Until last week, Colin Tribby had been busy preparing for his second year as an assistant principal at Reynolds High School.

Then, he got the call.

Exactly one week before students were set to return to class in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, Tribby started as the new principal at Easton Elementary School — a job he has been training to perform for the last four years.

And just in time for the start of school Monday.

“I’ve been working now for three years as an assistant principal under some very good instructional leaders,” he said.

The short notice of it, though, was something of a surprise — one he is getting through with “a lot of coffee and a lot of prayer.” He is also lucky to have the resource of a veteran principal at home. His wife, Celena Tribby, is the principal at Hall-Woodward Elementary School.

“I’ll definitely be leaning on her,” he said. “We steal each other’s ideas all the time.”

Moving pieces

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools administrators have been busy shifting positions and filling holes all summer long.

As one position opens, a principal or assistant principal from another school is selected to fill it — setting off a sometimes months-long game of personnel dominoes.

Eighteen schools are getting new principals this year. Another is expecting a new principal in the near future. Sean Gaillard, the principal at Kennedy High School, will be leaving as soon as a replacement is hired. While that’s nearly a quarter of its schools, the amount isn’t particularly unusual. There were 14 new principals at the start of last school year and another seven that had started within the previous semester.

“As we work through these transitions, we see areas we can improve,” Superintendent Beverly Emory said. “The process we put in place has really helped us develop our own internal candidate pool.”

The school system has been working to handle the issue of school-leadership turnover in various ways for years. Many current principals were trained through a partnership with N.C. A&T State University. Tribby received his post-master’s certificate in school administration through a regional program called the Piedmont Triad Leadership Academy and its partnership with UNC Greensboro.

The school system has created a leadership academy, designed to help identify and train its next generation of leaders. While having a ready pipeline of trained staff is half the battle, it doesn’t do much to deal with the instability that can be caused by frequent shifts in leadership.

It often works like this:

Principal Frank Martin announced his retirement from Reagan High School at the end of the year. In June it was announced that Brad Royal, the principal at Jefferson Middle School, would replace him.

“I started my career in high school,” Royal said.

The move makes sense. Many Jefferson students feed into Reagan, and Royal was eager to return to the high school level, where he started his career as a teacher and coach.

Now, Jefferson needs a new principal. Enter Pam Helms, the former principal of Kernersville Middle School. The school system said in August that Helms would move to Jefferson and Lisa Duggins, after just one year at Hanes Magnet Middle School, would take the Kernersville job.

That leaves Hanes looking for its third principal in as many years. That will be Robin Willard, who was, until two weeks ago, an assistant principal at Atkins High School.

“Fortunately, the administrative team has been wonderful,” Willard said. “They had everything ready to go. I’ve been able to step in and work with them as a team and go.”

Much like Tribby, Willard was hired with very little time to get ready for the coming school year. But more than 30 years in education have prepared her, she said.

“From the moment I started teaching, I knew I wanted to get into administration some day,” she said. “But I needed to find my niche.”

Good fit

She found it in gifted education, teaching gifted students in Texas, Washington, Ohio, Illinois and North Carolina. She set her gifted work aside when she took her first assistant principal job at Carver High School, after completing the school system’s program with N.C. A&T, working with the school’s residential population. She then moved to Atkins, learning the ropes of a magnet program focused on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

Combined, those experiences seem to make Willard the perfect fit for Hanes, with its blend of residential students, STEM magnet students and as the home of the middle school program for highly academically gifted students. Willard said her first order of business will be establishing a visibility in the school and getting to know the staff members, families and students.

The process of interviewing for and filling all of those jobs can be a long and arduous one, Emory said, but she hopes that by taking the time to find the right fit for a school it will slow the churn in future years.

“With so many new leaders in the last two years, the hope is that this will slow down,” she said. “Now we want to work with those folks, help them see successful outcomes and not spend as much time in the summer replacing (principals).”

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aherron@wsjournal.com (336) 727-4068

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