Back to School 2016: RSS welcomes seven new principals

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 12, 2016

Rowan-Salisbury Schools welcomes seven new principals this year, and one principal transfer. Some of the new administrators come from all over, while others are returning home. Either way, they’re all excited to start the year.

Brenda Sokolowski — Mount Ulla Elementary

Mount Ulla Elementary hit a rough patch in April after a scenario proposed to the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education suggested the school’s closure. The school’s new principal, Brenda Sokolowski, said she wanted parents to know that she is dedicated to Mount Ulla.

“We’re going to do everything that’s right by children,” she said.

Sokolowski is a Rowan County native, born and raised in the western part of the county. She earned her high school diploma from West Rowan High, and her undergraduate degree from University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Shortly after, she applied for a job at Knollwood Elementary, and there she stayed, working as a teacher and then an assistant principal — until this year. Taking the reins from Jennifer Warden, who will be the new principal at Rockwell Elementary, Sokolowski said she wants to build on the good work already done at the school.

Mount Ulla Elementary currently has the highest math scores in the district. Sokolowski credits the school’s high performance to some of the programs begun by Warden, such as morning problem-solving sessions, which she plans to continue.

So far, Sokolowski said her transition has been seamless, and she’s looking forward to working with the school.

“I think the staff, the community, the parents make it special,” she said.

Sokolowski said that waiting 20 years to become an administrator has given her a unique view of being a principal.

“I look at things through the lens of a teacher,” she said.

For Sokolowski, Mount Ulla felt like the perfect fit.

“I’m a firm believer that a school needs to be a right fit for a person, or a person needs to be a right fit for a school,” she said.

Sokolowski lives with her husband, Doug, and children John, Ty and Brynn.

Jordan Baker — Millbridge Elementary

Indiana native Jordan Baker came to North Carolina right out of college.

“The rest is history,” he said.

At the time, Baker was recruited by Kannapolis City Schools. He worked as a technology educator at A.L. Brown High School for eight years before hopping the county line in 2012 to serve as an assistant principal at East Rowan High School. Baker said he was in the middle of his master’s program, a UNC-Charlotte cohort working out of Carson High School, when he began working at East.

But now, Baker, with his high school background, is taking on Millbridge Elementary. The building isn’t full of students yet, so Baker said he still can’t say quite what he thinks of the change, but he’s excited.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said.

His goal as the new principal of Millbridge is to create a safe environment for students where they’re best able to learn.

“I’ve really got to make learning a great experience for these kids,” he said.

His goal is to help instill a love of learning in Millbridge’s students that will last the rest of their lives.

But Baker has met the school staff and members of Millbridge’s PTA, who are all passionate about the school. He plans to use the first year as a learning year, to learn how Millbridge operates.

“There’s a lot of great things going on here,” he said.

Baker lives in the Millbridge community with his wife, Elizabeth, and two children. Son Jack will be a first-grader at Millbridge this year, and daughter Maggie Joy will start kindergarten there in 2017.

Jennifer Warden — Rockwell Elementary

Jennifer Warden always told her staff that the only thing that could tempt her away from serving as Mount Ulla Elementary’s principal would be a position at Rockwell Elementary. When Rockwell’s previous principal, Laura Bardill, announced her retirement, Warden put in an application.

For Warden, taking the reins at Rockwell Elementary means returning home.

“I’m extremely invested in this building, these kids and this community,” she said.

Warden attended Rockwell as a student for fifth and sixth grade, did her student teaching at the school in the late 1990s and spent her first few years as a teacher there. She also lives in the community.

“This school itself very much anchors my family’s activities,” she said.

While she was at Mount Ulla, Warden helped the school turn the corner to having the highest math scores in the district. But Rockwell is already a solid, instructionally sound school, she said. So she plans to work on the school’s culture: painting, streamlining and organizing.

She and staff are already working on coming up with a vision for the school and making the motto more visible. Her goal is to turn the school into a “school of excellence.”

Just like Mount Ulla, Rockwell is a generational school, but here, teachers tend to settle in and put down roots.

“When people come to Rockwell Elementary, they don’t usually leave,” she said.

Backed by three ballfields and in close reach of police and fire, the school also serves as a hub for community events — something that Warden said she wants to build on. The school has its charm, she said — from the passionate staff and PTA to the “welcoming vibe” that makes Rockwell feel like home.

“You want to be part of this,” she said, “I want to be part of this.”

Warden lives in Rockwell with husband Jason, son Griffin and daughter Gracie.

Arlisa Armond — Henderson Independent HS

This year Arlisa Armond is taking the reins at Henderson Independent High School.

Armond comes from Guilford County Schools, where she was a high school assistant principal for four and a half years. Armond has worked in elementary and middle schools, as well.

“I’ve seen the babies at all levels,” she said.

Armond said she came to Rowan-Salisbury Schools because she knows many people who work here, and was attracted by the “family feel” of the smaller district. She’s only been working at Henderson a month, but Armond said she has big plans.

“This is going to be a great year,” she said.

