Students at Frank Porter Graham Receive Laptops

Eight Frank Porter Graham Bellingue Elementary School students and their families were given laptops and internet access as part of a new program called “Computers for All.”

“We run a higher percentage of poverty rate,” social worker Kerry Sherrill said.

“One of the things we noticed right away three years ago is that many of our students didn’t have access to the internet. So if we were asking them to practice their reading or their math through programs, which most elementary schools do, they weren’t able to do that in that way.”

Surveys done by Frank Porter Graham Bellingue found that 80 children, nearly 20 percent of the schools population, didn’t have access to a computer or internet in their home.

Thanks to an anonymous donation of 15 thousand dollars, the school set up the Computers for All program to combat this problem and help their students.

Participants were given a laptop and two years of free internet access once they completed an eight week course on how to use their computer.

“It doesn’t do much good to put a computer in a home and not have people know how to use it,” she said.

The eight computers will reach 20 kids in the district because the students in the program have siblings, who will also gain access.

“If you get things started at the ground level, whether it be computers, mental health or just general academics, then you don’t have to play catchup,” Sherrill said. “That was our theory in wanting the kids to have a level playing field.

During this two year pilot, the program will examine the impact that a computer has one performance of the enrolled students.

If you want to make a donation to the program, you can reach Kerry Sherrill by email,, or phone, (919) 942-6491 extension 37106.

For Northside And FPG, New School Year Marks Dawn Of New Era

Northside Elementary School principal Cheryl Carnahan shows off the new building.

CHAPEL HILL – Students in Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools head back to school on Monday morning–and for two elementary schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district, the first day of the new year also marks the first day of a new era.

Frank Porter Graham Elementary School reopens Monday as a dual-language magnet school, the first in the district. “We’re delighted to be the district’s first magnet school,” says principal Emily Bivins, “and (we’re) looking forward to the opportunities in using bilingual education to close the achievement gap, particularly for students who historically have not been successful in our schools.”

FPG Principal Emily Bivins (in Northside library)

FPG Principal Bivins speaks at a press conference Thursday at the new Northside Elementary School.

More than 500 kids are enrolled at FPG, about half of which are new students in the district’s Spanish dual-language program.

Meanwhile across town, the new Northside Elementary School is finally open for business after years in the making–with 496 students enrolled and 80 employees on staff–and school officials like principal Cheryl Carnahan (formerly of Estes Hills Elementary) say they couldn’t be more excited.

Carnahan says Northside’s mission statement is “Thinking, learning, and growing, with purpose, persistence, and pride.” Purpose, persistence, and pride are joined by a pedagogical approach that’s eminently forward-thinking, while still nodding back to the past.

Northside principal Cheryl Carnahan 1

Carnahan speaks at Thursday’s press conference. (The sunbeam is intentional: Northside is designed to maximize natural light.)

A tour of Northside Elementary is striking: every facet of the new building is consciously tailored to be both eco-friendly and high-tech, from the placement of the windows to the design of the students’ chairs. Reflectors and skylights throughout the building maximize natural light to save on electricity; that electricity is channeled instead into a wide variety of state-of-the-art technology–including iPads (one for every two students), high-speed wireless Internet, and interactive whiteboards that also function as massive touch screens. (Chalk on a slate is ancient history.) Students sit on chairs designed to allow for wiggle room (they’re even comfortable for adults), and the teachers wear microphones to ensure sound quality.

Northside Elementary School classroom

Moseley Architects construction administrator Steve Nally (L) points out some key features in a Northside classroom.

“It’s a different way of thinking about technology,” says Carnahan. “Our focus is always on what (we can) do to collaborate, communicate, and create with our technology.”

But even as Northside looks to the future, it’s also making a concerted effort to stay rooted in its historic past. Its location at 350 Caldwell Street is also the site of the original Northside Elementary, which served as Chapel Hill’s elementary school for African-Americans prior to integration. That history is preserved on the first floor of the three-story building, with a commemorative wall, a trophy case, and a gallery of decades-old photos–a veritable museum of the Northside community’s educational history.

Northside Elementary history wall

The history wall, downstairs.

That history will make its way into the classrooms as well: Northside’s approach revolves around student-driven, “project-based” learning, and Carnahan says the first schoolwide project will focus on Northside.

“(The project) will be about 12 weeks and will start in October…building community and looking at the history of our school site,” she says. “The essential question is, how can we as historians document what has happened in the past, and use that for the present and project to the future?”

And since the school is seeking to look in two directions at once, it’s only fitting that Northside’s symbol is the compass–there are dozens of them on the walls, floors, even the clocks–and the team name is the Navigators.

