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Graham: Hard times create a worrisome divide

By Burton F. Peebles
Correspondent

CHARLOTTE, N.C. It’s a cliché to say that North Carolina is a great place to grow up. It would obscure the real complexity that makes my home state so sugary sweet. Like North Carolina, Alamance County and my hometown of Graham have seen people come and go over the last decade as thousands of immigrants have flocked to the area to find work, provide for families here and abroad, and pursue happiness.

But, change has not been easy. I have witnessed the death of manufacturing as the economic industrial juggernaut of Alamance County, pushing many of those new arrivals into the lower-paying service sector.

When I think about my hometown, I think first about public education. In my town, investments in schools paid off for me and many of my contemporaries. My elementary, middle and high schools were all classified as Title 1 institutions, with a large share of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Yet, I watched many of these students achieve dreams – winning state championships, performing across the globe as a participant in my high school’s blossoming arts department and making progress where it matters most: the classroom.

North Carolina has a long track record of innovation in public education. From igniting the nation’s flames of state-supported higher education with the University of North Carolina in 1789 to spearheading summer enrichment programs like the Governor’s School, state leaders regularly put quality education a top priority.

As I grew up in Graham, life was – for a time – sweet. Then, my four years in the university in Chapel Hill put my hometown into a new perspective. I began to notice that the solid walls of public education have started to corrode as our community endured one of the worst periods of economic decline and budgetary cuts in history.

Many of my high school peers have been productive members of society for the last four years, opting to leap into the labor force immediately after graduation. And, many have sprouted families of their own. But, few would tell you that life has been easy, or will be in the foreseeable future.

The socioeconomic divides that once split people apart in Alamance County have been magnified. A parting of the population has commenced, with well-to-do folks migrating west toward Elon University and east toward the growing community of Mebane, with its new Tanger Outlets. In the middle are left many without the financial wherewithal to move.

Alamance County has never been known for independent or private schooling. But in the last five years, private education has begun in full force – providing those with means a sense of escape from the mythical “riff raff” of the public system. Anyone who is being honest with themselves would note the beginning stages of eroding public trust in our local schools, teachers and administrations.

So, in four short years, times have gone from sweet to sour. And, our young people are paying the price. Just this summer, county commissioners made what they called “necessary cuts” to public education. The Amendment One debate earlier this year left LGBT young folks feeling afraid to be themselves, as yards became littered with signage contesting the right of gays and lesbians and those in civil unions to ever be recognized in the state.

Still, I am hopeful. I know that those students just down the road who are using textbooks published in the 1980s have just as much potential to change our world for the better. In their brains rest the answers to how we solve the mess we have made for them, the secret recipe behind the world’s best biscuit, the idea for the next electronic innovation, and so much more. As our state welcomes the nation’s political elite to Charlotte, I hope leaders will find a way to sustain investment in these young people, to unlock the genius in all of them.

Burton Peebles is a recent graduate of UNC Chapel Hill and is a new law student at Emory University. He is from Graham, in Alamance County.
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