She and the staff are working on a five-year plan for the school that includes some program tweaking and restructuring, as well as a leadership academy further down the road.

Starting this school year, Henderson’s program will blend behavior education and academic progress to help bolster the school’s culture. Students will be expected to exhibit five character traits: pride, respect, integrity, discipline and “eagle pride.”

The school will also launch service learning opportunities with community partners, allowing students to pursue their passions in real-world environments.

“So if you have a student who is passionate about the homeless, they can partner with the homeless shelter … so we’re actually developing a project-based learning culture,” Armond said.

The goal is for students to not only explore their interests, but to learn leadership skills and become involved with the community.

Armond has a master’s degree in school administration and conflict resolution from UNC-Greensboro, and is working on her doctorate. While she said she hasn’t worked with a program like Henderson before, her experience as an administrator means she is familiar with restorative discipline and alternative strategies. And she said she’s confident she can lead Henderson forward.

“This year Henderson is going to excel,” she said.

Lori Marerro, co-principal — Koontz Elementary

It’s been six months since Lori Marrero joined the Koontz Elementary team as a co-principal, and she said the school feels like family.

Marrero is a former retired administrator, who spent more than 30 years in South Carolina’s Richland County School districts. But she said she was intrigued by the progressive vision of Rowan-Salisbury Schools, and in September came out of retirement to serve as an assistant principal at West Rowan Middle School. In February, she accepted a position as co-principal at Koontz.

The small, family-like atmosphere of Rowan-Salisbury Schools reminds her a lot of her early days as a teacher in Richland County.

“I see a lot of here what I started with there,” she said.

Marrero said she received a warm welcome at Koontz, and she thinks the school is very unique.

“We have such an eclectic group of kids … Koontz is sort of a melting pot of sorts,” she said.

That diversity is something that can give students an edge in the real world, when they become part of diverse workplaces.

Being a co-principal operates on the idea that two heads are better than one. There’s another person to help make decisions, to bounce ideas off of or to look at a problem from a different angle. It also helps with  day-to-day administration.

Over the next school year, Marrero and co-principal Yakisha Clemons have a few plans. They’re going to start a character education focus at the school, and will begin to help children track their own data, so students can see and evaluate their own growth. Marrero said she thinks it will help give students a boost.

Marrero is already settled in and familiar with the workings of Koontz, and said she’s excited for another year.

“I’m lovin’ it,” she said.

Patrick Hosey — Rowan Early College

Patrick Hosey has taught every level of education except college. But this year he’ll be able to mark that off the list as he assumes command of the Rowan County Early College.

“This is kind of the missing piece to it,” he joked.

Hosey is originally from Laurel, Miss., and has spent the last several years as an administrator in Alamance County Schools. It’s only been a month since he was hired, but Hosey said he’s settling in.

“I love it,” he said.

And things are already moving at the early college, which had its first day Aug. 4. The school stands out in the county with high expectations for its students, a veteran staff and a close, family feel.

So far, Hosey said, the kids have been motivated and focused. “We’re blessed to have what we have going here,” he said.

Hosey said he doesn’t plan on making any improvements; the school already has a lot of things going for it, including a 100 percent graduation rate. Instead, he wants to help continue the school’s momentum, and examine areas that may need some improvement. He said student attendance came to mind.

Hosey earned his master’s in education administration from UNC-Greensboro, and lives in Elon with wife Candice and children Kelsey, Josh, Presley and Catherine — but he said the family is thinking about relocating.

Denita Dowell-Reavis — Faith Elementary

Denita Dowell-Reavis didn’t start out in education, though she said she always had a love for it.

The new principal of Faith Elementary School started her career as a broadcast journalist after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill in 1991.

But in 2008 she switched tracks, becoming a high school English teacher. She said it was a “natural transition,” as both careers involve taking a topic and presenting it in a manner which can be understood.

“And that’s what you do every day in the classroom,” she said.

Dowell-Reavis describes herself as someone who is passionate about public education.

“I see that as the grounding place where everything else can take off,” she said.

After becoming a teacher through lateral entry, Dowell-Reavis went on to receive her master’s degree from the University of Memphis and an administration degree from Appalachian State University. She’s currently pursuing a  PhD from Gardner Webb University, and has approximately four years experience as an assistant principal with Iredell-Statesville Schools.

Dowell-Reavis has been principal of Faith Elementary for only a week, but she said she’s been “stupefied” by how gracious everyone in the system has been.

“That’s a super thing,” she said. “It makes you feel good.”

She said she hopes parents will feel that they can come talk to her or call her about their child’s education.

She doesn’t have a direction or plans for the school yet, but said she would be on the look-out for areas where the school can improve.

But she’s heard good things about Faith — the school, and the community.

“I feel very blessed to be here,” she said.

Dowell-Reavis lives in Harmony with her husband, Martin Reavis. At this time she said she has no plans to move from Harmony.

Christopher McNeil — Knox Middle deputy principal

Christopher McNeil, new deputy principal at Knox Middle, was not available for an interview before publication.