Angela P. Hairston says her first months as superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools have been “fast and furious.”
And based on what district staff and local board of education members are saying, she’s at full throttle.
Hairston was sworn in Sept. 3 to lead the school district. She previously was the superintendent for Richmond County Schools in Augusta, Ga., and has more than 30 years of experience in public education in Virginia and Georgia. She is the first African American and the second woman to head the local school system.
She had an interesting start to her tenure as superintendent. A student at Mount Tabor High School took a gun to school in his backpack the day after she was sworn in to her new job. Then, in mid-October 2019, a Glenn High School student was fatally shot off campus in Winston-Salem. Since that time, two more local high school students have been killed in the city.
Hairston has put out a plea to parents several times to help keep campuses safe, even addressing toy guns on campus. Most recently, after the shooting death of a Parkland High School student, she asked the community to join “and shine a light on youth violence.”
During a recent interview, she spoke of her concern for youth in general, not just locally but nationwide.
“It’s all over that we are experiencing challenges with some of our youth who find themselves in dangerous situations,” Hairston said.
She is currently working on a mentoring program for children, saying there are a lot of mentors throughout the district, but she envisions a districtwide mentoring opportunity for children who need support.
She has also started conversations with community members about how everyone is responsible for all children.
“We can’t turn our heads,” Hairston said. “We can’t say, ‘Well, my children are adults. I don’t have children.’”
She added, “If you are a part of our community, we all must own our children. They are our future. They are going to make sure that we have a thriving community.”
Other issues Hairston has been faced with since taking the helm of the school district include a mandatory African American history course, an equity policy and the aftermath of the resignation of a Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education member.
In late August, school board member Lori Goins Clark resigned abruptly citing “personal and family” reasons. She later said in a Journal interview that she had apologized profusely for a “personal and relational” mistake, which she said some people have misunderstood.
Rumors spread of a racially insensitive text message that Clark, who is white, inadvertently sent to former Interim Superintendent Kenneth Simington, who is black. It turned out that the text message contained a cartoon image of a cartoon character called Mushmouth from the TV show “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.”
On Oct. 8, Marilyn Parker, a former Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education member, was sworn in to replace Clark.
While on her listening tours from mid-September 2019 through late November 2019, Hairston continually heard the word “equity.”
She said that parents with children in non-Title I schools and Title I schools, which are schools with a high percentage of children from low-income families, are all concerned about what they consider as fair and equitable.
“They have the same desires, the same wants for their children,” Hairston said. “I haven’t been to one community where parents didn’t want a great education for their children, regardless of which community I’ve been in. Teachers have all asked for additional resources and support.”
Currently, a proposed equity policy for WS/FCS, which the school board’s Climate, Culture & Equity Special Committee worked on throughout 2019, has been approved by the school board’s Policy Committee and will move on to the full board for approval.
The Climate, Culture & Equity Special Committee was established in December 2018 to address growing concerns over academic and discipline disparities.
For years, several community groups have been demanding that the school board add a mandatory African American history course to the district’s curriculum.
Late last year, the school board voted down the mandatory African American history course. Instead, it unanimously approved an infusion program recommended by Hairston. As part of the 2020-21 high school course program, the African American Studies and Latin American Studies courses are going from half credits to full credits, and American Indian Studies has been added to the program. Every high school in the district will offer the African American studies and Latin American studies courses as an elective.
The board’s decision to not pursue a mandatory African American history course was met with mixed reaction. Some groups got behind Hairston’s recommendations while backers of a mandatory African American history course vowed to continue on in various ways, including campaigning against board members who did not vote for the mandatory course and advocating for community courses around black history.
Based on social media posts following the vote, some people were angry.
Hairston said that diversity and opinion and a good strong education system is the backbone of our democracy.
“We have to value varying opinions,” she said. “It doesn’t mean there’s a wrong way or a right way. It just means, for now, we’re in a space where the infusion project will work for us.”
She said that things could change in the future in terms of a mandatory African American course, but the infusion program seems to be the favorite model at this time.
