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N.C. Gov. Cooper signs bills that punish drug dealers in overdose deaths, require personal finance class for high school students

RALEIGH — Legislation designed to give North Carolina prosecutors a tool to convict drug dealers and to require public schools to teach more finance education is now law. The bills are among a dozen that Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law Monday.

One bill makes it a felony to illegally sell drugs that result in an overdose death, punishable by up to 40 years in prison. Supporters say the “death by distribution” law will help fight the opioid epidemic, but critics say it will deter people from calling 911 during an overdose.

Previously, drug dealers who contributed to an overdose death could face second-degree murder charges, but prosecutors had to prove malice — a high standard that makes conviction difficult.

Another new law requires high school students to pass a personal finance and economics class to graduate. Some teachers worry this will detract from other instruction, but supporters believe financial literacy is critical to real-world success.

Lt. Gov Dan Forest has been a driving force for the bill. The Republican said finance education can be used to address the high rates of student loan debt.

“We have some basic challenges with people coming out of school and understanding how to handle their finances,” he said.

Photos by Woody Marshall/News & Record  

Teachers lead a chant at Freedom School at Providence Baptist Church in Greensboro on July 1. Freedom School is a six-week summer literacy and cultural enrichment program designed to serve children and youth in grades K-12 in communities where quality academic enrichment programming is limited, too expensive, or non-existent.

At Freedom School in Greensboro, each day starts with a dance

Khalil Smith cheers with his classmates at Freedom School.

GREENSBORO — Seria Bullen Sata spent a week in training with other college students from around the country for moments like this.

The Bennett College junior with Freedom School emblazoned across her shirt is helping early this morning to lead a group of children in a large room at Providence Baptist Church who are finishing the lyrics to the inspirational song “Something Inside So Strong” that speaks of confidence in the face of challenges:

“You can deny me, you can decide

“To turn your face away

“No matter ’cause there’s

“Something inside so strong”

And then they’re shouting at the top of their lungs a loud rap about that confidence:

“You can’t mess with it!

“You can’t mess with it!”

That same energy will follow them into the classrooms of Freedom School, a literacy program where for six weeks this summer Sata and others will work with students in hopes of instilling a love of reading, which impacts success in later classes, from biology to math.

The teachers — college students who are called servant leader interns — use inspirational prose in their classrooms. An “Affirmation Station” in one classroom is a mirror framed with words including “smart,” “confident,” and “calm.”

“This is the best place,” Xavier McIver will later say when he is back in his classroom with a book in his hand.

In the 1960s, Marian Wright Edelman, an icon in education and with the Children’s Defense Fund, came up with the idea of the Freedom School, which is rooted in the civil rights movement and college students wanting to make a difference. Data show most children —called scholars in the program — experience significant gains in reading achievement and don’t experience any summer learning loss.

A very structured national model, the program ranges from culturally diverse characters in books to field trips designed to expose students to places they might not otherwise go.

Sata is also using the time to stoke the curiosity of the ones who come leaping into her classroom at the beginning of the day, and the others who need a few chants and cheers to get started.

Guilford County Schools and the Black Child Development Institute have held Freedom Schools over the years. And the program is being used in communities around the country.

“We can already see we are making a difference,” Danielle Leathers, the site coordinator at Providence and a Guilford County Schools teacher, said at the end of the first week.

Unlike traditional summer school classes, which focus on remediation, the program is designed to boost self-esteem and encourage lifelong learning. It has been shown to help students avoid losing ground academically during the summer. The first schools were designed to educate African Americans in the South during the 1960s civil rights movement. They focus not only on academic enrichment but also other areas including parent and family involvement and intergenerational leadership development.

Field trips help to expand students’ experiences and build on their knowledge and excitement.

The school system separately provides breakfast through its summer nutrition program. The church provides hot lunches, including spaghetti. The Rev. Darryl Aaron said the church congregation, long known for its emphasis on education, including decades of free SAT prep classes, got behind the plan and the budget.

Gwen Willis, former chief student services officer for Guilford County Schools, and Edith Martin, a former system principal, led the effort at Providence, which is their church. When First Baptist Church found out about the program, the congregation there wanted to support the effort with a check.

Students in the program come from nearby Bluford/Peeler Elementary School. Teachers and staff there thought they could thrive in such a program.

Every morning starts with “harambee,” with the children and staff coming together for the morning’s motivation which involves the chanting and cheering and songs.

It’s here where staff says the learning actually starts.

“It’s empowering,” Leathers said.

Even the most mundane moment, such as sitting down, becomes the chant: “Take a seat, take a load off your feet; sit on down, sit on down.”

And then a special guest — this week Marcus Gause, the principal at Andrews High School in High Point — reads to the group. The week before it was former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry Frye.

Gause is soon holding up “Boy of Color,” a Sherrie Nelson book on differences that he first began reading at bedtime to his son, who’s now 11, before he could read on his own.

The students, about 30 of them, are at rapt attention.

“Good job! Good job!” they chant when he’s done.

Gause also brought members of the school’s basketball teams. And each pulls out a favorite book.

Soon, the students break up into three classrooms.

It is clear something systemic is afoot here.

Each of the students, for example, gets to borrow from the school’s library. But each week they each get to take a book home — to keep.

“Each child is developing their own library at home,” Aaron, the pastor, said of potentially reaching the whole family. “We are investing in peoples’ lives."

