Q&A: Grissom retires as Rowan-Salisbury superintendent

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 29, 2013

SALISBURY — Dr. Judy Grissom thought she might be superintendent for about four years — long enough to start turning the Rowan-Salisbury School System around.
Then came “one more project, and one more project,” she said, and she wound up staying nearly twice as long as she expected. To many who worked with her, that’s still not enough.
Grissom first came to the Rowan County School System as a teacher of gifted students. She then became a staff development director, a fifth-grade supervisor and assistant superintendent for curriculum development.
Even when she took jobs with school systems in other counties, she never moved from Rowan County, where she was born and went to school herself.
When former superintendent Dr. Don Martin left Rowan-Salisbury to lead the Winston-Salem/Forsyth School System, she followed in 1995 to become a high school principal there.
“He encouraged me to take the position because he felt like it was really important for central office people to have a background in being a principal, and the one position in all my career that I never occupied was the principal position,” Grissom said. “I really think out of all the different positions I’ve had in education, that was the best learning experience of any of them.”
In late 2005, when she was working in the Alamance-Burlington School System as an assistant superintendent, several Rowan-Salisbury board members called Grissom to tell her they were looking for a new superintendent. She agreed to replace resigning superintendent Dr. Wiley Doby, and on July 1, 2006, she officially started the job.
Grissom recently sat down to answer some questions.
What goals did you have for the school system? Do you think they were met?
To become a school system instead of a system of schools, to integrate technology into the classroom, to find more funding and to improve student achievement.
“I think in seven and a half years, the school district has accomplished a lot. It hasn’t just been me — it has been many of us working together. I think we’ve had many innovative ideas that set the school system apart.”
“One of the things I wanted to see happen when I came here is for us to be respected and recognized by other school districts, and I think we certainly are now — definitely with technology. … I brought in over $20 million (in grants) in the last six years to be able to do a lot of the things we’ve done. That, as well as partnerships with the Robertson Foundation and other foundations, has certainly helped our technology efforts.”
“I think another big focus was on communication and helping people understand what’s going on with the school district, both internally and externally. … We’ve worked very hard on our communication efforts, and I think that has been a big accomplishment our district has made over the last few years.”
“The graduation rate has certainly improved, the dropout rate has certainly decreased, and I’m very proud of that. We have had the revamping of the alternative school, the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), the STEM bus and the wireless bus.”
Are there any unmet goals that you hope will be reached in the future?
“I would still like to see our student achievement be better. We continue to struggle with reading and with literacy. If you look … at how students at risk have increased, and that free and reduced lunch has increased to almost 60 or 70 percent, to attain the level we have for student achievement is quite an accomplishment. … My concern is for the students who are older, who have not had good foundations in reading and continue to struggle. …
“Of course, I was also very much hoping to have a central office — not for me. There was no way I was ever going to spend one day in it, because I knew I was going to retire before it was ever built. … But I think our staff, who work very hard, deserve a safe, nice place to go to work every day. We never asked for a ‘Taj Mahal,’ even though some people called it that. We just need a nice, safe working environment. And it does make it more difficult to have as many offices as we do. People spend a lot of time and money going from place to place to place.”
Do you have any favorite memories from your time as superintendent?
“I would say probably my favorite memories are from the high school advisory groups and working with high school students. I have really enjoyed that. It gave me the chance to get to know the students and their perception of what is happening in the schools, which is usually right on target. …
“Probably another one of my favorite memories was the day I first saw the STEM bus (in September 2012). We had worked so hard on designing and getting the bus here. To see that white, van-looking bus turn into what it looked like, when I drove up and saw it, I was absolutely amazed.”
Why has technology been such a big focus for you?
“Technology is the way of the future. That is every day for our students. … It is their world. We can’t expect students today to come into our world, sit all day long and listen to a lecture. They are wired. We have to meet their needs, even though it may not be comfortable for some of the adults — or at least adults who have been around as long as I have. …
“I don’t know that there’s many professions or occupations now that don’t have some type of technology. It is a requirement, and we have to prepare them for that.”
What was the hardest part of your job as superintendent?
“The hardest thing over the past six years has been the changing budget — just having to find ways to cut over 20-some million dollars from our state budget and still maintain the integrity of the classroom. …
“What worries me with that, if it continues, is that I think the next biggest challenge will be recruiting and retaining quality teachers. I think teachers will leave the profession if there isn’t more respect and financial support.”
Why did you decide that now is the time to retire?
“I’ve been talking to the board for over a year now about the fact that I’d like to retire. You can only go for so long, and 44 years is a long time. My grandchildren are getting older and older, and I’m missing so much of it. I want to be able to enjoy their childhood before they get to the point where they don’t want their grandmother around all the time.”
What plans do you have for retirement?
“People keep asking me that, and I feel guilty that I don’t have specific plans. (laughs) … I want to spend time with my grandchildren — that’s my big thing. I want to sleep late. I want to be able to go to the YMCA and walk. I do plan to stay involved in the community. I’m still on the Crosby Scholars board, and I would like to continue to help with that project. I’ll still go to Rotary, Civitan, and some other things. …
“I’ve talked to principals about doing volunteering, helping children read and reading to them. I would love to volunteer on the (STEM) bus and just be an assistant.”
What will you miss the most when you leave?
“I think what I will miss the most are the people. I think what has been very rewarding is the relationships that have been formed during that time — relationships with people in the community, relationships in schools and relationships with students, even. … There are so many great people in this community, and I feel like I have been blessed to get the opportunity to get to know many of them. … That’s what I will miss the most and what makes it hardest to leave.”
Of all the roles you’ve held in education, which was your favorite?
“I’ve always enjoyed the positions I’ve been in, but probably the one that stands out in my mind is working with gifted children. Being in the classroom, with the imagination and creativity that the students had, and trying to challenge them and help them grow and be successful — I enjoyed those times. They’re very rewarding.”
Have you gotten the chance to meet and talk with Dr. Lynn Moody, the incoming superintendent? What are your impressions of her, and how are you feeling about the school system’s future?
“It’s been so busy. We only met once, and we’ve had a couple of phone calls. I think she’s excited. She apparently has a great background in working with partnerships. She seems highly qualified, and I hear good things about her from the community. She has an interest in technology, and I think that’s a good match for moving the system forward. It’s an exciting time for someone to come in now and take the school district to the next level, and I believe she is very capable of doing that.
“I am just passionately invested in this system. I’ve said a number of times that it’s almost been like my baby. I’ve carried it now for seven years, birthed it and nurtured it. Now I have to let it go and let someone else watch it through the adolescent years. I’m entrusting it in her care, knowing it will be taken care of. It’s hard to let go.”