To Live, Learn, and Die in Halifax Co.

Foreword to "To Live, Learn, and Die in Halifax Co.":

I am a lifestyle writer not a journalist. I normally write about funny stuff: love, life, and a laughter. I like making people laugh not think; I leave that to serious people. When I posted this essay it wasn't to attack anyone and it wasn't to be attacked or chided in return. Normally my posts get about 100 views in a couple of weeks but within two hours of me posting this piece it had over 1000 views. Let me be clear, I am not an expert on schools, I am not an expert on taxation, I am not an expert on the finances of Halifax County. However, anyone with two eyes can look around and see that Halifax County is SUFFERING. I wrote this piece because I have seen the effects that our piss poor schools have had on my generation and all subsequent generations. I spoke about my grandmother's work ethic and her desire to see her children do better not to focus on her parenting. It was to focus on the fact that the textile mills GAVE her the opportunity to provide a better life for her children and thus her children's children. Tell me of any job in Roanoke Rapids these days that you can provide for a family of five WITHOUT a college degree. As a matter of fact show me the number of jobs in Roanoke Rapids outside of education that require a college degree and would allow for someone to take care of their family. I did not write this piece to attack anyone. However, if it pissed you off understand this I do not care because nine times out of ten your child doesn't attend one of those schools with the leaky roof or inadequate textbooks. If I hurt your feelings, I do not care. Understand that, I absolutely do not care and I do not make not one single apology about anything I said. If I offended you, I do not care and I will sleep just as good tonight as I did last night and the night before that. However, what I do lose sleep over is the fact that children are suffering because of political posturing and questionable district lines. This piece isn't about me or my family. I just used my family and my background to show the difference that a good job can make. However, the days of the good textile mill jobs are gone and to have a good job these days you have to have a degree. Most of the schools in Halifax County do not have the resources to provide our children with a 21st century education and the ability to graduate from a college/university or a trade school. If you want to blame it on the parenting or your perceived lack thereof, feel free to do so. However, ask yourself this why should children suffer because of the shortcomings of their parents? Kids should not be doomed because of circumstances beyond their control such as where they live or the circumstances they were born into. And yes, a child's home situation is something that is hard to overcome but believe it or not schools with good resources DO make a difference. One of the keys points that so many of my critics woefully looked over was the fact that I spoke about EXPOSURE and how the lack of funding in our schools limits the amount exposure our children receive. I am not for or against the merger of the school districts. I am for the equitable treatment of the children no matter if they live in P&J Trailer Court or on Dunshill Road. I want to see children succeed whether they are from Scoco Park or Becker Farms. A sound education is the greatest equalizer in society. If the biggest issue you can find in my piece is that the taxation information was "inaccurate" then you missed the whole point of what I was trying to say. If you really can honestly say you believe that kids at Chaloner and kids at William R. Davie are getting the same kid of treatment I have a bridge across the Roanoke River to sell you plus the rockfish fishing rights to boot. Not just Halifax County is suffering but many of the northeastern NC counties are suffering because of the inherent link between poverty and education. Without an educated workforce, we cannot even draw in the kind of jobs that would make a REAL difference. This issues in Halifax County just like anywhere else are complex and multi-layered and there is no magic solution to make everything better. But I do know this, good schools make a difference. No companies is going to open up a new location and try to recruit employees to the area if the schools are bad. No school system in our area has over a "C" grade for the state of North Carolina. Our kids can't compete with the kids from Wake or Mecklenberg County let alone the children from across the country. But I digress...



As I wrote this piece I often glanced over at the picture of my four-year-old daughter, Ryleigh. She is going to Pre-K next year. When I look at her picture I’m not thinking about her as much as I’m thinking about her young, beautiful, and bright classmates who I know that if something in Halifax County does not change will never be able to reach their full potential as learners and then leaders.

This piece is dedicated to all those in Halifax County whose hopes have withered and died on the vine.

