When I was honored among Education Week’s inaugural group of Leaders To Learn From, we were implementing a college-for-all approach through a districtwide early-college model and expanding a culture aimed at ensuring postsecondary success for all students.
The recognition afforded our district the opportunity to share our story and network with fellow educators, and the national exposure positively supported the district’s direction and boosted our momentum.
Leaders To Learn From helped build and cultivate lasting relationships with business, faith-based, college and university, and other educational partners. Additional funding and opportunities for students followed.
In the years since that recognition, we have experienced significant hardships.
Within a two-year span, from 2016 to 2018, Hurricanes Matthew and Florence caused more than $18 billion in damages across North Carolina, forcing our students to miss seven instructional days in 2016 and an unprecedented 30 days of school in 2018. Many of our families lost everything. Less than two years later, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked a social, emotional, and academic toll on our community.
But we count blessings, not barriers. These tribulations helped reinforce the Duplin Promise, our unified commitment that “All Means All.”
I learned early in my career that effective leadership is not about personal success but rather about the success of those you lead.
And they brought blessings in the form of much-needed resources to ensure equity for students and staff. We have since reached the goal of a 1-to-1 technology program, including hot spots for those without reliable home internet, and we’ve hired additional staff to support principals, provide small-group instruction, and assist with technology integration at a time when students need it most.
Personalization can inspire innovation
Our values—and our commitment to ensuring each student reaches success after high school—have remained firm, even as our school demographics, needs, and funding have shifted.
In the last decade, our Hispanic enrollment has grown to 45 percent, up from 35 percent in the 2012-13 school year. Twenty-one percent of our students are now English-learners.
Our promise to almost 10,000 pre-K-13 students is to prepare them for success after high school, whether they choose college, technical training, the military, or the workforce.
Personalization continues to inspire innovation. In July 2018, building upon a decade of efforts to expand career-and-college readiness, the Duplin County schools launched a STEAMA (science, technology, engineering, arts, math, and agriculture) initiative to integrate learning across many content areas and allow students to graduate with a pathway to a successful career.
STEAMA contributes to a growing economy and better-prepared workforce by engaging all students in pathways with purpose, increasing their chances of connecting to school and graduating on time, ready for prosperous careers and college experiences. Among its components: physical science integrated into P.E. classes; hands-on career modules in middle school selected with local business and industry input; high school academy options, including diesel tech and agribusiness; and makerspaces and live learning laboratories where students learn how food gets from the farm to table.
Forward progress toward educational equity
Our progress is evidence of our commitment to student growth and success, which we have coupled with a promise to provide every child with the tools to be successful. Our teachers, through innovative lesson designs, are making learning exciting and engaging for students.
We’ve embraced a state framework for research-based academic and behavioral practices. We’ve also established district- and school-level teams whose work is guided by the district’s social-emotional-learning plan and invested in a universal screener to identify student needs. Counselors, social workers, nurses, and resource officers are integral members of every school. Telemedicine, available at each school, connects students with medical professionals.
The data indicate we are succeeding: Many early-college students and a growing number of comprehensive high school students graduate with an industry-recognized credential and/or associate’s degree at no cost. Last year, students were offered nearly $15.1 million in scholarships as an increasing number of graduates earn their associate’s degrees while simultaneously working on their high school diplomas.
Our four-year cohort graduation rate has improved overall, from 69 percent in 2010-11 to 86 percent last school year, the highest on record. Notably, the graduation rate for our students with disabilities is 72 percent—higher than our overall graduation rate a decade ago.
Don’t just add new ideas; cull ineffective ones
Visionary and innovative leadership is not always about new ideas but the ability to recognize practices that are ineffective and having boldness and grit to implement modifications.
Recent events and hardships have reinforced my belief that successful leaders have a genuine love for those they serve. They nurture a servant leadership spirit and belief in shared decisionmaking that includes all stakeholders.
Effective leaders are humble. I learned early in my career that effective leadership is not about personal success but rather about the success of those you lead. And our growth and success would be impossible without the unwavering support of our school board members, who are student-centered and work tirelessly to ensure that our school community continues to grow and prosper.
EdWeek has united educators across the nation for what I believe to be one of the best and most meaningful professional-development opportunities. This includes the annual EdWeek Leaders To Learn From project, which exposes district leaders to powerful conversations and has helped us dream bigger for our students.
It inspired innovation that has allowed for steady growth, stability, confidence, personalized instruction, trust, and the unity necessary to overcome barriers associated with rural schools. We are hopeful that this contributes to economic prosperity in our community.
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as A Past Leader Continues Focus On College Readiness And Equity