To catch up on Ocracoke news, click here

Text and photos by Peter Vankevich

“Sea, Sand and Human Hands” could be the first alliterative line of a poem one would find in a classics literary anthology.

That was the name of one of the many sessions for high school science teachers attending an educational program in October at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT) on Ocracoke.

Located in the large, former U.S. Coast Guard building beside the ferry docks at Silver Lake Harbor, the center is the eastern campus of this statewide teacher professional development program. The western campus is located in Jackson County.

Ocracoke’s NCCAT building was the former Coast Guard station.

Year-round programming

With year-round programming, teachers can apply to attend sessions at either campus. Programs on Ocracoke this year included “Success from the Start: How to Survive and Thrive Your First Three Years in the Classroom,” “Thinking with a Pencil: Exploring Writing as a Tool for Thought” and “Strategies for Motivating and Building Reading Skills in Any Subject.” For some, attending a program can be life changing.

Ocracoke School has been one of the many educational beneficiaries of these programs.

In 2014, Gwen Austin, Ocracoke School’s middle school teacher of social studies and health, became the first recipient of the Mary D. McDuffie Honored Educator Scholarship.

This scholarship honors the lifelong dedication of the late Dr. McDuffie to the profession of teaching and education.

Gwen Austin, left, was the first recipient of the Mary D. McDuffie Honored Educator Scholarship. Bestowing the award is NCCAT fellow, Peter Julius. Photo courtesy of NCCAT

Amanda Gaskins graduated from Ocracoke School in 2014 and from East Carolina University this spring with a degree in the birth through kindergarten teacher education program. In August she began her first year teaching kindergarten at Ocracoke School.

This summer she had the opportunity to attend NCCAT for one of their programs, “Success from the Start: How to Survive and Thrive Your First Three Years in the Classroom,” attended by teachers from across the state who were in their first, second or third year of teaching.

“I was able to network with other teachers, spend time developing expectations and rules for my own classroom and learn strategies and techniques from the presenters,” she said.

“This was my first experience at NCCAT and as a beginning first year teacher, this program helped me feel more confident starting out the school year.” 

After attending a session in 2011 about the Coast Guard, Beth Layton decided to teach high school math at the school in 2016 and 2017.

“It was an amazing opportunity to learn about the Coast Guard and the incredible work they do and have done for decades,” she said. “We rode on a C.G. boat and visited a working station.”

Studying island environment

The October seminar, “Using Coastal Ecosystems to Enhance the Study of High School Biology,” included indoor sessions, field trips to the beach, marshes and maritime forests, a boat trip to Big Foot and Beacon Islands in the Pamlico Sound, and finally a walk through Portsmouth Village.

Alton Ballance

Alton Ballance was the facilitator. A life-long island resident whose family’s ancestry on the island dates to the 1700s, Ballance is a Chapel Hill grad and author of “Ocracokers” (UNC Press, 1989). For years, he taught at Ocracoke School, was the island community’s representative on the Hyde County Board of Commissioners for eight years and has served on the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission. He left the school in 2003 to join NCCAT. He retired last year but was back for the October program. 

Ballance was joined by subject matter expert presenters Benita Tipton, a secondary science consultant with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Jocelyn Wright, a biologist with the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and Jess Hawkins, a retired biologist from the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries who runs an ecotour business in Morehead City.

NCCAT got its start in 1983 when North Carolina Teacher of the Year, Jean Powell of Clinton, addressed the North Carolina Commission on Education for Economic Growth with a recommendation that the state create a place where teachers could go to become enthusiastic about learning again and to pass that zeal to their students.

“To attract and retain the best teachers, we must find a way to enhance their self-worth, pride of accomplishment, and enthusiasm,” she said at the time.

The commission liked Powell’s idea, and in 1985, the N.C. General Assembly established NCCAT as part of the University of North Carolina system, and the following year it began on the Western Carolina University campus.  In 1990, NCCAT got its own facility in Cullowhee in the state’s western mountains of Jackson County. 