Photocredits: Ryan D. Daniels

To Live, Learn, and Die in Halifax County...
By: Ryan D. Daniels

I’m a proud native of Roanoke Rapids, NC a small town that is nestled against the North Carolina/Virginia border and right off of I-95 in Halifax County. I grew up right off of NC Highway 48 in what is referred to as the Carolina Rest Home community, a small predominately African-American working class community. I’m a proud graduate of Weldon High School.
            But what I’m not proud of is the shameful state of the school systems in Halifax County.  Within the county there are three separate and not even arguably equal school districts: Halifax County Public Schools, Weldon City Schools, and Roanoke Rapids Graded Schools.
            Halifax County Public Schools serves the majority of Halifax County students except those living within the districts that are served by Weldon City or Roanoke Rapids (“city limits” only) schools. Halifax County Schools are majority African American and the district has suffered from financial and political strife for over a decade now.
            Weldon City Schools serves the students that live in the small towns of Weldon and Halifax. It is the smallest district of the three and only has four schools (an elementary, middle, and high school plus an early college that is partnered with the local community college). Additionally, by the numbers Weldon is the blackest of three districts.
            Lastly, there is Roanoke Rapids Graded Schools, which services the children that live within the city limits of Roanoke Rapids. Roanoke Rapids Graded Schools is the second largest district and by far the whitest of the three districts by the numbers.


