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NELA celebrates 10 years of preparing principals

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Bonnie Fusarelli remembers the first cohort of N.C. State University’s Educational Leadership Academy (NELA). She had a big jar in her office, and when that cohort graduated in 2012, she put a marble in for each new principal prepared. She told herself that when the jar was full, her work would be done.

Instead, she got a bigger jar.

Fusarelli, the founder and director of NELA, spoke at a reunion of NELA grads celebrating the program’s 10-year anniversary last week. Since its inception, the program has graduated 296 students and won accolades, including being one of only six programs out of hundreds in the country to be called “exemplary” by the University Council for Educational Administration.

According to its website, 90% of the schools that have a NELA graduate as a principal met or exceeded growth in the 2018-19 school year. Overall, only 75% of principals in schools in North Carolina did the same.

Tables courtesy of NELA’s website
Tables courtesy of NELA’s website

The program subsidizes tuition for higher degrees for potential principals, sets them up with internships, and works with districts to make sure its graduates have somewhere to go, all while trying to ensure that districts — especially low-performing ones — get the best school leaders they can.

Standing in a crowded room at N.C. State University last Thursday, Fusarelli told the NELA graduates about their importance to the state.

“When we start thinking about how leaders can make a difference in North Carolina, the folks in this room are the people doing that work,” she said. “The people who have made a difference.” 

Yolanda Wiggins is one of those people. She graduated with the first cohort back in 2012. She now works as the director of professional learning and special programs for Nash County Public Schools.

She initially didn’t even want to lead a school, but her principal told her that she would be good at it. She figured she would give it a shot.

She gave a quote from “Harry Potter” to explain her journey to becoming an administrator. It is from Professor Dumbledore to Potter:

“It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.”

Wiggins said that’s exactly what happened to her.

“I got into it, and I was like, ‘Oh I can do this,'” she said. “So I stayed.”

One of the mantras essential to NELA is the notion of “paying it forward.” Wiggins said she wants to continue to do that, just as others did for her.

10-year anniversary reunion of NELA. Alex Granados/EducationNC

For instance, she was assigned an executive coach back when she was training to become a principal with NELA. All these years later, they still meet.

“Pioneers. Trailblazers. Yeah, that’s important,” Wiggins said. “Looking around this room, to know that we were a part of the start to this, that’s exciting.”

Thomas Loftin is an instructional technology facilitator at Greene County Middle School in Greene County Schools. He said that educators often work in isolation, and seeing all the people in the room and being part of a cohort system helps him to understand the important work NELA is doing in the state.

“It really builds a sense of community, a deeper sense of trust that the work we’re doing here, it’s worthwhile,” he said.

Also in attendance at the reunion was Bill Harrison. He has served as superintendent of multiple state districts and was the chair of the State Board of Education from 2009-2013. He was also instrumental in launching NELA.

Around 2010, then-Gov. Bev Perdue asked Harrison what it would take to make sure every school and student in the state was successful. He said it would take a great leader in every school. NELA was a part of making that happen.

Harrison, who was already familiar with Fusarelli and her work, asked her to seek out a grant for her principal program. A grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation got the program started, though it only came with money to fund it for one year. Education grants from the federal Race to the Top program helped round out the funding.

He told those gathered at the reunion that what the program is and has always been looking for is courageous leaders.

“As a teacher, as a principal, as a superintendent, as chairman of the State Board, I thought it was my moral obligation, my moral responsibility to do everything I possibly could to ensure that every child got what my wife and I wanted for our … children,” he said. “You guys do that.” 

Editor’s Note: A quote in this story by Yolanda Wiggins was clarified.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.