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State Superintendent June Atkinson says farewell to office

Thursday was State Superintendent June Atkinson’s final meeting of the State Board of Education.

A Democrat, she lost her bid for a fourth term in November against Republican Mark Johnson.

Atkinson has worked at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) since 1976, and she became the first woman elected to be state superintendent in 2005. She has served in the role ever since.

At Thursday’s board meeting, a proclamation was read honoring the superintendent, and she was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

One of the highest awards given in North Carolina, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine “is awarded to persons for exemplary service to the State of North Carolina and their communities that is above and beyond the call of duty and which has made a significant impact and strengthened North Carolina,” according to the website.

Atkinson also gave a few comments about her time as superintendent and left a message exhorting the state board to stay the course in supporting public education in North Carolina.

“While traveling in a remote area of the North Carolina mountains to visit schools, I was listening to the only available radio station. And it played a song that I’ve never heard since that time, but I found it to be very amusing. And that song was “You Can Find Me in the Yellow pages Listed Under Fools.” So as I reflect on the honor of serving students, educators and parents and citizens of North Carolina as State Superintendent, I thought about where would I be found in the Yellow Pages. And so I’ve decided that you can find me in the Yellow Pages listed under grateful,” she said in her remarks.

She went on to say she was thankful for having been able to travel to all the school districts in the state. She was grateful for the students who have given her “smiles and passion.” She went on to mention some specific students who affected her, including one in Hickory who, despite needing a bath and clean clothes, only wanted a hug from a teacher and the state superintendent.

Atkinson also highlighted some of the successes DPI has had under her tenure.

“Staff members know that I’m going to say, and you have already said it, that our graduation rate has increased from 68 percent to another all time high of 86 percent. And not only has our graduation rate increased, our students are better prepared. The remediation rate of our students entering our universities and colleges has been cut in half. More students are taking advanced placement courses and scoring at levels 3 or higher. Over 140,000 credentials have been earned in Career Technical Education programs, and at least 35 percent of our students graduated with college credit last year.

“We’ve seen the growth of our North Carolina Virtual School. It has grown from a few thousand to being second in the nation. We have a quality digital learning plan, creating a roadmap to needed changes in public education. And during the most difficult economic times, we were able to secure $400 million dollars from Race to the Top that allowed us to move state board and DPI initiatives — and as we all said at one time — faster and further.

“For example, we are one of the few statewide platforms for technology: Home Base. Something that critics said could not be done and certainly could not be done in a two year period. And with the typical bumps of any new system, we implemented its rollout under budget — let me say that again, under budget and on time.

“And as an example of Home Base success. On a typical day, 307,000 parents log into the parent portal, along with another 200,000 parents who log in with a mobile application.

“I’m grateful for the work that has been done to raise standards, and save the taxpayers dollars by DPI doing the work one time for 115 school districts, as compared to 115 school districts doing the work one time.”

Atkinson began to tear up when she started talking about her work with staff in DPI and the members of the State Board of Education.

“My deepest gratitude goes to the people who work here in the department and to you as state board members. My words are really inadequate to describe how much the people in this department have touched my life and given me the energy to care more, do more, and never give up on what’s right for kids.

“I also feel the same way about you as board members and those who have gone before you. We have all depended on each other to take ideas and turn them into reality. People working here are creative, committed, and problem solvers. And I want to thank each person here in the department to know how much I care and appreciate your work.”

She went on to name some specific people in the Department before saying:

“I also thank the people who have worked here with me over a decade. Some 20 years. Some even 25 years. And you know who you are and you know what a privilege it has been to be part of the same journey with you.

“And you as board members have been supportive of our work. Your council and your friendship have helped me grow both professional and personally. And the developers of the North Carolina Constitution had it right and were wise in making your terms eight years, because you are the consistency over time and during times of change.”

Atkinson also included exhortations to the board and DPI to continue with many initiatives instituted during her time in office.

“One aspect of being in public education is there is always more to do. And I see much more work that needs to be done by you for each child. Not just some, but for all children. And so I encourage you to stay the course with the digital learning plan and the whole child focus. I encourage you to address suspension rates of different student groups. I encourage you to push forward with the meeting the need of more adults in our schools to support students who have struggles.

“And I encourage you to push for the same accountability for any entity receiving taxpayer’s dollars as is required for public schools. And I encourage you to stay the course in ensuring that students are expected to meet the same high standards that will prepare them for an unknown new world.

“Please continue to push for higher education salaries and professional development dollars. Continue to elevate the profession and speak up when those unknowingly and knowingly disparage the educational profession. No entity has ever succeeded by slamming its work force. Work against the trend of adding more state laws telling schools what to do, how to do it, and when to do the work. That’s your job as state board members.”

She also told the board to stand up for calendar flexibility for schools and quality preschool education, especially for the “most vulnerable” student populations in the state.

Atkinson told a story of how she was underestimated while she was in college, and she wonders what her old teacher would think of her now.

“When I was a student, a freshman, at Radford in Radford, Virginia, I took psychology, and our psychology teacher wanted to speak to every single person in his class, and I thought that was wonderful.

“When I walked into his class, or into his office, he knew just two things about me. One was that I was in his class. And two that I had graduated from high school from a small, rural, mountain public school.

“And he said to me, ‘You know what? Your chances of graduating from this institution are slim. And you will have difficulty in making good grades.’ So if he were alive today, I wonder if he could have imagined that that little rural girl from Bedford County, Virginia could have been president of not one, not two, but three national education associations, including the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“And I wonder if he were alive today, if he would be surprised, to know that that same rural student has met three presidents of the United States: President Bush, President Clinton, and President Obama.

“And he may even be shocked that this little rural girl had the opportunity to meet in the personal living quarters with First Lady Laura Bush. And I know he would be surprised to know that I had an opportunity to meet with President Obama in the oval office.”

She wrapped up by saying that it was the people of North Carolina who gave her the ability and opportunity to do all these things. And she closed her remarks with this:

“My greatest pleasure has been to serve educators and students in North Carolina. So, as I leave this office, I remain grateful for the opportunities, the experiences, and the people who have been a part of this journey. Board members, continue to carry the torch to make public education the best choice. And for me, you can find me in the Yellow Pages.”

Look for more coverage Wednesday of the State Board meeting from last week.

Alex Granados

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