            By the numbers this is how the districts break down as far as state rankings are concerned. In 2015, Roanoke Rapids was ranked 75th in state, Weldon was ranked 114th in the state, and Halifax County was ranked 113th in state.
            Before we go too, too much further I’m going to put this whole thing into context. According to data compiled using the 2012 Census, Roanoke Rapids my beloved
Double R” is the third poorest city in America. Not just in North Carolina not just in the Southeastern United States but it is the third poorest city in the whole entire United States of America. Once upon a time, Roanoke Rapids was a thriving place full of bustling textile mills. As a matter of fact, if you’ve seen the movie Norma Rae, it is based off of one of the textile mills in Roanoke Rapids. My grandmother, Pearl, is one of the many people who went to work in those mills and put food on the table because of those mills. At the age of 82, she still speaks fondly and proudly of the work she did there and the satisfaction she felt from making her own money. Her hands are now crippled by carpal tunnel and arthritis from the twenty-nine years of hard work she put in for JP Stevens and Westpoint textile mills. She was able to send my mother to college and paid for it cash money and provide for her children with that mill paycheck.
            However, the story of Roanoke Rapids is like the story of many American cities that suffered the death knell of outsourcing.  Starting in the 1980s, mill after mill started to close their operations in Roanoke Rapids and shift their operations across seas to foreign countries where they can get away with paying workers pennies on the dollar. The fate of Roanoke Rapids isn’t an unusual story for state of North Carolina; the textile industry was decimated throughout the state due outsourcing. However, unlike many other places that were able to bounce back because some new industry came and took its place, Roanoke Rapids has not been so fortunate.
            As a small girl when I would go into the city limits of Roanoke Rapids with my grandmother. I would often look at the tall, brick behemoths that used to house machinery that hummed 24/7 producing America’s towels, bed sheets, and washcloths, fabrics. One day I asked my grandmother what those big brick buildings used to be and she told me those were the textile mills. I then noticed the decay and decrepit nature of the neighborhoods that surrounded these mills. I said in the most eloquent of words that a five or six year me could articulate, “Roanoke Rapids used to be a cucumber now it’s a pickle.” If you ever drive just a few blocks beyond the busy stretch of “Hamburger Highway”, the nickname for the stretch of Julian Allsbrook Highway that is a tourist oasis and home to mostly any fast food eatery, you’ll see that Roanoke Rapids is in a bad way. Boarded up business after boarded up business, boarded up homes. A downtown that was once thriving is now desolate, a symbol of this decay is the boarded up old fashion movie theater downtown.
            If Roanoke Rapids is in a bad shape, Weldon is worse off. Weldon is an extremely small town and like Roanoke Rapids it used to be a thriving place this is evidenced by the once stately but now decaying Victorian mansions that line street after street in Weldon. However, its heyday was primarily during the days where the railroad reigned supreme and the Roanoke Canal was a booming trade throughway. Weldon was a haven for wealthy whites and the schools were once upon the time the best in the area and amongst the best in state.
In 1966, my Aunt Joy, my uncles Alvin, Douglas, and Larry and a few other black children integrated Weldon schools. Yes 1966, as in 12 years after Brown versus Board of Education. My Aunt Joy and my Uncle Douglas have both gone on to glory (in 2002 and 2005, respectively) but I remember hearing their stories of rocks being thrown at them after school, homework being thrown away right in their face, and the utter harassment they faced merely because they dared to be black and learn in a virtually all white environment. My grandmother recently recounting school district officials coming out to their house using a tape measure to make sure their home was within the Weldon district. Yes, a tape measure. Prior to integration the black children of Weldon went to obviously inadequate schools within Weldon.
            After segregationists realized that integration was happening whether they liked it or not, many white leaders opened up private conveniently “whites only” schools throughout the south. Halifax Academy became such a school in Halifax County as well as Hobgood Academy, which serves the areas down at the other end of the county.  The white flight was swift and by the mid-1980s, Weldon City Schools were virtually all black. I used to get tickled when I would look back at my uncles' and aunt’s old Weldon High School yearbooks from the 60s and early 70s and seeing lilly white face after lilly white face and then looking at my own 2009 Weldon High School yearbook where except for a few students everyone looked like me.
            My Uncle Larry, an accountant and bank examiner, a Vietnam vet who after serving his country retired up north moved back to the area in 2008 and he was flabbergasted after attending a Weldon High football game. He just remarked at how times had changed.
            Lastly, there is Halifax County Public Schools, a district that struggles have been blasted in the media for years. There has been political strife between the superintendent and the school board, there have been precarious financial issues with the district finances being taken over by the state, and threats of the state taking over the whole entire day-to-day operations of the system. I attended Aurelian Springs, a Halifax County public school for kindergarten through fifth grade before leaving for Weldon. Back then Halifax County Schools were on the cutting edge and always innovative and moving forward, they were and are still the only school system in the area to have a uniform policy. To be honest, I really don’t know how or why to explain the downfall of Halifax County schools other than politics and political infighting.
