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Public School Forum of North Carolina: Honoring education leadership and celebrating 30 years

This week, the Public School Forum of North Carolina will celebrate its 30th anniversary and honor three leaders for their contributions to public education in North Carolina at the group’s annual Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award Gala – former North Carolina Governor James G. Martin and former Public School Forum leaders John Dornan and Jo Ann Norris. The awards will be presented Thursday evening, May 19th at the Raleigh Convention Center.

Thinking and doing for 30 years

In addition to honoring these three leaders, the Public School Forum of North Carolina is celebrating its anniversary during the special gala event. Thirty years ago, a group of leading North Carolina educators, business leaders, and elected officials created the Public School Forum of North Carolina with the vision of establishing a “standing blue ribbon commission on education and the economy” that would have as its goal making North Carolina’s public schools second to none.

The original founders envisioned the Forum primarily as a “think tank” that would generate ideas for school improvement and work to build the will to turn those ideas into reality. The Forum has done that and more – it has become the driving force behind innovative policies and programs that impact students, educators, policymakers, schools, and communities across the state.

Thirty years later the Forum’s record of achievement has exceeded the Founders most optimistic hopes. Instead of just a think tank, the Forum evolved into a “think and do tank” that has generated ideas and launched initiatives that have improved education in North Carolina, from creating the NC Teaching Fellows Program in 1986 to launching the Beginning Teacher Network in 2015 and leading the Forum’s 16th biannual Study Group that is focusing on educational opportunity for all North Carolina.

Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award

The Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award was established by the Public School Forum in 2000 to recognize leaders who have demonstrated innovative, creative, effective leadership for public education in North Carolina. This year’s honorees – Governor Jim Martin, John Dornan, and Jo Ann Norris – certainly fit the bill.

The award is named in honor of the late Dr. Jay Robinson, one of our state’s most distinguished education leaders. His career spanned 50 years, beginning as a math teacher and basketball and football coach in Cabarrus County, becoming a school principal and later superintendent of schools in first Cabarrus and then Charlotte-Mecklenburg school systems. He served as vice president for public affairs and special projects for the University of North Carolina system and chaired the State Board of Education. He was also the first president of the Public School Forum.

“Governor Jim Martin is part of a long and proud North Carolina tradition of bipartisan support of public education,” said Forum Chairman Dr. Michael D. Priddy. “As a former professor, Governor Martin understood the critical role of teachers and made support for public schools a central part of his economic agenda.”

James G. “Jim” Martin is North Carolina’s only two-term Republican governor, serving as the state’s chief executive from 1985 to 1993. Before his election to that job in 1984, Martin served 12 years in Congress and six years on the Mecklenburg County Commission. He began his professional career as a professor of chemistry at Davidson College.

As county commissioner, Jim Martin led the Mecklenburg Board in 1967 to reverse past practice and budget for schools first, not last. As governor, Jim Martin pushed for increased spending on public schools and improved teacher salaries. He was also an early advocate of a career ladder for teachers. Governor Martin instituted new total immersion training in foreign languages for teachers and expanded foreign languages into the K-5 public school curriculum. He also launched a new day care initiative, an anti-dropout program targeting additional resources to disadvantaged preschoolers, and a campaign against illiteracy.

John Dornan and Jo Ann Norris led the Public School Forum of North Carolina from its inception, serving together as executive director and associate executive director for nearly 25 years.

“There are very few people in North Carolina who have played as critical a role in shaping and driving a positive public education agenda for our state as John Dornan and Jo Ann Norris,” said Priddy. “Under their leadership, the Public School Forum brought together educators, legislators, and business leaders to tackle the state’s most pressing education issues, whether it was our teacher pipeline or funding inequities in our public schools. Their positive contributions to education in North Carolina will be felt for decades.”

Dornan began his career as an English teacher in Pennsylvania and held various leadership positions with teacher associations in Pennsylvania, California, Washington, DC, Illinois, and New York before arriving in North Carolina. He was the founding executive director of the Public School Forum, a position he held for 25 years until his retirement in 2011. Jo Ann Norris began her professional career as a first grade teacher in Wake County where she taught for more than 20 years. She was honored in 1979 as the North Carolina Teacher of the Year. Prior to joining the Forum in 1986, she was lobbyist for the North Carolina Association of Educators. Norris succeeded Dornan as executive director, a position she held from 2011 until her retirement in 2014.

Under the leadership of John Dornan and Jo Ann Norris, the Public School Forum of North Carolina became the state’s most trusted and respected source for education research, policy analysis, best practices, and high-quality, innovative programs. The Forum developed and led the NC Teaching Fellows Program which produced more than 8,000 teachers that served in all 100 of North Carolina counties. The Forum also played a key role in spotlighting funding inequities across the state’s public school systems that led to the Low Wealth Schools Supplemental Fund and later underpinned much of the landmark Leandro case that is still being litigated today.

Looking ahead

Today, 30 years later, as the economy continues to change and challenges and opportunities evolve with it, so has the Public School Forum. The Forum’s new Beginning Teacher Network will continue to expand from the initial three counties launched in 2015. The Education Policy Fellowship Program will build on the success of last year’s expansion to Western North Carolina. The Forum’s latest study group will evolve into a new Center for Educational Opportunity that will deal head-on with the reality that school-based factors such as teachers, school leaders, and available resources engage in dynamic interplay with challenges that extend beyond the classroom walls and impact student learning. These include racial equity and childhood trauma and how these areas play out in chronically low-performing schools that typically serve the state’s most vulnerable students from areas of high poverty in North Carolina.

One thing has remained constant – the Forum’s unwavering commitment to North Carolina’s public schools and the belief that every child in North Carolina ought to have educational opportunities that prepare them to achieve at the highest levels.

Previous award recipients

Keith Poston

Keith Poston is the president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.