertips. Teachers have used the weather, shifting sands of the Outer Banks, the ocean, the sound, sea life, and plant life in their lessons. Field trips have been arranged to study dune formation, live oaks, and plants that grow and survive in desert-like conditions. As a haven for pirates of the past, Ocracoke is rich in history and lore as well.

Ocracoke Reflections

Brandon, a member of the Class of 2004, shared his thoughts about his island education with Education World: "During the past 13 years going to Ocracoke School, I have learned many things. From driving teachers crazy to feeling crazed myself, it has been a wild ride. One thing I did get from all the years in this place is this: Living on Ocracoke is totally different from any other place. Being so small where your friends are more like your family, it is pretty cool. You just don't get away with much around here, and everyone knows who you are. But it's here where my family and friends have grown up; here they call home. As I move on and go to bigger places and meet new people, O' cock and the memories and friendships made will keep me coming back."

To reach beyond what the island provides, students take advantage of state-of-the-art technology and the Internet.

During the 2003-04 school year, students studied sociology and Advanced Placement environmental science via the Internet, and one student participated in a Spanish class through the North Carolina Information Highway (NCIH). For the 2004-05 year, students enrolled in online Spanish, calculus, Latin, computer programming, and literature and composition courses. Online courses allow Oracoke School to offer higher-level courses without hiring additional teachers, and Ortman expects the use of Internet courses to increase.

OCRACOKE'S MOTTO: BE FLEXIBLE

Access to online courses also has enabled the school to meet goals outlined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Teachers who are not fully endorsed in the subjects or grade levels they teach continue their coursework to achieve certification, but the majority of Ocracoke's teachers already meet requirements. Many staff members have multiple certifications and are willing to teach a variety of subjects.

"Our teachers and staff are very flexible, the most flexible that I have ever experienced," Ortman observed. "They understand the need to be flexible in what they teach and in combining grades, when necessary; moving to smaller or larger classrooms when the student numbers vary from year to year, and in adjusting for natural disasters."

Ocracoke teachers must be flexible. The 2004 graduating class of Ocracoke School had just four members, all of whom planned to attend college. When Ortman talks about a curricular "department," it typically consists of one teacher. Ocracoke educators often work with students of varied ages, as well as abilities, at the same time. While kindergarteners and first graders were in separate classes last year, combined classes were held for grades 3-4, 5-6, and 7-8. This year, the school has only one combined grade class.

"Of course, there are two different sets of objectives for the grades combined," said Ortman. "The teacher has to teach all of the subjects in a self-contained classroom, and with a combined class of two grades, that doubles. The larger number of students in a smaller space may also create some additional challenges with the teacher's movement about the classroom and the cramped conditions. Student distractions can and do more readily occur."

Course offerings for Ocracoke's upper-grade students are broadened through telecommunications.
(Education World photo)

But Ortman added that there are pluses to combining grades, because it offers some unique opportunities for students. The older students help the younger ones and develop more personal responsibility for their own learning. The younger students receive exposure to the next grade's instructional content. Differentiation of instruction also occurs to better meet the needs of each child.

The flexibility often extends to the courses educators teach, and where they teach them. With a unique set of skills one could find only in a place like Ocracoke, Kitty Mitchell, the school's music instructor and member of a local band called Molasses Creek, also teaches art and Spanish in her classroom.

Some language arts classes have been moved to the Ocracoke Library, located just behind the school, due to the closing of a building that housed four classrooms. (The Hyde County School Board plans to replace the moisture-damaged building with a permanent structure.) Students and teachers here take such changes in stride -- what could be a better place for a literature course to meet than in a library?

LEARNING TO ADAPT

Changes also are occurring in the student body. This school year, Ocracoke School welcomed a single kindergarten class of average size for most schools. The influx of Mexican workers to the island also is increasing the school's enrollment of Spanish-speaking students by about four each year. Although it is challenging in a small school, these students' needs are met through an English as a Second Language (ESL) program. They are immersed in the regular program and supported by a teacher dedicated to the ESL learners.

While the Internet and teleconferencing have increased the course offerings for high school students, Oracoke has been unable to expand its athletic program.

"We have not been able to overcome the limited athletic program offerings at a small school," Ortman lamented. "Our only two sports are basketball for boys and girls and cross country. Our children hunger for other sports, which because of our size, we are not able to offer to our students."

FANTASY ISLAND?

Although Ocracoke has much allure for beachcombers -- at least during some seasons -- as Ortman describes, it takes a "special person to want to live on an island where the only access is either by ferry or plane." The lifestyle isn't for everyone. Top it off with the flexibility that is a mandate on the small island, and new teachers can be hard to find.

More Lessons from Our Nation's Schools

Have you read other stories in Education World's Lessons from Our Nation's Schools' series? Click here to read more!

Ocracoke School uses a variety of methods to recruit teachers. The central office of Hyde County Schools provides the school with leads, and teacher recruitment Web sites and lists of graduates provided by colleges and universities are also helpful. Like other schools, Ocracoke advertises online and in newspapers. The schools in the area also share information to secure qualified staff.

"The beauty of the island is a draw, but once you realize the cost of living, reality sets in," explained Ortman. "We have had some great candidates for teaching positions but have lost them because they cannot afford the rent, that is, if they can find a place to rent yearly. Most of the rental property on Ocracoke caters to the tourist industry, i.e. weekly rentals. To find a place to rent yearly is very difficult. In addition, yearly rentals can be beyond the means of a young teacher." This year the community responded to the school's request for yearly rentals at reasonable prices, and all of its new teachers found affordable housing.

Despite these challenges and because of its assets, Ocracoke School has a tradition of excellence, Ortman said. Its students are typical kids who receive the proper guidance from all facets of the school and community. They know that the community cares and wants to see them succeed, and they respond by rising to the school's high expectations for learning and behavior.

"We provide our students with a great education," Ortman stated. "Our teachers are dedicated, our parents and community are involved with the school, and our central office is attuned to the needs of the school."

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