Alumni News

Eastern campus of NCCAT to open in Ocracoke Coast Guard Station

Alton Ballance (A.B.Ed. ’79) plays central role in turning on the lights

When the old Ocracoke Island Coast Guard station closed its doors nine years ago, the Island’s residents – also known as Ocracokers – were devastated.

“As an Ocracoker and as someone who grew up with the Coast Guard always there, it was pretty dramatic,” recalls Alton Balance, a former teacher at Ocracoke School. 

However, thanks to Ballance and other key individuals including former Governor Jim Hunt and his wife Carolyn (A.B.Ed. ’64), Ocracokers will once again be able to look at the old station and smile.  After years of planning, funding and setbacks caused by no fewer than three Hurricanes, the old Coast Guard station is undergoing renovations and plans to re-open this winter as the new home of the Eastern campus of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT). 

Currently in its 21st year, NCCAT is the only program of its kind in the country.  “There are some other states that are looking at our model,” says Ballance, who now serves as coordinator of the Ocracoke NCCAT campus.  “Some other states do some similar things, but no state does the expansive programs like we do.”

Topics covered in NCCAT’s unique programs range from chocolate to lighthouses to the Louis and Clark expedition. 

One of the most popular seminars at Ocracoke, “Salty Dogs and the Life of the Sea,” introduces teachers to the life of the small commercial fisherman.  Twenty-four public school teachers board small boats with several commercial fishermen and spend the day with them pulling gill nets and crab pots from Pamlico Sound.  The teachers, who have now become the students, learn to clean their catch and later that night, that same catch will be on their dinner plate.

“None of these teachers has ever done this before,” says Ballance.  “They get close to the fishermen.  The teachers become enlightened about the work – how hard it can be and how risky.”

This enlightenment is just what many of NCCAT’s participants – some of whom have been teaching for more than 20 years – are looking for.  In an era when concern about teacher recruitment and retention is at an all-time high, NCCAT is getting results. 

According to the organization’s statistics, only four percent of teachers ever served by NCCAT seminars are no longer teaching in North Carolina’s public schools. 

“I think that says quite a bit,” says Ballance. “If we can help keep teachers in the classroom, then we’re filling a tremendous need.”

Certainly the teachers think so – approximately 5,000 attend NCCAT programs annually.  In order to attend, teachers must have at least three years of experience teaching in any grade, pre-kindergarten through high school, in North Carolina’s public schools. 
NCCAT covers all expenses including housing, meals, transportation, even the substitute teacher. 

Private school teachers may also participate in NCCAT seminars, but they are responsible for paying the costs.

The majority of NCCAT’s programs are held at its main campus in Cullowhee, N.C., which can accommodate about 48 teachers at one time.  Other programs take place in Ocracoke or out-of-state, such as a Broadway seminar that takes teachers to New York to work with a Tony Award-winning costume designer.

Programs held in Ocracoke last fall include “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” “Hurricanes” and the ever-popular “Salty Dogs and the Life of the Sea.”  Once the new campus is open, Ballance and the NCCAT staff hope to offer 30 programs at Ocracoke each year.  

“It was a dream,” Ballance says of the project that has been nearly 11 years in the making. “We’re excited about it.  The community of Ocracoke is excited about it.  It’s a wonderful program and teachers are wonderful people.”

Once renovations are completed, a new breed of lifesavers will be moving into Ocracoke Island’s beloved old station.  As one resident said, “We sure will be glad to see the lights come back on.”