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Tabari Wallace, Craven County principal, becomes 2018 State Principal of the Year

Before Tabari Wallace’s name was called on Friday in a room full of Regional Principals of the Year and their supportive family and colleagues, he broke down crying. 

“When they got to the middle of the presentation is when I realized that it was me, and I just lost it,” Wallace said after accepting his title as the 2018 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year Friday at a luncheon in Cary. “I mean, it was emotional. And I’m not one to get too emotional like that, but I just lost it.”

Wallace, principal of West Craven High School and Southeast Region Principal of the Year, was selected from seven other regional finalists. In his acceptance speech, which he dedicated to his father who passed away, Wallace said he plans to focus on bringing effective leadership strategies from corners of the state into a comprehensive approach. He said he aims to expand the digital convergence model he has been developing in Craven County, which combines instructional models and professional development strategies.

“It’s taking what we’re already doing, ladies and gentlemen, and bringing it together under one umbrella,” Wallace said. “We’ve got greatness across the state. But the best aspect of this approach is the heavy emphasis on professional development. Teachers understand theory but they live through practice and application of the theory being proposed. We all appreciate you telling us how to do it but we actually need you to show us how you do it.”

Wallace, who will serve as an advisor to the State Board of Education in his role, said he wants to work with the other finalists to use data and the funds already available to make positive change.

“There are no winners and losers gathered here today,” he said. “It’s a cohort that will work together to unite all great instructional and operational strategies that exist in isolation across this state. My plan is to effect change in North Carolina. No longer will we use the data to predict a child’s success but we will use the data to shape success, because we know all success is earned in many different forms. This cohort will … not use the excuse of funding for the lag in growth but we will become extremely efficient with what has already been fiscally allotted. We will make do because that’s how we got here today.”

Unity was also central in Wallace’s message. 

“Gone are the days of each of us operating in individual silos, hiding what works for kids,” he said. “When we are judged as a state, that percentage listed or shown on TV is a label for all of us in North Carolina. We are judged nationally as one state, with one State Board of Education, one Department of Public Instruction, one state legislature, one governor, one state superintendent, one educated body, and when we come together as one solid entity, we can’t be broken. We can’t be stopped.” 

Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson thanked all finalists for their daily commitment to students.

“It is no understatement that the results that are driven at your schools are directly tied to your leadership,” Johnson said. “When there is good school culture at a school, it is because of the principal working with the staff. When there are results at a school, it is because of the principal working with the staff.”

Before presenting the award to Wallace, Joanna Leclair, regional senior vice president of Wells Fargo, described his career accomplishments: using student data to personalize learning, including community in education, and raising student achievement in high-poverty schools. During his time as principal of H.J. MacDonald Middle School, the school exceeded the state’s growth standards while the student population receiving free-and-reduced lunch went from 19 to 64 percent.

“During this person’s career, his LEA has moved him six times to different schools, each time asking … him to do what appeared to be in the impossible,” Leclair said. “Each move motivated him to work harder because, like his students, he was once told that he was two small, too short, not smart, and would not make it. We hope today that his students are inspired by the fact that their principal, Mr. Tabari Wallace … principal of West Craven High School in Craven County, is the 2018 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year.”

Wallace attributed his success to his parents’ persistent encouragement throughout his childhood in New Bern. After Wallace and his wife had their first child as teenagers, he said his mother insisted that the three of them graduate college, no matter what. Wallace was an undergraduate student and football player at East Carolina University, graduating with a degree in rehabilitation services.

Wallace played professional football before starting his career in education as a math teacher at his alma mater, New Bern High School. He has since received masters degrees from ECU in school administration, school counseling, and rehabilitation services and is currently working on his doctorate in education.

“I am the example of what can be accomplished with the right foundation of hard work and a support system which refuses to allow excuses or the tendency to blame others or to blame someone else for where you are in life,” he said.

Wallace said he does not know whether or not he will attend the May 16 protest at the General Assembly that thousands of teachers plan to attend to advocate for more per-pupil funding, higher educator salaries, and better infrastructure. For today, he is thankful.

“I’m extremely humbled by what just happened,” he said. “It is extremely unexpected. My co-finalists, that knowledge that they possess and during the interview process I was able to talk to them, so I knew the filed was stacked, so I really did not… This is totally unexpected. God has truly blessed me today.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.