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Partners in Learning executive director marks 20 years

SALISBURY — Things have changed a lot in the past 20 years at Partners in Learning.

The center opened a second location, increased its staff from 20 to more than 80, expanded its support services and took steps to increase student diversity. But in all that time, there’s been one constant: Norma Honeycutt.

Honeycutt celebrated her 20th anniversary as Partners in Learning’s executive director Aug. 24, and she said she’s just getting started.

“I don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon,” she said with a chuckle.

Honeycutt’s time at Partners in Learning is marked by growth — both her own and the nonprofit organization’s. When she took the reigns in 1998, the child care facility had only 20 staff members, most lacking proper degrees and certifications.

Honeycutt herself was unqualified in some ways. The China Grove native got married right out of high school, foregoing a college education to build a family. When she took over at Partners in Learning, she was in the middle of earning her associate degree.

But that didn’t mean she was inexperienced. After graduating from high school, Honeycutt worked for 21 years in a China Grove-based child care facility and served on the board of Partners in Learning. It was that tenure that led her to her new career.

“God just started working. I don’t know any other way to say it,” she said of landing the job as the executive director.

She remembers being intimidated at first. The previous director had a master’s degree in child development, and there was a steep learning curve with Partners in Learning’s dedication to diversity.

“They really took a chance on me,” she said.

But Honeycutt is nothing if not stubborn, and when she was told that the previous director scoffed that the center “will never get accredited now” after hearing about Honeycutt, she took it as a personal challenge.

Within two years, Partners in Learning became nationally accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children — an accreditation it holds to this day.

Honeycutt set strict guidelines for staff quality and experience.

“I will never have a classroom that I would not put my own child in,” she told parents when she took over.

It’s a promise she’s kept for 20 years.

In that time, Honeycutt has worked on her own education. She got her associate degree and, with support from Partners in Learning, went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The support and encouragement she received has made her a strong proponent for education. She actively supports her own staff members to earn their degrees, and when someone tells her they’re too old to go back to school, she tells them her story.

“I started college at 32 and finished at 50, and I was in the bottom half of my high school class. If I can do it, you can too,” she says.

She also encourages the staff to work towards financial independence. As all things at Partners in Learning, it comes down to relationships.

“It’s gotta take relationships,” she said.

During her time as director, Honeycutt has worked hard to build relationships with her staff and with the families Partners in Learning serves. That’s a diverse population of children — those from families of low socio-economic status to those with special needs.

“We are a rare jewel when it comes to diversity,” Honeycutt said.

Without relationships, Partners in Learning would be ineffective.

“When you build relationships, you break down stereotypes,” she said.

That approach has helped Partners in Learning build wrap-around services and parent learning opportunities. Through those and the services Partners in Learning offers children, Honeycutt hopes to have a positive impact that lasts generations.

“We want to be that beacon of light,” she said.

When she thinks about her biggest accomplishment at Partners in Learning, it’s all about those relationships.

“It’s about the changes that we’ve made in people’s lives — in children’s lives — for the better,” Honeycutt said.

Honeycutt believes she was put on earth to serve others, and that’s what she plans to keep doing. She wants to lead Partners in Learning for as long as the agency will have her. When asked about retirement, she points to an outdoor sensory garden named in her honor.

“I tease that once I’m dead, just go ahead and bury me in the garden,” she said with a laugh.

Even if she does choose retirement 10 — or another 20 — years down the road, Partners in Learning will still hold her heart.

“It’s the best thing, truly, that’s ever happened to me,” she said.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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