Leslie hoping time at helm of Smart Start is ‘going to greatly impact our future’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 16, 2013

Robert Leslie surrounds himself with books. His home study is crammed full, and there’s a stack of 10 or so titles just waiting, perched precariously on his bedside table.
As Smart Start Rowan’s new executive director, Leslie, 53, will have the opportunity to surround himself with books and learning in the workplace as well. The agency serves children in Rowan County ages birth to 5, and Leslie is busy immersing himself in educating himself about the organization.
Leslie’s first day at Smart Start was June 10, and June 28 will mark the last day for John Gerstenmier, outgoing executive director. In the interim, Gerstenmier and Leslie will work together so that Leslie can get to know the staff and have his questions answered.
“I wanted there to be a smooth transition,” Gerstenmier notes.
The world of education and learning is nothing new to Leslie, who spent the last 15 years of his career in the community college system. Most recently, he was dean of corporate and continuing education at Randolph Community College.
“This position to me is a natural transition,” he says. “We’re working with parents who need to be educated, and with child care professionals who need extra training and education.”
Leslie was born and raised in Rowan County and has lived here all his life. He saw an ad for the executive director position in the Salisbury Post, and jumped at the chance to work in his home county after commuting for years.
“It’s good to be back,” Leslie says. “It’s good to have a 20-minute drive to work.”
Five years ago, Leslie heard a “State of Davie County” presentation while working at Davidson County Community College. A Smart Start representative was presenter.
The presentation was an “a-ha moment” for Leslie. It stuck with him.
“I realized that the children of our county are our future workforce. They are our future citizens and future parents. We all need to be involved in early-childhood education. Our efforts are going to greatly impact our future society. It’s a very cyclical thing.”
One of Leslie’s challenges in his new job is to help break cycles of poverty and help parents improve their own parenting — perhaps they’ve never seen models of good parenting.
Leslie and his wife, Robin, vice president of finance at Pfeiffer University, know firsthand the importance of getting children off to a good start. Their older son, Brett, is a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, while son Kyle, 18, is a 2013 graduate of North Hills Christian School.
Their children attended Kindermusik classes and the Wee Center at First Baptist Church, so Leslie understands the impact of early childhood education.
He’s naturally drawn to Smart Start’s Early Learning Resource Center, which features books and educational materials. Use of the center is a modest $10 per year for parents.
Another challenge Leslie will have is serving a population that’s always changing as children are born into the Smart Start population and age out. That’s OK with him, too. At the community colleges, he says, he often called on business and industry, and coped with frequent changes in management.
“You’ve got to keep your name in front of the public,” he says of his new organization. “It’s all about marketing.”
To that end, Leslie has developed goals for his first 100 days on the job. During that time, he’ll work closely with Gerstenmier, meet one-on-one with the 27-member board, and meet with leaders of partner agencies. He wants to seek out new partnerships. He also wants to visit as many of the county’s child care providers as possible.
That in itself may prove to be a daunting task.
“I have learned that there are 88 child care facilities in Rowan County,” Leslie says. “That number was astounding to me. But that means there is child care out there and available.”
He’ll also have to learn all of the “alphabet soup” acronyms that Smart Start uses, and begin to navigate the funding sources available to the agency. Again, his community college background will serve him well in working with state and federal funding.
“It just goes along with the territory,” he says.
Leslie says his time with community colleges was extremely rewarding. “We helped a lot of people better themselves through excellent training and education, whether they were unemployed or underemployed. I strongly believe in the concept of lifelong learning.”
He believes that adults can learn until the day they die, and he believes the learning process starts at birth.
“It’s so important that children get a great early start,” he says.
Away from work, Leslie enjoys spending time with his family and dipping into two or three non-fiction books at a time. He’s a Civil War buff, dabbles in genealogy, and spends a lot of time walking at the East Rowan Y, a stone’s throw from their home.
His wife is an avid golfer and the whole family enjoys watching college sporting events.
“We do live in a divided household where Brett roots for his UNC Tar Heels and Kyle roots for his Duke Blue Devils,” Leslie says.
He and his sons also enjoy watching NASCAR races.
The Leslies are members of Rockwell United Methodist Church, where he is a certified lay speaker and quite involved in his church.
But most of all, he loves nothing more than cracking open a new, hard-cover book.
“There’s nothing like the smell of a new book,” he says. “You’re the first person to open it.”
One of Leslie’s friends told him that readers have conversations with books through highlighting and writing notes in the margins, and Leslie liked that observation. No doubt he’ll continue to read and learn, and continue to have many conversations with Smart Start parents and child care providers as he settles into another phase of his career.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.