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Surry County’s Donna Bledsoe named N.C.’s 2023 Principal of the Year

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  • Surry County’s Donna Bledsoe, who strives to “find the joy” in each and every school day, was named the 2023 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year on Friday.
  • “It’s about my school family, so I accept this on behalf of them and look forward to celebrating with them," Donna Bledsoe said of the award. "My teachers are doing amazing things in that building, and I’m just lucky to be along for the ride with them.”
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Surry County’s Donna Bledsoe, who strives to “find the joy” in each and every school day, was named the 2023 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year on Friday.

Since stepping into the role at Cedar Ridge Elementary in 2016, colleagues say Bledsoe has cultivated a culture “with a clear focus on student success, strong faculty collaboration and overall school improvement,” according to a press release from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). 

In 2022, the North Carolina Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development honored Cedar Ridge Elementary as one of two Lighthouse Schools statewide for advancing “student achievement in innovative and creative ways,” per the release, and nurturing “a positive and supportive school and community atmosphere.”

“Mrs. Bledsoe and her staff truly have put students at the center of all that they do,” State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said. “It’s one thing to say that and another thing entirely to make it happen, every day, in every class and with every student. It’s clear that Cedar Ridge does. That takes committed and visionary leadership.”

During her acceptance speech, Bledsoe thanked her husband, children, and “biggest cheerleaders in the room,” her dad and sister. She also thanked her “amazing school family,” emphasizing that leaders are only as good as those who choose to follow them.

Lastly, she thanked her late mother, Vicki Evone Cooke Lawson, “who showed perseverance by finishing her degree later in life and believing education is the greatest career, where no matter the day, joy can be found in a classroom of children.” Lawson died in 2016, during Bledsoe’s first year at Cedar Ridge.

“It is my belief as a leader from this example that we search each day for the joy,” she said. “As a principal, the work is often lonely and stressful as we deplete our cups to fill the cups of those around us as servant leaders. But if we keep in our hearts the joy and the blessing of each day, we are reminded of how blessed we all are to serve. It’s something that I will never take for granted.”

Bledsoe succeeds the 2022 Principal of the Year, Patrick Greene. 

The state has recognized “Principals of the Year” since the 1980s, according to the DPI release. As the winner, Bledsoe will travel the state as an ambassador for principals and will serve as an advisor on the State Board of Education for two years.

She will also, according to the release, “receive $3,000 for personal use and $3,000 for their school, … an engraved vase, a custom-made N.C. Principal of the Year signet ring from Jostens, and resources to help combat child hunger from No Kid Hungry NC.”

Bledsoe was one of nine regional Principals of the Year in the running for the North Carolina title. Here are the other regional principals of the year:

  • Northeast: John Lassiter, Hertford Grammar (Perquimans County Schools)
  • Sandhills: Jim Butler, Richmond Senior High (Richmond County Schools)
  • Northwest: Jessica Gravel, Drexel Elementary (Burke County Public Schools)
  • Southeast: Ashley Faulkenberry, Trent Park Elementary (Craven County Schools)
  • North Central: Dr. William Logan, Hillside High (Durham Public Schools)
  • Western: Ruafika Cobb, Ira B. Jones Elementary (Asheville City Schools)
  • Southwest: Tonya Williams, Concord Middle (Cabarrus County Schools)
  • Charter: T.J. Worrell, NE Academy for Aerospace and Advance Technologies (Elizabeth City)

“Wells Fargo is proud to continue our support for the North Carolina Principal of the Year program, and to celebrate administrators like Mrs. Bledsoe who serve as leaders and role models for all of us,” said Juan Austin, community impact and sustainability senior manager for Wells Fargo. “They inspire us through their tireless commitment to their schools, students and communities.”

‘Focused on bringing the joy to Cedar Ridge Elementary’

Bledsoe first joined Surry County Schools in 2004, after graduating from Appalachian State University with her bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She was promoted to principal in 2015, after serving as a third-grade teacher and elementary school assistant. In 2008, she earned her master’s from Appalachian State as a curriculum specialist.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Bledsoe was selected as one of 200 school leaders across the state to participate in the inaugural cohort of the Distinguished Leadership in a Remote Learning Environment initiative. That program was launched to help school leaders ensure high quality teaching and learning during major interruptions to learning, according to the DPI release.

During her acceptance speech, Bledsoe also thanked Truitt for her implementation of Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), a program used to train teachers and administrators on the science of reading and classroom practices. LETRS has already led to rewards at her school, Bledsoe said, during the program’s first full year of implementation.

“Literacy is the most equitable practice we can forge for all students,” Bledsoe said on Friday. “And I’m excited for the future of North Carolina.”

Half of Cedar Ridge Elementary’s students are from low-income families, per the DPI release, and nearly half start kindergarten without preschool.

In response, the school has set up “random reading spots” in its hallways, where students can always find books to take home. The school also removed penalties for students who don’t return books, the release said, and created monthly book events “showcasing diverse cultures with project-based learning experiences.”

Within the first year of doing so, Bledsoe said media circulation at the school increased by 3,000 books.

Bledsoe leads a “whole child” approach at her Cedar Ridge, focusing on student-centered and flexible learning, while also working to reduce discipline referrals – which have dropped by 87% since Bledsoe joined the school as principal, the release said.

Additionally, all students participate in weekly 50-minute enrichment periods, where among other things, students can choose to “create in Minecraft, innovate in robotics, learn to code, garden, practice yoga, train for a 5K, or even learn to play the banjo.”

“Mrs. Bledsoe is the instruction leader of her school and has focused on bringing the joy to Cedar Ridge Elementary School,” said Travis Reeves, superintendent of Surry County Schools. “With high expectations, she helps her staff and students achieve and excel in their goals.” 

At Cedar Ridge, Bledsoe says all of the school’s educators are united around one common goal – doing what’s best for their students.

For her, the work of education is always a team sport.

“I’m very humbled and honored to receive this award, but for me, there is no individual award,” she told EdNC after the award ceremony. “It’s about my school family, and so I accept this on behalf of them and look forward to celebrating with them. My teachers are doing amazing things in that building, and I’m just lucky to be along for the ride with them.”

You can watch the ceremony in the video below. Bledsoe’s acceptance speech begins at the 1:38:00 mark.

Hannah Vinueza McClellan

Hannah McClellan is EducationNC’s senior reporter and covers education news and policy, and faith.