By Sarah Campbell
CHINA GROVE — “She believed she could so she did.”
Those words hang on a wall across from Carson High School Principal’s Kelly Withers’ desk, acting as a reminder that anything is possible.
Assistant Principal Catherine Hinson painted the quote onto a canvas after Withers was promoted from assistant principal to the top spot in July 2010.
“She saw the process from beginning to end and that’s what she captured out of it,” Withers said.
Withers applied to take over as principal when Henry Kluttz announced his second retirement in his 33 years as an educator. She had been an assistant principal at the school since it opened in 2006. Before that, she was a science teacher at West Rowan High. And even before that, she worked in medical technology at Rowan Regional Medical Center.
“She was the very first person I asked to come on board and work with me at Carson,” Kluttz said. “The best thing I ever did in public education was hire her.”
Kluttz, who hired Withers as a biology teacher during his 18-year tenure at West, said he watched her work her way up through the ranks.
“She came in as a lateral entry teacher and took it upon herself to learn as much as she could by asking questions and getting the education she needed,” he said.
That go-getter attitude made Withers a standout in Kluttz’s mind.
“Maybe it’s an intuitive thing, but I knew she was the kind of person who was going to do well.”
It didn’t take long for Withers to begin taking on leadership roles within the school, training and assisting beginning and lateral entry teachers . That’s when she was hooked.
“I not only enjoyed teaching kids, I enjoyed working with adults as well and being able to pass on ideas and philosophies that would impact even more students.”
After Withers earned her master’s degree from Garner-Webb University, Kluttz began grooming her for a role in school administration.
“I personally put her in the forefront of every initiative,” he said. “Not only did I let her do them, I asked her to do them. I pushed her to do them to get experience and grow.
“Rather than breaking under the pressure, she excelled.”
Kluttz said Withers’ unyielding work ethic, positive attitude and desire to be the best combine to make her a dynamic leader.
“She doesn’t mind putting in the extra effort to make something good,” he said. “She doesn’t mind accepting constructive criticism, getting advice or asking for help, and people are very receptive to that.”
And Kluttz isn’t the only one who has noticed Withers’ leadership abilities. She was named Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ Principal of the Year, an honor given to her by fellow principals.
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Withers said she was shocked to learn she was awarded the title just one year after taking over at Carson.
“I knew I had been nominated, but I didn’t tell any of my family because I didn’t expect to win,” she said.
But Withers is the only person who seems surprised.
Stacey Barnhardt, the school’s front office secretary, said she’s seen firsthand how Withers reaches out to each student.
“She’s very personable and approachable,” she said. “Her door is always open.”
Teacher Amie Williams said Withers is very deserving of the award.
“She definitely embodies the ‘students first’ mission statement that we have. She believes in building relationships with the kids and wants everyone to be successful, that’s what makes her a powerful leader.”
Senior Logan Ritchie said she got chills when she found out Withers was Principal of the Year.
“It’s an honor to be at a school that has such a wonderful principal,” she said.
Ritchie said Withers goes out of her way to connect with each student personally.
“We’re not just a number to her, she actually knows our names,” she said.
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When Withers took over as principal, she made her priorities clear. She wanted to live the school’s motto “students first” and increase the graduation rate, goals she said go hand in hand.
By putting students in the forefront of everything she does, Withers said she’s mindful of what will keep them in school.
“I encourage kids all the time to try to find something at the school that they enjoy, whether it be masonry, theater, sports or service clubs,” she said. “If they can find an identity, that is key.”
Withers said as someone who was heavily involved in activities while in high school she knows the importance of making that connection.
“I always think, ‘What will motivate them? What will keep them here?’ ” she said.
Another step Withers has taken to ensure students receive their diploma is removing barriers.
Carson joined West Rowan in launching the district’s first night school to give those students who needed to work or provide child care during the day a chance earn credits after hours. Carson graduated nine students from the program in June.
“Those students were pretty disengaged in school. They were not invested either in attendance or grades and did not think that goal was possible for them,” she said.
Withers said the school has also taken a very proactive role in monitoring student attendance and progress.
“I let them know that we’re not going to leave them alone,” she said. “I tell them, ‘This is our priority. You are our priority.’ ”
Withers credits intervention specialist Brooke Misenheimer and the school’s teachers with catching students before it’s too late.
“The big key is the staff really pays attention to the details of the kids,” she said.
Carson’s graduation rate jumped 10 points to nearly 87 percent in 2011, but Withers said she won’t rest until it’s at 100 percent, even if that never happens. She said one of the biggest battles she’s fighting is trying to reach out to students who want to quit school to get jobs and support their families.
“I really, really want to work with students to help them understand the long-term decision versus the short-term fix,” she said. “I truly believe that a high school diploma opens all the doors for the future.”
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Withers said being a mother of three has molded how she approaches students and their parents.
“My teaching career changed tremendously when I had my own children,” she said. “For me, I constantly reference what if this were Carson, Cailynn and Campbell,” she said. “I think, ‘How would I want it handled?’ And it absolutely focuses every decision I make.”
That’s another reason Withers said it’s so important for her to establish a bond with the students.
“I try to learn their name, call them by their names and find out what they’re interested in,” she said.
It’s not uncommon for Withers to show up at events like Boy Scout recognitions and plays to show her support for students.
“That is a huge relationship builder,” she said. “I want them to know that I’m investing in them as a person.”
Dontae’ Gilbert said he’s run into Withers several times while out and about in China Grove.
“She’s always asking me about my classes and making sure I get my work done,” he aid. “She’s just very nice and friendly.”
Kluttz said Withers will go out of her way to stand up for and support students, but if they do something wrong they have to pay the price.
“When they walk in that door every day, they are all her kids,” he said. “But she knows how to keep her distance and discipline fairly.”
Williams said Withers doesn’t just seek rapport with students, the same thing goes for teachers.
“She believes in building relationships to ensure everyone can be successful,” she said.
And Withers pushes teachers to go beyond their comfort zones.
“She never wants us to just settle,” Williams said. “She always want us to be better.”
That’s a trait passed down from Withers’ father, Lonnie Weaver.
“My dad always taught me that if you choose to do something, you should do it with everything that you have,” she said. “That’s the way he was as a father and the way he was as a worker.”
The Kelly Withers file
• Worked in medical technology for Rowan Regional Medical Center for three years before becoming a science teacher at West Rowan High School
• Husband, Lee, is a China Grove alderman
• Her 8-year-old son, Carson, thinks the 6-year-old high school was named after him
• She has 4-year-old twin daughters, Cailynn and Campbell
• Received her bachelor's degree in clinical laboratory science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master's degree in school administration from Gardner-Webb University.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.