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Our principals, our incubators of hope

If you don’t know him already, meet Donnell Cannon. I met Mr. Cannon the day before he started his job as principal of North Edgecombe High School.

Edgecombe County is a rural county in eastern North Carolina. It’s about the size of Phoenix. About 52,000 people live there and more than half are black. The school district is the largest employer.

Steeped in history, the county is home to Freedom Hill, which honors Princeville, the first all-black town and independently governed African American community incorporated in the United States.

Mr. Cannon was the youngest principal in North Carolina on the day he started his job. He was 26 years old. He had never been a principal before.

Innovation was on his mind. We were visiting a charter school thinking about best practices. In the parking lot that day, just before we headed home, Mr. Cannon asked me to pray for him.

I knew Mr. Cannon’s leadership would be important just because of the way the students looked at him, and I asked him to serve on EdNC’s Board of Directors.

The story of Mr. Cannon’s leadership is a story of disruption and innovation.

This is North Edgecombe High School. It’s in Leggett, and the folks there will tell you over breakfast at Big Jims or Abrams (which arguably has the very best biscuits in North Carolina) that it’s the “country” high school in Edgecombe County. If all you did was drive by the school, what would you imagine?

A focus on equity and education…

Could you imagine a school where micro-affirmations replace micro-aggressions? A school that honors diversity, where racism is not taboo? A school that inspires hope, becoming a nursery of hope, an incubator of hope? A school that believes in the “zone of genius” in each and every child? EdNC’s Liz Bell produced this video early on in Mr. Cannon’s tenure.

Where students can see themselves in leaders of color…

Mr. Cannon was born to a 16-year-old mom. He says his own experience of growing up in poverty, living in a housing project, and in a single-parent household bridges his story with the story of his students, and allows them to see themselves in him.

With an impact on students…

This shift in mindset to equity is important to students, impacting everything from student choices to student learning to student leadership. Meet Gregory.

Greg told me that the first time he ever heard someone “talk good” about him was when Mr. Cannon was testifying before the Edgecombe County School Board about his out-of-school suspension. Mr. Cannon’s words motivated him to come back to school instead of dropping out. Now Greg is dual-enrolled at Edgecombe Community College, and he plans to work in electrical engineering.

Greg describes himself as “mouthy, mouthy, mouthy, mouthy, mouthy,” and he says he wishes he had trusted Mr. Cannon earlier instead of pushing his help away.

Mr. Cannon’s a different type of principal, says Greg. “I could have been in the streets,” he says. “Mr. Cannon told me what I had, what I could do, what I could be.”

Leading to a vision for a “radically” different school experience…

Seeing the impact of this nursery of hope on students inspired the former superintendent John Farrelly and the now superintendent Dr. Valerie Bridges, affectionately known to all as Dr. B.

The district embarked on a county-wide blue ribbon commission on educational equity and began to work with Transcend Education, “a national nonprofit dedicated to accelerating innovation in the design of school.”

A cohort of Teach For America alums — including Erin Swanson, director of innovation for the district; Mr. Cannon; Jenny O’Meara, principal of Phillips Middle School; and Hillary Braden and Sayre Man, classroom teachers — began to imagine together a School of Innovation. They conducted hundreds of interviews with students and people in the community asking about their hopes and dreams.

Launched as a “micro school,” the School of Innovation started by serving 30 students including a mix of eighth graders from Phillips Middle School and ninth graders from North Edgecombe High School. From meta-moments to “roses in concrete” identity work to passion projects, every facet of this radically different school was designed to foster self-actualization.

This year, every eighth, ninth, and 10th grader in the Northside feeder pattern — hear them screaming “Northside, Strongside!” — has practices from the School of Innovation incorporated into their school days. In all of the School of Innovation classrooms, students experience social-emotional support from the moment they show up. In the morning, students reflect on their goals and affirm the successes of others in the space. Every day, they work on interdisciplinary projects in design labs and standards labs. This school teaches students how to become the architect of their own identities, taking charge of their agency in the world.

Which requires runway…

We have learned that schools need runway for innovation to take hold, and so in November 2019, Mr. Cannon addressed the State Board of Education asking for just that — the runway to innovate in a really big way.

I have traveled all over North Carolina, the United States, and the world looking at best practices in education, and I don’t see leaders or practices more innovative, more hopeful, or more ready to scale than I see in Edgecombe County.

And a posse…

Running towards the risk of doing school differently requires a posse.

The day Mr. Cannon addressed the State Board of Education was the first time he had presented without Jenny O’Meara, the principal of Phillips Middle School, by his side. Mr. Cannon and Ms. O’Meara remind me of the superhero Wonder Twins.

If you follow EdNC, you’ve met Ms. O’Meara before… and Miracle.

Dr. Bridges, Mr. Cannon, Ms. O’Meara, and the cohort of TFA alums I mentioned above are innovating the future of education each and every day right here in North Carolina in Edgecombe County.

These school leaders are incubating hope not just for their own students, but for many across North Carolina who see that this can happen in any classroom in any school in any community without waiting for permission.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.