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Meet 2021’s state principal of the year, Broughton High’s Elena Ashburn

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Elena Ashburn, principal of Broughton High School in Raleigh, is 2021’s Wells Fargo State Principal of the Year. Ashburn, accepting the award in Cary on Friday, reflected on school leadership during the stress and disruption of a pandemic.

“The past year has been a challenging one for all of us as educators,” Ashburn said. “We’ve experienced frequent changes, isolation, unknowns, and often the difficulties of simultaneously balancing our own fears and the fears of the people that we serve.”

Ashburn, a Teach for America alumna who has led Broughton since 2017, thanked her students, staff, and parents for their dedication and flexibility.

“This award, at the end of this year, really symbolizes the resiliency — not just of myself but the school community and every principal that’s worked so hard to adapt,” she said.

In her first two months at Broughton, Ashburn met with every staff member and every English class, according to a news release from the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI). She asked them: “What is great about Broughton? What can we do better?”

The school’s annual teacher turnover has decreased sharply during her leadership, to 6% — the result, she said, of a yearlong strategic planning process.

“It was really building the capacity of the team as a whole and making sure we were all focused on one vision together,” Ashburn said. She said statewide educator recruitment and retention will be a focus of hers for the next year.

“The quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers,” she said. “I look forward to that opportunity to make sure that in North Carolina as a whole, we are recruiting and retaining the very best talent for our kids.”

The high school’s graduation rate has reached an all-time high at 89% under Ashburn’s leadership, according to DPI. Its ninth grade retention rate has dropped by half, and student performance has improved in English and biology. Ashburn said she would like to see education change as it learns from the past year, from ensuring all children have internet access to fostering innovation.

“We are truly at a pivotal time in public education right now,” Ashburn said. “We have seen that we are more malleable and more adaptable and innovative than we ever could have anticipated, and we need to leverage that malleable spirit, that innovative spirit, to push forward and ensure that every kid, regardless of any external factor, receives an excellent education each and every day.”

Ashburn started her teaching career in 2007 at Southern Durham High School through Teach for America. Three years later, she earned a master’s degree in school administration from UNC-Chapel Hill. She has served as the assistant principal of Fuquay-Varina Middle School and principal of East Garner Magnet Middle School. In 2018, she earned a doctorate in educational leadership from UNC-Chapel Hill, the DPI release said.

As part of her role as principal of the year, Ashburn will serve as an advisor on the State Board of Education and on the board of directors for the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

Catherine Truitt, state superintendent of public instruction, thanked the regional finalists Friday for their roles in supporting both adults and children in their buildings. Of Ashburn, Truitt said in a statement:

“Elena exemplifies the best qualities of a strong and effective principal. She empowers teachers and staff and creates opportunities for them to grow and learn. She has enlisted the entire school community in defining a clear mission and purpose and been collaborative and intentional since day one. She embodies the level of support and guidance our educators, and students, deserve.”

The regional finalists were:

  • Northeast: Michelle White, principal of Chowan Middle School in Edenton-Chowan Schools.
  • Southeast: Christopher Barnes, principal of White Oak High School in Onslow County Schools.
  • Sandhills: Suzanne Owen, principal of Cliffdale Elementary School in Cumberland County Schools.
  • Piedmont-Triad: Erik Naglee, principal of Page High School in Guilford County Schools.
  • Southwest: Ericia Turner, principal of Rocky River High School in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
  • Northwest: Jill Ward, principal of Old Fort Elementary School in McDowell County Schools.
  • Western: Kevin Bradley, principal of CHASE High School in Rutherford County Schools.

Ashburn ended her acceptance speech with the final lines of Amanda Gorman’s poem delivered at President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, “The Hill We Climb.”

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.