Photos: Freedom School at Providence Baptist Church in Greensboro

Woody Marshall/News & Record 

Christopher Thompson works on a reading activity at Freedom School.

A 'pebble' found in N.C. tavern ruins was really a coded message among Colonial rebels

A clump of dirt initially dismissed as nothing more than a pebble has turned out to be one of the most significant 18th Century artifacts ever found in North Carolina, archaeologists say.

“No bigger than a pea,” the clump was washed to reveal a pressed glass jewel, etched with a Colonial-era code: “Wilkes and Liberty 45.”

Archaeologist Charles Ewen said those words were infamously seditious in the 1760s, and indicate the excavated tavern in Brunswick Town was likely a den of rebellious Americans.

“That was a rallying cry for those in opposition of King George III,” says Ewen, director of Phelps Archaeology Laboratory at East Carolina University.

“John Wilkes was a pamphleteer who often published works critical of the government. Brunswick Town was a hotbed of sedition, being among the first to oppose the Stamp Act, and what better place than a tavern to find confirmation of these sentiments?”

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation reports Wilkes was an Englishman idolized by Americans at the time. The number 45 refers to a notorious Wilkes pamphlet, which dared say the King was not above reproach, according to the foundation.

Ewen’s dig at the tavern made national news in June, when he revealed a fire in the 1760s caused the walls to collapse on top of a trove of well preserved artifacts in the crawl space.

The glass jewel was found next to a wall and was part of a cufflink, parts of which were also found, he said. Similar cufflinks with the message have been found in England, he added.

Ewen suspects such cufflinks served as a secret message, with the wearers recognizing one another as like-minded rebels.

“I think of it in the same way as secretive Christians were wearing the fish symbol to identify each other,” Ewen said. “Maybe it was something under the radar. They weren’t outright denouncing the government, but maybe wearing these cufflinks let you know who was on your side.”

An East Carolina student working on the project, Adam Pohlman, was first to notice something odd about the clump: It was translucent blue when held up to the light. He washed it, examined it, and found what looked to be tiny words on the back, Ewen said.

Pohlman’s discovery will likely end up on display in one of the state’s history museums, Ewen said.

“We are always finding bits of gravel in our screens, but in this case someone put it in a bucket and saved it, rather than picking it out,” he said. “What they found was, for me, a tangible link to the past about the political discontent of the time.”

An interesting article in today's paper

Stars and gripes: A Triad pool is in hot water over accusations that its flag wristband is “racist.” Page A4

Nature area planned for the highest peak east of Greensboro; observation tower would give view of Gate City, old-growth forest

SNOW CAMP — The road into the Cane Creek Mountains Natural Area is too rough for a reporter to take notes while riding in the passenger seat of a well-used county Ford Explorer. It’s not a short ride, either.

“The park is a challenge for us,” said Brian Baker, Alamance County Recreation and Parks director. “It’s a beautiful once you get a mile up the road.”

The plan is to get about 1,000 acres of park with 10 to 15 miles of trails and an observation tower on the highest peak east of Greensboro, from which you will be able to see Greensboro on a clear day, surrounded by old-growth forest on a truly ancient mountain.

“This mountain range is one of the oldest in the world,” Baker said.

Cane Creek Mountain is 991 feet above sea level at its peak, but geologists say it could have been 20 times that high a few hundred million years ago, and part of the range, including the Uwharrie Mountains west of Asheboro and Occoneechee Mountain in Hillsborough, was created by the slow-motion collision of what is now North America and Africa in the creation of the super-continent Pangea. It’s part of the Carolina Slate Belt that stretches from Virginia to Georgia, once considered a rich gold strip with productive mines in the Uwharries and the Haile and Dorn mines in South Carolina. Before the California Gold Rush, this was where the prospectors were hunting.

Being a little higher up, a little isolated and largely undeveloped over the years, the mountain is home to species of plants and animals rarely found in the Piedmont, Baker said, like wild blueberries, not so exotic, but not found much elsewhere in Alamance County.

Chestnut oaks line rocky slopes where other oaks don’t do well and are not common in this part of the state, Baker said. They help make a habitat for running cedar and wild pea plants — generally only found on the floor of old-growth forest.

“They thrive up here,” Baker said.

The public can’t enjoy this beauty yet. The county owns a lot of land, more than 450 acres already, and trails are being dug, but there aren’t a lot of good ways to get at them until the logging road is tamed and there is parking at the end of it. The opening date for Phase One is next summer, but that depends on finding the money to get it all done.

“We’re using very little (county) funds to acquire and develop it, so everything is dependent on grant funds or raising money or finding funding somehow, which makes it difficult to plan with certainty,” Baker said. “The funding that we’ve been able to get for this property has been a combination of private donors, nonprofits and the state through the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.”

The county got its first piece of the mountain with a grant from the Piedmont Land Conservancy when a subdivision failed in the Great Recession, Baker said. It was near the Three College Observatory, which came to southern Alamance for dark skies and is glad to have a neighbor without porch lights. It and YMCA Camp Frontier are on board with keeping the forest and adding trails.

Some of that funding has conditions geared toward preserving forest more than recreation, so there is funding to get land, but it can’t be used to pave a parking lot.

“This is not going to be Cedarock Park. There’s not going to be ballfields and shelters. It’s going to be more like Shallow Ford Natural Area,” Baker said. “... It’s trails that you can really get away on.”