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Raleigh principal juggles running school with her own education

Gretta Dula’s office is festooned with principal-of-the-year certificates, letters from students, notes of tasks to be tackled, and a sign that reads “Do what you love, Love what you do.”

Principal Dula, who says she still has “passion and fire” after 27 years of working in education, lives by that mantra every time she walks into Raleigh’s Ligon Magnet Middle School. 

“I just believe in the sense of family, and supporting and recognizing the faculty and staff and students,” she says. “These kids here are incredible.”

Bright, friendly and enthusiastic, Dula apologized for her raspy voice. She had been up since 5 a.m. getting ready for work. She went to bed at 2 a.m. the night before, taking the time to catch up on emails after one of her teachers said she had not heard back from her yet.

Often Dula will be at the school until 7 p.m. when she heads home to start on her course work; she is working towards her doctorate in education at High Point University.

Ligon, a magnet school known for its outstanding arts and academically gifted programs, has around 1,200 students. Dula has no children, she says, so the students at her school are her kids.

“I just want them to feel like they have someone who will have their backs,” she says.

Ligon as a school

The two words Dula uses to describe Ligon are great and complex.

Located in low-income east-central Raleigh, Ligon hosts students from all over Wake County. Dula says that some students will get on the bus at 5 a.m. to get to Ligon while others live in the impoverished area directly surrounding the school.

Ligon, Dula says, is the type of place where students can come from any background and be successful and receive an incredible education.

“If you’re getting on the bus at 5 o’clock in the morning,” she says, “at the end of your bus ride we want to make sure that there’s something waiting for you that’s special.”

The school, with a student body 42 percent white, 36 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian students, offers many courses that the average middle school does not.

Also, according to Dula, 50 percent of the students at Ligon are academically gifted.

“Ligon has an incredible reputation for strong academics as well as the strongest art program you can imagine,” she says.

Ligon is home to just more than 1,000 students. It offers the basics: math, science, and English, but it offers multiple versions of the same class depending on difficulty — some for remedial learning and some to help students take the high school courses. Ligon offers five language electives: Japanese, Chinese, German, Latin and French.

In the past few years, two of Ligon’s string orchestras have traveled to New York City and performed at Carnegie Hall. Dula says the experience is something the students will be able to cherish for the rest of their lives.

“It was like winning the lottery to come here,” Dula said a parent told her.

Dula praises her teachers. “This is one of the best teachers I have,” she said with a smile. “Kids want to do her work. Kids wants to do the assignments and she never yells.”

Sandra Shipp has been teaching at Ligon for 18 years and believes in tough love.

“I truly believe that every student can learn, and I demand that they do,” she said.

A veteran at a school that mostly employs younger teachers, Shipp knew the school was different when she first walked in to interview and saw students playing the national anthem with violins during an assembly.

“I really do come to work willingly,” she said.


Keeping a balance

While running a school can be one of the most rewarding experiences, Dula says, there are also many challenges that principals have to overcome.

“The biggest challenge for principals,” she says, “would be the balance of it all, and how to do that effectively.”

According to Dula, educators have to find a balance between all of their in-school responsibilities as well as between their school and personal lives. Balancing between strengths and weaknesses is crucial, Dula says.

Dula’s greatest weakness? Paperwork. “Paperwork is just not my thing,” she says, chuckling.

But, she has to do it, along with the many other responsibilities that accompany her job at Ligon.

“Ligon is probably the most challenging principalship because of the many hats that you have to wear here,” she says. “It’s the most challenging and the best opportunity for me that you can ever imagine.”

Despite the challenges she faces with balance, prioritizing and paperwork, Dula says that she cannot describe how much she has grown at Ligon and how much she loves the “rat race” of school.

“I enjoy coming to work;” she says. “I enjoy walking into classrooms, seeing teachers; I enjoy going out at night and recruiting and telling our story.”

A History Founded in Education

Growing up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Dula came from a family who believed strongly in education. Her mother and aunts were teachers, and she attributes her career to the passion for education that they exemplified every day. She credits her mom, an educator in North Carolina, for her passion for teaching.

“My mom was always doing things to make education relevant,” she said. “There were NEA (National Education Association) magazines on the table.”

Dula graduated from North Carolina Central University in 1989 with a degree in middle school education. She has worked for 27 years in North Carolina school systems.

After returning to North Carolina Central University in 1994 to get a master’s degree in educational administration, she became an assistant principal at Oak Grove Elementary.

Oak Grove’s principal at the time, Mike Jordan, gave Dula a foundation that she has carried with her throughout her journey.

“Gretta,” she remembers him saying, “keep the best interests of kids at the forefront of everything you do.”

In 2001, Dula planned and organized Riverside Elementary, the first magnet school in Franklin County, with only a $10,000 budget.

Then, because she says her experience at Riverside was so rewarding, she did it again in 2004 at Creekside Elementary in Durham County — Durham’s first new school in nine years. Dula was named principal of the year in both counties for building the schools.

What’s next for Principal Dula? Not retirement, she says.

The 50-year-old says she has reached a point in her career at which people are starting to talk about retirement, but she just can not see that. While she knows she will eventually leave Ligon, she does not want to think about that any time soon.

Molly Weybright

Molly Weybright is a senior at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying reporting and creative writing. Originally from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, she works as an editorial intern at Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill.

Sarah Vassello
Sarah Vassello is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she majored in multimedia journalism and political science with a minor in gender studies. This summer, she studied social engagement strategy for the USA TODAY Network at Gannett.