Valerie Bridges never set out to be a superintendent. She never even set out to become an educator.
She used to work as an auditor in the state auditor’s office. But her mother was a lifelong educator, and even while Bridges was doing her work for the state, she had an eye on the classroom.
“My mother … absolutely loved being in her classroom, and visiting, just seeing the magic happen, each day that I happened by, I would say ‘A little bit longer, a little bit longer.’”
Finally, a little bit longer became right now, and Bridges decided to become a teacher. She said it was going to be a decrease in pay, but an increase in joy.
That first step led her on a journey to becoming Edgecombe County Public Schools (ECPS) superintendent in 2017 and then being named North Carolina’s 2022 Superintendent of the Year. Bridges will now be eligible for the national award to be announced in Feb. 2022.
“We’re been grinding pretty hard in Edgecombe for a long time” she said. “We’ve never given up. We’ve been bold enough to believe that we really can make a difference in our community and with our kids.”
Before coming to Edgecombe, Bridges began her career in education as a high school teacher in Wake County, focusing on accounting and business after getting certified to be a teacher. After a few years, her assistant principal said he had noticed something about her: Her classroom management skills were great, and her kids loved her. He said she should move into administration. But Bridges balked.
“I thought no,” she said. “I love my kids. I love the kids. I love the kids. I still do.”
But her assistant principal wouldn’t leave her alone and eventually she relented. She went back to school for a master’s degree and back again for a doctorate.
She worked in various levels of administration — moving from Wake County, to Guilford County, to Washington County, and finally to Edgecombe. There, she held a whole host of positions before John Farrelly left his post as superintendent in 2017 to go to Dare County Schools. After that, her school board asked her to replace him.
“It’s absolutely been a beautiful career. I could not ask for better,” she said. “I have enjoyed every county that I’ve worked in.”
The move to superintendent came with challenges.
In the 2016-17 school year, the district had six schools that met or exceeded growth and eight that did not. But under Bridges’ leadership, the district moved to 12 schools in 2018-19 that met or exceeded growth and only two that did not. She thinks the numbers would be even better if COVID-19 hadn’t put a temporary halt to the accountability measures that determine growth scores.
Bridges said she won’t rest until all her schools are at least meeting or exceeding growth, though she added that it would be better if they were all exceeding.
“Is 12 good enough?” she asked. “No, 14 is good enough.”
“We know her as ‘Dr. B.,’ a school leader brave enough to tell kids she loves them, strong enough to take on the status quo, and grounded enough to keep kids and equity at the center of all our work here in Edgecombe County Public Schools,” he said. “She is the kind of leader who runs toward the fire. Our entire Edgecombe community trusts Dr. Bridges. Time and time again, through the daily grind, two 500-year floods, the pandemic, Dr. Bridges has been our anchor, our rock, our compass. Her moral courage and equity-centered leadership inspire all of us.”
Jeff Wetzler, co-founder of Transcend, a national nonprofit that has worked with Bridges and ECPS to innovate how students are educated in the district, said in an email that it has been an honor to work with Dr. Bridges and her team.
“Dr. Bridges takes a human centered approach to design, with equity and community as her guideposts. She is relentless and creative in ensuring that every student has opportunities to flourish. She is equally intentional about how she leads her system in a learner-centered way,” he wrote. “The examples that have come out of ECPS have inspired our team as well as the larger education sector and are truly helping shape the future of education for students in North Carolina and beyond.”
And as superintendent of the year, Bridges hopes to continue to shape the future of education by using the bully pulpit of her position to shine light on important educational issues like the state’s testing and accountability model that grades schools using a formula of 80% academic achievement and 20% academic growth. (Achievement is basically determined by how well students do on tests while growth shows students’ improvement over time.)
“The testing model and the calculations used, the 80/20, is still not appropriate,” she said. “I think every superintendent has said that. We say growth matters, so why would growth be 20%?”
She also mentioned teacher pay and the pathways to becoming a teacher as other issues she wants to highlight.
“There are a number of issues that are concerning in education, and I do think that when you have a platform you use your voice to share those,” she said.
But she added that she doesn’t want to just point out negative things. She wants to celebrate the wins, too.
“Great things are happening in a lot of districts,” she said. “Sometimes that doesn’t come across.”
But it’s certainly coming across for the people who work with her. People like Donnell Cannon,
the executive director of district transformation and redesign in ECPS.
“Dr. B lives in the curious place always. She steps outside of the demands and comfort of a traditional approach to school,” he said. “She walks outside of those bureaucratic systems to really imagine the future that students deserve.”
And she does it all with heart, he said. In fact, she ends all of her emails the same way, whether they’re going out to the entire staff, the folks working in the central office, or families in the community.
She writes, “Dr. B loves you,” Cannon said. “She means it, and we know it.”