            Many people especially those with children in Halifax County and Weldon schools send their children to the KIPP schools located in Gaston, NC. And as a parent myself, I do not find fault with their decision and as a matter of fact, I empathize with them. At the end of the day, as a parent you want the best for your children.  But the point of this piece is this: the children in Halifax County no matter what neighborhood they are from, no matter the color of their skin, no matter what their parents’ income is deserve a sound education and due to the inequality of the schools in Halifax County this is not happening. This piece is about the lifelong, generational ramifications of inadequately educating our children and the impact it has on our community as a whole and the cycles these ramifications create.
            I’ve said all of that to bring us to where we are now. There are three school systems in this small county of only 53, 453 people. THREE! And there is absolutely no justification for why this is so. Economically, Halifax County is one of the most disadvantaged and distressed counties in the state. The public school systems especially Halifax and Weldon are being bled dry of the high performing students by KIPP charter schools. I do not have an opinion on KIPP schools one way or another, they saw an educational void and they sought to fill it. In August of this past year a lawsuit was filed by a group of Halifax County parents to force the merger of the three school systems, Silver et al v. Halifax County. However, the lawsuit was thrown out on its ear in favor of the defendants, the Halifax County Board of Commissioners. A lot of people including the local chapter of the NAACP have hung their hat on this being a racial issue and this is partly so and no place is this more evident than the location of Chalonor Middle School, the only middle school in the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District. Chalonor sits smack dab in the middle of Hodgestown, one of the historically black neighborhoods in Roanoke Rapids. Children who literally live within walking distance of the school cannot attend it because they live on the opposite side of a small, meandering stream that is the arbitrary line between Halifax County and Roanoke Rapids’ School District. I mean never mind the fact that Hodgestown is within the city limits of Roanoke Rapids, an area supposedly served by Roanoke Rapids Graded Schools.  So mind you, the residents of Hodgestown are paying taxes to a district their kids cannot attend school in.
            I am not naïve and I do believe that a large part of the three-system district is based in racially discriminatory, gerrymandering practices but my issue is bigger than that. My issue is with the longterm impact of this inequality caused by these arbitrary and questionably mapped out districts. If you look at the internet chatter on local websites such as RRSpin you’ll see exactly how local whites feel about a possibly school district merger or how they feel about the students of Weldon or Halifax County schools and the black citizenry of Halifax County in general.
            Like I said, I’m a proud native of Roanoke Rapids and a proud graduate of Weldon High School. Weldon High School as long as I can remember has been deemed a “bad” high school by the outlying communities and yes, I can admit it can get a little rough I have seen it from the perspective as both a student and a teacher there (I taught at Weldon High during the 2014-2015 school. However, I left to go to law school.). I transferred to Weldon because my stepfather was then the principal at Weldon Middle. It was a culture shock for me coming from mild-mannered, idyllic Aurelian Springs Elementary and my first year or two was rough. But it made me a better and resilient person and I look back on my time as a student there fondly. Weldon like Halifax County Schools and like Roanoke Rapids Graded School to a certain degree are cursed by the same tragedy, the loss of generations of leaders due the inequality of the three school districts.
It always amuses me when I speak with people in the area and they get a pleasantly surprised look when I tell them I graduated from Weldon. I know what they are thinking, people like me aren’t “supposed” to be at Weldon. Someone like me is this, I come from an upper middle class household, my mother and stepfather are both college-educated professionals with well-paying careers, and are well-respected within the community. Until later in life, I never realized how much this shaped my outlook on education in comparison to my peers. I knew that college wasn’t a dreamy faraway land it was a reality and I knew it was a possibility for me. Going to college in my family is not the exception it is the practically the rule. Four out of the five of my Grandma Pearl’s children have graduate degrees, all of my first cousins who are adults are college educated, and I see no less for this next generation of Daniels including my daughter, Ryleigh. In primary and secondary school, I always performed well in school. Traveling and seeing different places, going to museums and the zoo with my family were not unordinary to me, and life outside of Halifax County was not foreign to me it was normal.
I have always loved learning even prior to going to school and I credit this to my grandma, Pearl. When I speak of my grandmother, it is always in glowing terms because she practically raised me because I wouldn’t leave her house. No seriously, I wouldn’t leave. My grandmother was virtually orphaned at a young age due to her mother’s untimely death due to an infection caused by incomplete miscarriage. She bounced from home to home of various family members and was unable to go to school past the third grade due her hands being needed in the field to due manual labor for family members who were sharecroppers. She married quite young and had her first child before she was 18. She never really had a chance to get an education and she made sure that I understood the value of education and the sacrifices she’d made for her own children. Every degree, every accolade, and every academic plaudit I have ever received I owe it to Pearlie Mae Daniels. My college degree is proudly affixed on her living room wall and not my own.  A love of learning just was not a foreign concept to me it was natural. However, due to the unforgiving cycle for many of the children of Halifax County they will never be able to understand or experience this love of learning.
