Dr. Eric Bracy leans in close to hear what Hobbton first-grader Carlie Wade has to say as she shares a lesson she’s completing on the notebook in front of her. She smiles, he laughs, both pointing at what she’s written.
The youngster talks easily to the new Sampson County Schools superintendent, excited and engaged in the questions he’s asking. They talk a good five minutes, both absolutely absorbed in the conversation.
This is what Bracy loves most, getting into the classroom, sitting with students, talking with them and, most importantly, listening to them as they regale him with the lessons they’ve learned and now want to share with others.
He calls those conversations a good thermometer of how engaged students are with the learning process in their classrooms, and he gives that engagement a thumbs up throughout the system.
“Things are progressing nicely in our schools,” Bracy said during an interview earlier this week, just two months into his new superintendency. “We have some wonderful, awesome teachers, a very supportive community and great, great students. I’m having a great time getting to know them all and watching the progress that is being made.”
He’s realistic enough to know, he said, that the school system isn’t exactly where it needs to be, but rather a work in progress as are all educational systems. But he’s happy with the path being taken and the work being done to ensure improvements that will bring about success for every child.
As he settles into his position at the helm of Sampson County Schools, Bracy is beginning to look toward his own direction for the system, one that stresses rigor and student engagement, with an eye toward creative alternatives to learning that challenge students, excite them and provide offerings that make them want to stay in school.
“It all starts with rigor,” Bracy stressed. “It’s what I’m looking for in every school, from bell to bell. I want our kids being taught rigorously, with our teachers changing up their teaching so students are learning but, at the same time, thinking what a fun place this is to be.”
He sees Sampson County Schools already moving in that direction, and he’s adamant that he will continue to lead them down that path. “We aren’t where we all want to be yet, but the key is we are working toward that every day. The new Essential Standards have made us really analyze what we do and how we need to improve. I’m seeing rigor now, but we all realize that the more we do, the better we will become.”
When Bracy visits schools — something he does as often as he can — he wants to see students being taught aggressively, with no down time.
“We have got to challenge our young people, we must allow them to stretch their minds. That happens when you keep them moving, when you keep asking them questions and when you allow them to offer feedback. And you have to keep them excited about learning, using different methods.”
The bottom line in all of that, he said, is ensuring that every student is career or college ready by the time they are seniors.
“It’s our purpose for existing, our No. 1 goal and priority.”
To that end Bracy hopes to see dropout rates go down and graduation rates go up, as students become increasingly more excited about what goes on at school and the role they play.
“That includes finding creative alternatives to education, increased offerings that will be of greatest benefit to our students.”
There are no limitations, Bracy said. “We need to do things that get our kids excited about coming to school.”
He recites a phrase often used by his mother — “A quality education is a great equalizer” — saying within those words are great insights everyone should pay attention to and use.
“Those words were preached to us, and I’ve preached them myself. If it’s taken seriously, then it will not matter where you come from, what your race is, what your economic background is, you will succeed. You can be whatever you dream about being. “
But the key is believing it, and hearing it repeated often until it becomes a part of your very being, he said. “It will take our teachers, our parents, our community members, Dr. Bracy, all of us telling our success stories over and over again so that kids understand that they, too, can achieve,” the superintendent stressed.
For his part, Bracy intends to repeat that mantra every chance he gets to as many young people as he can.
He loves being in the schools, he said, and spends as much time in them as possible, sharing his mother’s saying and others every chance he gets.
“I’m in the schools as often as I possibly can be. I love hanging out in the schools and being around the kids. It goes back to that old saying, ‘kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ I’m a firm believer that if our kids know that we care, they’ll do what we ask. And that’s why I get in the schools, so they can see that I care.”
Bracy doesn’t believe in giving up on any child and said he will always offer whatever support he can in any way he can. “I hope they can see that when I’m in the schools with them. I hope they can sense how much I care.
“That’s where it all begins as far as I’m concerned. If our students see we care, then the rest will come.”