Hairston spoke of being an African American with a mother who has a Native American heritage and a daughter-in-law who is Latina.
“I certainly appreciate being a role model as an African American female, but I represent all children and what’s best for all children,” she said.
Jumping in early
Prior to her start date, Hairston and her husband Lt. Col. Ronald D. Hairston, the deputy chief of the Danville Police Department, toured the community and drove to every school in the district so that she could understand “the geographic dynamics in the community.”
“Anytime you have geographic variances such as the ones we have, every community has its assets and every community has its challenges, and you need to understand the differences,” Hairston said.
As far as spending time in schools, she has visited 53.
“We have such an engaged community, and everyone is sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to move forward, to support children,” Hairston said.
She said she has met more than 50 business and community members who want to support the schools, engaged in conversations with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education, met with district employees, held principal workshops and community listening sessions.
She laughed about putting a lot of miles on her car, but said she has never gotten lost once.
“There’s something called GPS, which has been extremely helpful,” she said laughing. “GPS has been my friend.”
Organized and focused
Hairston, 56, now lives in Walkertown.
She describes herself as a linear thinker who processes things in a sequential manner, “very organized” and “extremely focused.”
While she was being interviewed, Hairston stood in her office looking across the room at her desk. She had just been asked if she’d gotten her office set up the way she wanted it.
“No, I haven’t,” she said. “If fact, I haven’t had time.”
Although she had papers on her desk, they were all neatly placed. No stacks at all.
“Oh, I’m like crazy organized,” Hairston said laughing. “That’s one of my things. I’m a mathematics major. ... Everything has to have some order to it.”
Weeks later, after the interview, she said that more furniture was on order, that her office was now functional and would probably come together over the summer.
“I’m really focused on the district and less on the office for me,” she said. “I’m more focused on what’s happening with kids.”
Hairston is passionate about children.
“I tell my staff, if you’re having just a rough day — any day — go spend a day in a kindergarten classroom and you’ll refocus because children are precious at all ages,” she said.
Hairston is also a talkative person and loves to laugh.
“My husband and I practice our jokes on each other,” she said.
She grew up in Danville, Va., and began her career in public education as a math teacher in Virginia Beach and Danville.
“Basically, I had great math teachers when I was coming along,” she said of her early career choice.
She has worked as a region superintendent and principal for the DeKalb County School District in Georgia. She has also been a director of human resources, a principal and an assistant principal for the Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, and a principal and assistant principal for the Danville Public Schools in Virginia.
Hairston received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and business management from Averett University, a master’s degree in secondary school administration from Hampton University and a doctorate in educational leadership from Virginia Tech.
She has seven adult children, including two in-laws, within her blended family.
Her entry plan
One of Hairston’s first duties as superintendent was to submit to the school board her entry plan, which she said “is an organized process that enables a superintendent to establish relationships with internal and external stakeholders while gaining a deeper understanding of the district’s strengths and challenges.
“Critical to the process are opportunities to listen to responses to key questions that reflect the history, norms and practices that led to our current status. This is also an opportunity to learn more about expectations that may be used to chart a course forward that not only defines responsibility, but also establishes accountability,” she said in her plan.
Her goals are learning about the history and current direction of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools; developing an instructional plan; assessing organizational effectiveness and efficiency to ensure high performance and support to schools; and developing a standard for benchmarking equity and inclusion across the district.
In December, Brent Campbell, chief marketing and communications officer for WS/FCS, said Hairston is on target with her entry plan.
“She has worked to build relationships within and outside the district,” Campbell said. “She’s hosted a wide variety of community listening sessions, she’s met with all district departments, hosted open conversations with our transportation team and classified employees.”
He said she has tried hard to gain an understanding of the challenges and outstanding characteristics of the school district.
“She’s upheld her promises and is working hard to build trust, improve community relationships, and collaborate in ways that can only benefit the district and the children we serve,” he said.
