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‘Our best days are ahead of us’ — Meet Brent Williams, 2021 NC Superintendent of the Year

A few weeks ago, someone asked Brent Williams, superintendent of Lenoir County Public Schools, a question along these lines: With everything that’s going on, how can we ever fully recover?

At first, Williams started telling him everything the district was doing to serve students during the pandemic. But after a moment, Williams realized the man was actually talking about the future of public education more broadly.

“Really what he’s saying is, maybe our best days in public education are behind us. And I reject that … I truly believe our best days are ahead of us,” said Williams. “And that’s not just a passing notion … I believe, with every fiber of my being, that our best days are ahead of us.”

Williams believes that public education won’t only get to the other side of this pandemic — but that it will be stronger and better for having gone through it because of the relationships that have been strengthened and the trust that has been built along the way.

If you need proof of that, he says to look no further than hallways, classrooms, and cafeterias — or anywhere else you find students.

“The proof of that is on our campuses … it’s on the faces of those smiling, optimistic, wonderful young people and staff members that we are so richly blessed to serve,” he said.

Lenoir County Public Schools

  • District offices: Kinston, North Carolina
  • 17 schools
  • 8,517 students
  • Race/ethnicity of students: 46% Black, 33% white, 15% Hispanic
  • Four-year cohort graduation rate: 85.4%

Last week, representatives from the state Department of Public Instruction paid a visit to Lenoir County Public Schools (LCPS). The trip was part of the department’s efforts to listen and learn about the challenges and opportunities facing educators and students across the state as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

And the timing of the visit fell just days after Williams had been named the 2021 A. Craig Phillips North Carolina Superintendent of the Year.

Williams has spent his entire career in the district he now leads, where he began as an English teacher at North Lenoir High. He later worked as an assistant principal, director of testing and accountability, and principal. Then, in 2015, he became an associate superintendent after serving for three years as executive director of operations. In 2016, he was named superintendent.

A sign outside of Kinston High School, one of three traditional high schools in the district, which also has an early college high school. Analisa Sorrells/EducationNC

Since then, Williams has led the district through drastic turnaround efforts. In the 2014-2015 school year, 10 of the 17 schools in the district were low-performing, which means they received a D or F school performance grade and met or did not meet expected growth. The dropout rate was at an all-time high, and students of color were being suspended at disproportionate rates.

Now, in the latest data from the 2018-19 school year, only five schools in the district are designated low-performing. This year, LCPS recorded its highest four-year cohort graduation rate at 85.4%. And the district cut the number of out-of-school suspensions by more than half over the past five school years.

“Are we where we want to be? No. But have we taken some important steps? Absolutely,” said Williams.

The district’s comprehensive school improvement work launched five years ago after AdvancEd, a K-12 accrediting agency, only provided a conditional accreditation. When they returned a year later to evaluate the district’s progress, it was determined that the district was no longer low-performing. In their final report in April 2017, AdvancEd said, “We have not seen so many of the right things happen in a district so quickly.”

“We had to own what we were not doing well, and we had to own what we are not doing at all. And we had to put our feelings to the side,” said Frances Herring, associate superintendent for LCPS.

First, the district acknowledged that it had to be a school system — not a system of schools. At one time, each school operated as an independent entity with its own budget, programs, and ways of doing things. There was little to no collaboration across the district or among colleagues. According to Herring, that meant there were glaring inconsistencies between each school.

“Depending on the leadership of the schools … some schools had some really great, vetted, research-based resources, and some had none,” she said. “Over the course of this existence for 20 years, we had a huge gap in equitable resources.”

So, under Williams’ leadership, the district decided to build systems and structures that brought consistency across the entire district. The one uniting goal? Success of students academically and emotionally.

Rather than focusing on programs, the district shifted its focus to the standards that needed to be taught.

“Our mantra for the five years has been: Keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing is instruction,” said Herring.

In 2016, during an annual administrative retreat, the district established non-negotiables that are still used today — things like lesson plans, benchmarks, and formative assessments. Every administrator is required to complete at least five classroom walkthroughs a week, and the district reworks its curriculum guides every year.

LCPS district-wide non-negotiables. Courtesy of LCPS

Williams acknowledges there have been hurdles along the way. For one, he said there is often an elephant in the room: “This is the way things have always been done.”

Another hurdle is getting people to think about turnaround as a lifestyle change and culture change — not just a program that someone is endorsing.

“It’s hard. It’s not easy because it involves not just how you think, but how you do business every day,” he said.

Even with all the progress the district has made, Williams remains focused on the future improvements still to come. He acknowledges his optimism about the future but believes optimism alone is not enough.

“It’s not enough to be content with what we’re doing and to say we’re doing the best we can,” said Williams. “We have to commit to putting our hands to this really important work and saying we will make a difference — a measurable, provable difference in the lives of kids.”

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and previously worked as chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.