I think back to my days at Weldon Middle School and the middle school “prom”. I was heartbroken when my mother did not allow me to go. Most of the students were out of school that day to primp and prep for the prom and there were only a few of us left behind looking and feeling like losers. I was in Mr. Hopkins’ class, my 6th grade social studies teacher class and he was lecturing us because he could tell the few of us that were left behind were down in the dumps. I cannot remember exactly what context he said this in but I remember him saying that for many of my classmates this would be their first and only prom. I didn’t understand in then but years later as I got ready for my senior prom I realized how many of my peers had fallen prey to the cruelty of life in Halifax County and had faded from the hallways soon after we came to high school. Many of my female classmates were lost to teen pregnancy, many of my male classmates fell prey to the anything goes nature of the streets after years of suspensions and referrals (the “Pre-K to Prison pipeline”).
            I have many fond memories of my time at Weldon High School but my mind and my eyes have always been able to see beyond my years and by the time I was in 9th grade I knew something was terribly wrong. Weldon High School when it was built in the early 70s and at the time was state-of-art, beautiful school. However, by the time I stepped into the building in August of 2005 the roof was leaking, uncovered electrical and internet cords ran through the exposed rafters of the building because the school was too old to properly accommodate the networking capabilities that a 21st century school required, the classrooms were dark and stuffy because of inadequate lighting and ventilation, science labs with no running water or gas, and a library that had little to no books. Let’s compare this to Roanoke Rapids High School. RRHS is the oldest school in the area built in 1921. However, it’s Gothic façade that was inspired by the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge is so remarkable it was deemed a national treasure in 1988. Over the years, new buildings have been built to augment the school historic main building. Every couple of years a new building pops up on the campus. Roanoke Rapids Graded Schools' has a fairly new Belmont and they are currently in the process of building a new elementary school. Keep in mind the population of Roanoke Rapids and Halifax County in general is actually decreasing.
            You see a large portion of a school system’s revenue is pulled from the area it serves tax base. Roanoke Rapids has the largest tax base in the area, the city limits of Roanoke Rapids especially tony areas such as Becker Farm serve as the neighborhood of choice for the area’s doctors, lawyers, business owners, politicians, and upwardly mobile people and it sits in the heart of Roanoke Rapids’ school district. Additionally, the majority of the major businesses in the Halifax County area are within the area serviced by Roanoke Rapids Graded Schools. On the other hand, Weldon and Halifax County schools are nowhere near as fortunate. Weldon is not home to any major businesses, which has always struck me as odd. Weldon like Roanoke Rapids sits right off of I-95 yet somehow all of the fast food restaurants, all of the companies have only been able to turn left off I-95 North and never right into Weldon. On one side of 95, you have what looks to be a active Roanoke Rapids and on the other there sits Weldon’s bleakness of abandoned and rundown gas stations and hotels.
            If you were an out-of-town visitor that happens to venture into Dunham’s Sports, Wal-Green’s, or Rite Aid and you looked at the local school spirit gear that was sold you would believe that Roanoke Rapids High School and their Yellow Jackets were the only high school in town and your assumption would be rightfully just, because when you go into these store the only local school spirit gear you see is for Roanoke Rapids High School even though these business are patronized by Chargers (Weldon), Vikings (Northwest Halifax), and Trojans (Southeast Halifax) fans.  This small and maybe even trivial slight or overlook let’s me know one thing, the “black” schools don’t matter as long as we are off to ourselves we our invisible, we are the darker side.  Our schools are degraded and derailed and decried because of low-test scores that many people just chalk up to it being because it’s a “black” school and sadly, we just aren’t expected to show and do well. But our critics have never stopped to ask why. Why aren’t our kids performing? Well, they do but the answers are just rehashes of old tropes and stereotypes: the teachers are lazy, the kids are lazy, the parents are inept and apathetic, the kids are unruly and thugs etc. None of this is true.
            Black children in Halifax County already come to the game with the cards stacked against them, many of them come from poverty because the unemployment rate for black people in Halifax County outpaces that of white people. Like I already said Halifax County is one of the poorest counties in the state of North Carolina. As a teacher, I was able to see the unfortunate but real ramifications poverty had on children and their ability and capacity to learn. Many of my students battle food insecurity, chronic homelessness, inadequate housing, and after the last bell rang at three o’ clock many of them returned to the unsafe streets of Weldon, where they prayed they wouldn’t be shot dead in the streets like their classmate, Keyuon Garner had been in summer of 2014 while walking through his neighborhood in Weldon. Many teachers lecture their students for not having items essential for learning such as pencils and papers but I quickly realized a lot of them didn’t have it because their parents couldn’t afford it, they could barely afford to clothe and feed them for school. How can I expect a child to be excited to learn about volcanoes and aquifers when his lights will be cut off this evening?
 In the faces of my students, I saw the faces of many of my classmates who had fallen prey to the relentless and cruel cycles induced by poverty. Weldon is a poor community there are no jobs and most people do the best they can and many who can do better move to other areas, taking the tax base with them. Here is the cycle: the school is poor because there are no jobs to support the tax base, the children attend these poor schools do not get the education they need to do better, these children cannot do better for their children, and the cycle starts over again.