Hairston said her top priorities include improving literacy rates across the district, providing additional resources for teachers to do their jobs, and better understanding the needs of the district’s classified employees, including understanding current challenges faced by the WS/FCS transportation department and the organizational structure.
A consulting company is working on a classification and compensation salary study focused on classified employees for the school system.
WS/FCS is also revisiting its overall strategic plan.
When that work is completed in early 2020, Hairston said, “We’ll have an understanding about our directions as it relates to goals, objectives and those types of things.”
Hairston plans to tier the district’s schools as underperforming, mid-range and high-performing.
In November, eight schools in the school district were put on notice that they would need to improve their academic performance over the next few years or they could be turned over to an outside group such as a charter school operator.
The schools are Philo-Hill Magnet Academy with a school-performance grade of 25 out of a possible 100, based on last year’s test scores; Kimberley Park Elementary, 32; Ibraham Elementary, 33; Petree Elementary, 33; Ashley Academy, 34; Easton Elementary School, 36; Old Town Elementary, 39; and Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy, 39.
Hairston said she prefers the term “underperforming schools” over “low-performing schools” because she believes these schools “have many resources and can perform at a high level.
“What we’re looking at doing for our underperforming school is a managed system of instruction, which means that we really want to provide a lot of structure for the classroom teachers and the resources that they use,” Hairston said.
This will call for a lot of professional development and looking at the staffing at schools.
“At some of the schools, 80 percent of our staff members have under five years of experience,” Hairston said. “So we want to be sure that we have veteran teachers and we attract veteran teachers to some of those underperforming schools.”
She spoke of Ibraham and Old Town as examples of schools that she believes have the leadership and the capability of teachers necessary to do the right work but need more guidance.
Old Town, she said has caring teachers and a dynamic climate.
“I was just impressed with the nurturing ... but I think their challenge is how to best instruct children — second language learners,” Hairston said. “So our intent is to look critically at the best strategies and work with our coaches to help teachers embrace all students, and how to best teach kids.”
The demographics at Ibraham are a bit different than at Old Town, she said.
“We’ve got to really support them in the work of curriculum,” Hairston said, meaning to provide additional support and guidance on how to best teach the curriculum. “A new principal is there. A very good principal (and) very good teachers, but in our underperforming schools we have to structure their work a little more and provide additional resources.”
The district also plans to look at high-performing schools, as well as the schools with mid-range achievement that have challenges with subgroups.
Hairston said that the mid-range schools have groups of students, “such as second-language learners or African American students that they really are having challenges educating.”
While the high-performing schools will have challenge goals, the mid-level performing schools will focus more on rigor in the classroom and addressing the needs of all students.
Malishai Woodbury, the chairwoman of the WS/FCS school board, said that Hairston has done exceptional work in her short time as superintendent “with all of the things that she has had to come in our district and be bold and brave enough to handle and provide direction.”
“She has tackled every hard issue straight on in a very transparent way and has provided to this board very strong recommendations based on what’s best for the children,” Woodbury said.
Shelia Burnette, principal at Konnoak Elementary School and president of the Forsyth Principals’ Association, said that the association has been meeting once a month with Hairston to discuss “celebrations, questions and suggestions to support the leadership within the district.”
“We found her leadership to be visionary but exacting in that she is driven in the purpose of improving the district and helping us reach our fullest potential,” Burnette said. “She is very aware of all the stakeholders involved in every decision, and she holds everyone accountable to a quality of service that will help us reach our fullest potential.”
Burnette said members of the association have noticed that Hairston is data-driven, holds people accountable and has a high standard of expectations.
“But she’s also personable, builds relationships and collaborates with everyone to get the work done,” she said.
Hairston said she is excited about the potential and opportunities in the school district.
“I really appreciate the community engagement, the energy of the principals and teachers, and actually the employees across the district,” she said.
She credited two things with helping her keep up her fast pace.
“I’m very organized,” she said. “And my staff here, they’re great. I can’t say enough about them. They’re keeping up. They keep me on track.”