The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools selected its first female superintendent Tuesday by unanimous vote.

Beverly Emory, 56, will be the sixth superintendent to lead the state’s fifth-largest school district, which was created when city and county school systems merged in the 1963-64 school year. Emory, a North Carolina native, comes to Forsyth County from the Pitt County Schools, where she has served since 2006.

Emory signed a four-year contract and will have a salary of $190,000 a year. Her first day will be July 1.

Emory’s 18 years of superintendent experience and 30 years in education helped put her in front of the 33 other candidates who applied for the post, said Jane Goins, chairwoman of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education.

Emory said her top priorities will be closing the achievement gap and putting greater emphasis on students in grades K-2 to get more kids on grade level by third grade. But first, Emory said she will get to work learning the system and the programs already in place. She said she hasn’t come in with a set agenda or package of initiatives to implement.

A former teacher and principal, Emory comes with a breadth and depth of knowledge that set her apart, Goins said. Emory’s current school system, the state’s 10th largest, is similar to Forsyth County in its diverse student body and its struggles with an achievement gap. The board commended Emory for the progress Pitt County Schools have made under her leadership.

“She has a proven track record,” Goins said.

Since 2007, Pitt County’s performance on end-of-grade reading test has risen more than 15 points and math scores have risen more than 10 points. Both are still below the state average, though, as is the county’s graduation rate of 73 percent for 2012. The state average is 80 percent.

Emory said she is committed to achievement for students at all levels.

“We have to serve the needs of all learners, from the most challenged to those who need the most challenge,” she said.

Emory said one way she plans to help to close the achievement gap is building on existing collaborations and community partnerships. Emory said she was impressed with the relationships the school system has built in the community. That was something that attracted her to the district, she said.

“It speaks volumes,” she said.

She started meeting with some of those community partners Tuesday at a luncheon event, and at least one stakeholder likes what Emory had to say about being committed to student achievement.

“She shares a goal with the Community Education Collaborative already and she’s only been here one day,” said Cindy Gordineer, president and CEO of the United Way of Forsyth County, speaking at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

Some community members have questioned the private nature of the selection process, which was recommended by the N.C. State School Boards Association. The board hired the association to consult on the process. Allison Schafer, the organization’s chief legal counsel, said privacy would ensure the board received the most robust collection of applications and the most qualified candidates.

Emory said she would have been more hesitant to apply had the names of the candidates been made public. Had she not been selected, applying for the job might have affected her ability to lead the Pitt County system, she said.

“It would have been hard to take that risk,” she said.

One concern was that the school board would not interview a diverse group of candidates.

The board cut the field of 34 candidates – from 14 states and one U.S. territory – to 12 semifinalists and five finalists. While the board chose to keep the application and interview process private, Goins said the semifinalists and finalists were racially diverse and included men and women. The 12 semifinalists consisted of four women and eight men; four of the candidates were African American and eight were white.

“We were looking for the person who would be the best fit for our system,” Goins said. “We had a good mix.”

Current Superintendent Don Martin announced earlier this school year that he will retire June 30, after leading the system for 19 years. He plans to take a teaching position at High Point University. Martin will work with Emory over the next several months to ease the transition.

It will be a busy time for Emory, who said she plans to visit each of the district’s 80 schools before her first day on the on the job. She will start today with a tour of six schools before a community forum. The forum will be held at the Education Building, 4801 Bethania Station Road, from 7-8 p.m. It is open to the public and will be broadcast on Cable Channel 2.

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