To enable more teachers to participate, a second facility in eastern North Carolina was needed and the decommissioned Coast Guard building was selected. After several years of planning and extensive renovations to add a cafeteria, dormitory and a first-rate conference room, Ocracoke became NCCAT’s eastern campus in 2007.

NCCAT is crucial to professional development

With an annual budget of $3.4 million appropriated by the General Assembly, NCCAT plays a crucial role in professional development for pre-K through 12th grade teachers, library media specialists, school counselors and principals.

“NCCAT has identified and targeted professional development priorities in areas of digital learning, literacy, math, reaching reluctant readers and teacher leadership for North Carolina educators,” said Executive Director Dr. M. Brock Womble. NCCAT solicits input from professionals, while incorporating state legislation and licensure updates when determining its yearly programming.

“Since NCCAT opened in the late 1980s we have served around 90,000 teachers at our campuses,” said Todd Vinyard, NCCAT’s public communications specialist. “Last year we served all 115 state school districts in North Carolina and 80 charter schools.”

The high school science teachers’ program in October had a wide array of topics from exploring resources for North Carolina science, how human beings impact coastal ecosystems, to studying and managing bird populations. A key component was an emphasis on professional teaching standards for biology.

Ocracoke, with its national seashore, maritime forests, extensive marshes and nearby Pamlico Sound islands, provides a perfect location for exploring coastal ecosystems.

Alana Patterson

This was echoed by Alana Patterson, who is in her second year of teaching at Watauga High School in Boone. 

“I don’t have a lot of time to work with ecology that is not in the mountains where I’m from,” she said. “So, it was nice to have the experiences in a coastal area.”

William C. Moore who teaches earth science and biology at Union Pines High School, Moore County, found great benefits in the seminar.

“It’s been an experience that has opened my eyes to the interaction of different government agencies working together and seeing them cooperating and collaborating,” he said. “It was an incredible opportunity to meet and listen to the experts in different fields and those who live here.”

By the end of the session, cut a day short due to the remnants of Hurricane Michael heading north, all the teachers were effusive with their praise.

“The most meaningful experiences were the excursions we went on, and I love to talk to my students about doing science in real life,” said Brittany White who teaches at Edgecombe Early College High School in Tarboro. “It was different from all the professional developments I have done. I made a lot of new friends and we are going to network together.”

Patrick McDade, a science instructional coach at Yadkin Valley Regional Career Academy, Davidson County, liked the interaction with subject matter experts.

“I teach at a project-based learning school and I wanted to be around the experts and get experience with professionals to help me give my students a chance to do projects for the communities by having them work with experts,” he said.

From Left: Linda Daves, Chair of Board of Trustees, Executive Director Dr. M. Brock Womble and Campus Manager Regina O’Neal Boor.

Local staff at NCCAT

In addition to serving educators, NCCAT offers a meeting space for government, educational and nonprofit agencies, and has a local staff. 

Regina O’Neal Boor is the campus manager. Lena O’Neal is the program specialist. Other islander employees are Crawford “Chip” Evans, Tyler Gilbert, Angie Todd, Chris Howarth, Rex Beach O’Neal, Tina Robinson, Heather Johnson and Carol Bullard.

NCCAT has local economic benefits as teachers spread out to visit the village during their down time. Mickey Baker, owner of Mermaid’s Folly, said lots of teachers visit her store. “I love and support teachers so much, I give them a 10 percent discount,” she said. 

To learn more about NCCAT and those who are eligible and interested in attending future sessions, visit their website at

Alton Ballance talks with science teachers on their field trip to Portsmouth Island.
Previous articleOcracoke events Dec. 11 to 16
Next articleMore stormy weather in store this weekend


  1. I am impressed with the programs that the Ocracoke NCAT offers. Has any thought been given to having the Ocracoke NCAT get involved with the very serious problem of pollution in Silver Lake? Perhaps NCAT could operate a boat waste collection system on their site, and monitor the water quality in the harbor. Money well spent, I think.

  2. I was a part of a group of educators across the State who met in Charlotte to discuss the start of NCAT, and also attended the inaugural session at Western Carolina.
    Glenn White

Comments are closed.