Community Spotlight: Bertie County Schools featured in new docum - WRBL

Community Spotlight: Bertie County Schools featured in new documentary

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WINDSOR, N.C. - Bertie County is being thrust into the national spotlight with the release of a new documentary that focuses on how architectural design can transform public education.

Now, 9 On Your Side is digging deeper into the film and the feud it caused with the local school board.

Back in 2010, then-superintendent Chip Zullinger brought in two architects from California, Matt Miller and Emily Pilloton, to revamp the curriculum at Bertie Early College. Their goal: to teach students how to design, prototype and build projects that have a positive social impact.

The film, directed by Patrick Creadon, captures the year-long experimental class dubbed "Studio H", focused on design initiatives in humanity, habitats, health and happiness.

Students start small by designing and building corn hole boards and chicken coops. Their creations culminate with a student-designed-and-constructed 2,000 square foot farmer's market for the town of Windsor.

"It was so exciting because I had never seen something like that come to life," recalls former Bertie student Erick Bowen, who’s now enrolled at ECU.

Windsor Mayor Jim Hoggard says the market launched several part-time businesses and inspires people to shop locally. They’re steps he says make a big difference in a county that ranks among the poorest in the state.

"It’s an economic engine and I’m very pleased with that,” Hoggard says. “I'd love to have 100 more projects just like it."

But Studio H almost ended as quickly as it began, caught in the middle of a bitter battle between Zullinger and the Bertie County School Board. Board members accused him of misrepresenting certain issues and violating board policies before forcing him to resign.

"I think we had a target on our back purely because of our association with Dr. Zullinger,” Pilloton said in a Skype interview last week. “And then once he was no longer there, it was really on us to dig in our heels and say we're not going anywhere."

The film shows the board chopping funding for Studio H, but doesn't go into much detail on why. A New York Times film critic honed in on this, saying the film heard too little from opposing voices.

So 9 On Your Side dug deeper to get the other side.

"The board at that time did not see the relevance of continuing the program when it was just a burden, a financial difficulty for Bertie County,” explains Bob Occena, former principal at Bertie Early College and now vice-chair of the school board.

Occena says a 2010 investigation found under Zullinger's leadership, the district's fund balance, money that's supposed to be reserved for emergencies, dwindled from $790,000 to just $150,000. 

He says board members didn't realize how much money Zullinger's initiatives cost and says the $80,000 Zullinger promised the Studio H instructors just wasn't there.

On the chopping block, the duo offered to work for free, funding their class solely with grant money.

When we talked with them last week via Skype, they said they still believe it was fear of change – not lack of money in a budget that topped $30 million – that ultimately led to the board's decision.

"I understand the politics of it, and how it unfolded, but it didn't change the work that we did,” Pilloton said.

Two years without a paycheck forced the couple out of town and into Berkley, Calif., where they launched a new Studio H at a charter school. Nothing has replaced the program in Bertie County.

But the farmers market still stands, and for the students who built it, remains a symbol of what Bertie County – and they – can become.

"It just shows you that you as a student, a 16-year-old, can make a difference in your community, in the world,” Bowen says.

Special Note: Thank you to director Patrick Creadon for permission to use portions of his documentary in our newscasts.

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