Pender County Schools Superintendent Dr. Steven Hill focuses on making education relevant for every student.
Dr. Steven Hill, superintendent of Pender County Schools, is passionate about education and his community. The Lenoir County native built his career forging relationships between public schools and higher education and surrounding industries, and his life-long goal has been to create relevancy in the classroom and to help provide students a clear path forward into meaningful careers.
Hill’s journey began with one question, “How do I get there from here?”
Growing up in Deep Run, he dreamed of being an SBI agent, but there was no clear route forward. He asked his parents, but without experiencing higher education themselves, they were unsure. Looking back, it was Hill’s aha moment and has driven him ever since.
“I have a passion for these kids, who have the dreams and the ability but don’t know how to get there,” Hill says. “We have to build real-world connections into their education to help guide them forward.”
The self-described “country guy” worked tobacco during high school and after graduating became a full-time firefighter/EMT and part-time heavy-equipment operator and then a local police officer as he navigated college courses one at a time throughout his twenties.
“Back then, Seymour Johnson Airforce Base had a hallway of colleges, I could take courses from a number of North Carolina colleges,” he says. “I even took a course from Michigan State.”
Hill’s commitment to education then became intentional. He took a position as a School Resource Officer (SRO), where he was able to focus evenings and summers on completing his degree at Mount Olive College.
As his experience in the school system shifted his ambitions to teaching and then administration, he completed his master’s degree in education and education doctorate in administration at East Carolina University (ECU). In 2011 the N.C. Policy Fellow took a position as the executive director of STEM East, a regional workforce education initiative under ECU, broadening his experience in creating pathways for students.
Nearly 30 years later, here in Pender County, Hill has continued his work to ensure classroom education makes sense to students. Under his watch, the district is working to improve attendance and graduation rates, expand educational opportunities for students and teachers, and build relationships with higher education representatives and professionals.
One result is that teachers have the opportunities to make connections between the curriculum they teach and how students can apply what they learn after graduation.
“Students always ask, ‘Why do I have to know this?’” Hill says. “We want teachers to be able to give them real-world examples of how that particular math problem or science method is used.”
Hill describes the work as reverse engineering.
“We build relationships with businesses that need future employees, support collaborations with higher education and preK-12 educators to provide student courses, and design cohorts in schools to provide what students need for a career here,” he says.
The superintendent’s tenure in Pender County began with the extreme challenges of recovering from Hurricane Florence and enduring a year and a half of a global pandemic.
“We have had to constantly change the education model here in Pender County,” he says. “And I am proud to share that our teachers and administration have been very successful.”
Even during the pandemic, the district was able to continue to advance student relevancy efforts.
“We completed state-of-the art Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) centers in each of the six middle schools,” he says.
These are designed in parallel to what the economic development groups have modeled, such as value-added agriculture, life sciences, aerospace and advanced manufacturing.
“These STEM Centers provide students with project- and problem-based learning in which they receive hands-on experience, occasionally even working with professionals from local industries,” Hill says.
The superintendent describes the potential outcome: “Our goal is that students get a pathway forward; not necessarily a specific job, but a pathway to college or a career in a workforce field.”
Once the school knows the student’s interests, a delineated pathway in high school can be designed based on that area of interest. “It is similar to an early college model that we can use in every high school,” Hill says.
The initiative moves in both directions as well. The relationships help regional industries recognize the value in working with younger students, rather than relying solely on the traditional senior year job-fair model.
“We say to the industries, ‘Come talk to us,’” Hill says. “We can add value to our community with early connections and experiences.”
Pender County Schools includes 18 schools, nearly 10,000 students and employs upward of 1,400 people. It is one of the fastest-growing districts in the state and recently scored 11th out of 116 districts in school performance, according to the N.C. School Forum.
Hill and his wife, Michelle, live in Surf City. They have three daughters: Hannah and Madison, who are both teachers, and Stevie-Layke, who is a rising Pender County freshman.