Neither Northside nor FPG are opening without controversy, of course. In 2012, parents at FPG protested strongly against the school board’s decision to convert the school to a dual-language magnet—and earlier this year, parents across the district spoke out against the new redistricting plan, which moved a large number of students out of their previous schools to ease overcrowding and make way for Northside.

And as students across Chapel Hill-Carrboro return to class, school officials behind the scenes are still contending with another round of budget cuts at the state level–not to mention the threat of an even more difficult financial strain next year, when the district’s fund balance is projected to run dry.

Still, Monday is a day of pride and optimism for local schools–Northside, FPG, and everywhere–as thousands of Orange County students return to what remain two of the top-rated districts in North Carolina.

“It is going to be a great school year in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools,” says district spokesperson Jeff Nash. “It was a great year last year, and we have every reason to believe that despite anything you might see coming outside the Beltline, this (too) is going to be a great school year.”

Northside Elementary rooftop garden

Northside Elementary’s rooftop garden. (Yes, it has a rooftop garden.)

Northside Elementary cafeteria

Skylights abound in Northside’s cafeteria.

Northside Elementary Playground

One of Northside’s three playgrounds. (They’re divided by grade level.)

Northside Elementary Playground artificial grass

A closer look at the playground: that’s actually artificial grass down there.

Northside Elementary auditorium gym

Not far from the history wall, Northside’s gym/auditorium–complete with elevated stage–nears completion.

Northside Elementary School plaque

(No school is perfect.)

Northside Elementary exterior

The exterior of Northside Elementary School. (Note the light reflectors installed in each of the windows.)

The Primary of All Primaries – Still Not Over

Early voting is under way this week in North Carolina’s primary elections. So far there is not much excitement.

Sixty-two years ago we had a much different primary and run-off election experience. Voters came out in record numbers.

Today, a surprising number of people still remember that election and can tell you how the bitter struggle divided the state. Many of those who “remember” were not yet born in 1950. They know the story well because it is told over and over again and handed down from political generation to generation, sounding like an Old Testament story of God’s chosen people battling the Philistines.

North Carolina historians agree that the 1950 U. S. Senate primary between Frank Graham and Willis Smith helped define North Carolina politics.

To understand today’s North Carolina politics, learning about this contest is an essential task.

For a detailed version, read “Frank Porter Graham and the 1950 Senate Race in North Carolina” by Julian Pleasants and Augustus Burns, published by the UNC Press in 1990 and still available in most public libraries.

In the meantime here are some basics about the Graham-Smith contest:

In 1949, Governor W. Kerr Scott appointed UNC President Graham to a vacant U. S. Senate seat. Graham was, for the times, a liberal on race and social issues. So conservative Democrats recruited Willis Smith to run against

Graham in the 1950 Democratic primary, the winner of which would face only token Republican opposition in November. Smith was a distinguished Raleigh attorney who had served as president of the American Bar Association. At the beginning of the campaign, both men enjoyed wide respect throughout the state—even from those who disagreed with them.
Graham led the first primary in May 1950 with 48.9 percent of the vote. Smith had 40.5 percent. In those days, unless a candidate reached 50 percent, the second place finisher could call for a run-off. At first Smith indicated he would not call for a run-off. Then his supporters, including young Jesse Helms, orchestrated an impressive show of public support that persuaded Smith to change his mind.

Smith’s campaign faced an enormous challenge in the run-off—how to persuade large numbers of working class Democrats to vote for a conservative business-oriented lawyer. If these folks voted their economic interests, they probably wouldn’t support Smith.

In 1950 two things would persuade many North Carolina whites to vote against their economic interests. They were race and communism.

Smith’s supporters used both issues. Although Smith distanced himself from his supporters’ tactics, they “played the race card.” Flyers, newspaper ads, and mail used crude inflammatory language to assert that Graham supported mixing the races in the workplace and everywhere else. And to a lesser degree, Smith’s followers played up Graham’s membership in organizations that were supposedly communist “fronts.”

Graham refused to respond in kind. But his supporters attempted, without success, to inflame voters against Smith’s “big business” leanings. In the end, Smith’s supporters’ tactics won the run-off for their candidate.

Why does the Graham-Smith contest continue to be significant? One reason is that several important recent political leaders cut their teeth in that battle. For instance, Jesse Helms worked vigorously on the Smith side and Terry Sanford took on one of the toughest precincts in Fayetteville for Graham. There are others, some still alive, who got their start in this campaign and still remember. But many more are indirect disciples of Graham or Smith, through political figures like Sanford and Helms.

Perhaps the battlefront is quiet this spring, but the war between the Smith and Graham sides is not over. It is still being fought, and it is not yet clear which side is really going to win.