            Many of my students have never been beyond Raleigh; some had not even traveled that far. Many of them did not even see college as a real possibility for them. Many had not experienced life outside of Halifax County at all. I do not blame this on their parents because for the most part their parents were doing the absolute best with what they had and you can only give your children as much as you have. Many of my classmates went off to college after high school but left after a semester or two; only a few of us graduated. Why did they go and leave so quickly? This brings me back to a previous comment I made when I spoke about my family’s expectations and my lifestyle. When I was in high school and middle school I participated in summer camps that took me to college campuses such as East Carolina University, NC Wesleyan, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Meredith. I knew what it was like not to have mom waking me up in the morning, having to walk to class, living on a sprawling campus in a large city, and living in a dorm room with someone from a different place. This exposure to new environments prepared me for the hustle and bustle of college living; many of my classmates just didn’t have that and many just threw their hands in the air and came home. So many of our talented children are not getting the exposure they need because of the financial ramifications of the inequity of the school districts. Our schools don’t have the money to send our babies on trips to visit colleges, they don’t have the resources to put on a college or vocational school fair, the parents do not have the money or the knowledge to put together Spring Break college visits, our schools cannot afford to put together rigorous labs that will prepare a student for the challenges of college style learning. I am so thankful for the various science camps my parents could afford to send me to because without that I would not have survived as Biology major.
            We all know in today’s society you can barely make it without at least a Bachelor’s degree and now it’s getting to the point where you need something even beyond that. However, there is always a need for vocational skills such as tradesmen or tradeswomen but our school cannot afford shop classes or vocational programs that will give our children the tools to hone a craft or a trade. But look at the generations of people in Halifax County who are stuck because their educational pursuits lived and died in Halifax County’s unequal schools. I look at many of my classmates who academically were just as gifted as me and some even more gifted than me but they didn’t have the resources to go beyond this area.
            There are few good paying jobs in the area but most of them are hourly wage positions and not salaried such as Kapstone Paper Mill and Lowe’s Home Improvement Distribution Center. The only industry in this area where there is always a job is working in one of the local fast food restaurants. Skilled jobs aren’t coming to this area because our schools are not able to produce skilled workers and without skilled jobs there is no real income and you guessed it, no tax base. Our children deserve better. Our children deserve to do more than to live, work, and die without reaching their fullest potential. However, sadly due to the Halifax County’s dire straits and additional inequality many of our children never reach let alone even realize their full potential.
            I have a young daughter who is the light of my life. She is a student in Weldon because I believe in Weldon. I’m a proud product of Weldon and I see the potential in those kids but if something does not change and does not change very soon we will lose another generation of children. I know my daughter will do well wherever she goes because she a bright, inquisitive, and precocious kid  just like many of her classmates and like me she knows life beyond Halifax County but it’s only because I had a family that laid a solid foundation and gave me the resources to see life beyond Halifax County. The schools in Halifax County are not giving our children the tools to build solid foundations for themselves or their future generations. A child’s ability to get an education should not be determined by his address. I wrote this because literally thousands of children in Halifax County are being robbed of something that should be an unquestioned and unabated right and not a conditional privilege, a sound education. Our world is growing ever more global, our children need to be able to compete. Without providing our children with educational opportunities and opportunities to better themselves Halifax County will no longer even be a pickle but it will be a withered dried up memory of what was.

Signed,



Ryan D. Daniels, A Proud Halifax Co. Girl.

Author Note: In an early draft I noted that Chalenor Middle School is located in Lincoln Heights it is located in Hodgestown. 

Comments

Shontae Lashley said…
Chalenor is in Hodgestown not Lincoln Heights. Even though Lincoln Heights and South Rosemary are within reasonable distance to what is considered the "City Limits". I am a product of Lincoln Heights, Hodgestown and Georgia Ave. Apartments.
Ryan D. said…
@Shontae, I made the correction.
Anne G said…
I agree with your most of your observations about the state of the educational system in Halifax County and surrounding communities. I'd like to add that part of the problem lies in the inequitable distribution of state funds. Those area schools have always been ill served by Raleigh. I'm a graduate of Halifax County schools and I don't remember the smell of new textbooks; sadly we always got hand-me-downs. When I went to college I was embarrassed that I didn't know how to use the equipment in my Biology class. More than 30 students had to share microscopes when I was at Eastman. I had some wonderful teachers (namely Frank Hunter, Mrs. Brown, T.S. Cooper, Mrs. Wiley) but they too were limited by a lack of school resources. Halifax County residents need to make their voices heard in the state legislature and demand more of their state representatives.

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