We are North: principals join forces to steer North Rowan

Published 12:10 am Sunday, November 20, 2016

By Rebecca Rider

SALISBURY — Sometimes, trailblazing happens quietly — in the hallways of schools or tucked away in the smallest district of a school system.

In September, with little fanfare, Rowan-Salisbury Schools rolled out a collaborative administrative model that is quite possibly the first of its kind on the nation.

It’s called a community principal model, and like the co-principal model Rowan-Salisbury is already familiar with, it involves a team of principals working together. But there are some differences: the team is spread out between two or more schools and is overseen and directed by a separate “community principal.”

The idea came from two local administrators — Alexis Cowan, former principal of North Rowan Middle, and Cowan’s then-assistant principal, Meredith Williams. According to Williams, when former North Rowan High School Principal Fatemah Fulmore resigned in July, she and Cowan saw an opportunity.

The two have a bone-deep knowledge of the North district, and knew that it would take something unique, or maybe radical, to overcome the challenges it faces.

“We have wonderful students and they have loads of potential,” Williams said. “But it’s also a challenging population due to socioeconomic status.”

Approximately 78 percent of students in the North District are on free and reduced lunch, Williams said, compared with the roughly 65 percent district average. According to U.S. Census data, 23.7 percent of families in Spencer and 58 percent of families in East Spencer live in poverty.

The area is also home to the only school in Rowan-Salisbury Schools to receive an F school performance grade in the last round of testing — North Rowan Elementary — and has historically been plagued with high teacher and administrative turnover.

“If we want different results, we have to do different things,” Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody said.

Williams and Cowan knew it would take more than one person to help North achieve its potential. So when Fulmore left, the two applied for a co-principalship, which would have been split between the middle and high school.

“We just took a chance on it one day,” Cowan said. “…We felt like it just was not a one person job.”

Moody, however suggested something else — a trio: two principals collaborating between schools, with a third providing support and managing community involvement. The two agreed, and brought in Carl Snider, then an assistant principal at Erwin Middle.

The initiative creates a diverse team of different views, ages and backgrounds  to tackle the unique needs of each school and the North district. But the three get along well.

“For this kind of model to work, people have got to want to be together as a group or as a team,” Moody said.

Thanks to a vacant assistant-principal position, left when Williams moved to the high school, the salaries for all three stay within the school system’s budget, Moody said.

Now, the three work together. Williams steers the high school, Snider the middle and Cowan is the “glue” that holds them together.

It may be an unusual approach, but according to Moody, it’s one that fit criteria laid out by the people of North Rowan. When Fulmore left, the school system conducted a survey, asking what parents, teachers and students wanted in a new principal. Their answer? Community.

“The North community feels like a community. They see themselves as a community. They don’t see themselves as separate schools,” Moody said.

In many ways, that’s one of the things that makes it unique in the county. North Rowan schools are geographically close to each other, and feed almost directly into each other — unlike other districts, where students may split off into one of several middle or high schools, Williams said. That small distance has allowed the schools to build close partnerships over the years.

But that hasn’t made the transition to a community model easy.

When the principals launched their front in September, Cowan said they asked each other, “What did we get ourselves into?”

“There are huge, huge, huge challenges to overcome here,” Williams said.

The three meet regularly, hard at work laying the groundwork for their own administration as well as clearing a path that will eventually allow Williams and Snider to move seamlessly between schools. If they succeed, Snider said, he and Williams will be nearly interchangeable.

“We know this isn’t going to happen overnight,” Snider said. “We’re starting and we’re on the road.”

The goal is to build lasting relationships and to provide stability for students who are undergoing a whirlwind of change between their sixth grade year and their senior year of high school. Solid relationships can help keep at-risk kids in school and spur them on to graduation, Williams said.

“If you build those solid relationships, that will get you almost 75 percent of the way there,” Snider said.

The principals hope that familiar faces and an already-built rapport will help ease the transition from middle to high school, and soothe the worries of parents and students alike.

Cowan said that in his first month, he’s already run into students he had at North Middle. When they were sixth graders, he wiped away their tears.

“Now they’re bigger than I am,” he said, laughing.

Moody said there may be some bumps in the road because the system is “forging new territory.” But the creative, out-of-the box approach is key, and so is creating models not seen before.

“That’s the only way we will really transform or change education,” she said.

Where they won’t go wrong, she said, is that, counting North Rowan Elementary, the area now has four principals who are “extremely committed to children.”

“So we’ve got that part right and that’s the most important part. You have to start with that,” Moody said.

For Cowan, the past month has been about listening and learning. While the three chose to work with each other, they’re still trying to hammer out the best rhythm.

“In everything that we do, we want to be sure that we share it together,” Cowan said.

As community principal, Cowan has been listening to the concerns of parents and the community, and trying to pinpoint areas for improvement. It’s a lot of looking at things differently so they can “work smarter, not harder.”

And they have some big dreams — there is talk of pulling in the district’s two elementary schools, North Elementary and Hanford Dole, for a “complete K-12 situation.”

If the model succeeds, in the future teachers and students might move freely between campuses. Perhaps middle school students would take a few high school courses, or high school teachers might pop over to the middle school for an hour in the morning to fill in, or the teacher supervising the high school football game could come from the middle school — or the elementary school.

“Because it’s their community, it’s their team, it’s their place,” Moody said.

And when it comes to longevity and stability, the three are letting their records speak for themselves. Snider has spent most of his professional career in Rowan County, including 10 years as Erwin’s assistant principal. Cowan was born and raised in South Rowan, and steered North Middle for eight years; Williams is herself a graduate of North Rowan High School.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Snider said. “We’re here for the long haul.”

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Alexis Cowan is available to speak about the model at churches and community organizations. To find out how you can help, please contact North Rowan Middle School or North Rowan High School.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.