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“This is what I was intended to do:” South’s Withers is Principal of the Year for the second time

By Maggie Blackwell
For the Salisbury Post

Kelly Withers is the Rowan Salisbury Principal of the Year, and the first in the system to have held the honor twice.

She became a teacher three months after getting married. She became a principal while she and her husband were building a house. She got her graduate degree when she was having twins.

“My dad worked for Phillip Morris, and he is one of my biggest mentors. I got my work ethic from him — his work ethic was unparalleled. There was no sick. You go to work, no question.”

She laughs. “Today he says, ‘You’re always at work.’ I ask, ‘Where did I get that from?’”

She became principal at South Rowan High School, a very traditional school, four years ago. She came from Carson High School, where she’d worked from the day it opened.

“I was at Carson Day One when it opened. All the staff chose to go to Carson. We were risk takers. That was the culture there. I’m sure it remains the culture to this day.

“Coming here, it was a culture of tradition. That’s not a bad thing, but we had to look at what is needed for the kids. Here it’s more a culture of building. Change is just a part of what we do. We model that behavior, jumping outside of our comfort zone.

“This is probably the most populated place in our town at any given time. We have a thousand kids and about a hundred staff. It’s like running a small town. There are pieces of all of it: facilities, operations, safety, and then there’s the work we’d like to do. And don’t forget hurricanes and inclement weather — there’s all that for sure. We have plans for all those things.”

As a kid, Withers always wanted to be a teacher, even teaching her dolls at home. As she grew in high school, however, she began to consider medicine because of the difference in income. After a successful internship with Dr. Lynn Hughes in Concord, she pursued a degree in clinical laboratory science at Chapel Hill.

“Dr. Hughes’ advice was to get a degree in something you can work in immediately, because you’ll have to work your way through medical school.”

Withers was working in medicine when she mentioned to her father-in-law, a teacher, that she’d always wanted to be a teacher, but had changed her mind. He introduced her to Henry Kluttz, who was at West Rowan at the time. Kluttz had a science opening. Withers went to the interview, and was offered a job as a lateral-entry teacher, a teacher with a degree in another field. She had to make a quick decision.

“I gave ten days’ notice, and went to work at West. Within three months I knew this was the path I was meant to take. I very much enjoyed the classroom, and the kids. Not every day was easy, that’s for sure, but I knew in my heart this is what I was intended to do.”

Withers pursued her masters in educational administration, remembering the advice of Dr. Hughes.

Kluttz became her mentor. “When I was a teacher, then when I became principal, he was there. When Carson opened, Kluttz was principal and asked if I’d like to start my journey there. He gave me autonomy and said, ‘Here are the holes you are going to fall in.’ When he retired, he’s still that person for me. We still talk, or text. I still seek advice from him.”

Serving as principal at South has been quite a transition for Withers. “One thing I’d say is very unique about this community is a deep connection and pride for this school. We have lots of students who are third-generation South Rowan Raiders. They grew up in a onesie with ‘Future Raider’ on it. They’ve been here before with their grandparents, parents or siblings. My son is a student here, and I realized he’s a third-generation. I never thought my own kid was one until we realized last year. It’s that intense. High school kids are by nature cynical, and may not tell you they are loyal, but they are.

“Pep rallies here are unlike anything I’ve ever seen! I was at WRHS when they were state champs. Carson, as well, had spirit. The first time I came here, I was blown away by their energy and passion! The spirit is literally tangible in a pep rally.

“We face the same things other schools face. There is some poverty. Our students have a spirit of work ethic; we sometimes have to guide them, but they are passionate about their community and their school.

“Our biggest obstacle is continuing to build up the value of education, not just our school — the vision of how education unlocks doors, gives opportunities. Our teacher design team is working on making the learning experience incredibly relevant.”

South has instituted a groundbreaking flexible schedule for its students that has brought visitors from all around the state. Withers has Skyped with other states who want to duplicate the experience. All pretty heady stuff for a school that was always super traditional.

Withers’ family is as all-in to the South experience as she is. Husband Lee Withers, mayor of China Grove, is a former Raider. “I think it’s important to mention Lee is a Raider but he was a Falcon when I was at West and a Cougar when I was at Carson! My son, a sophomore here, doesn’t remember West, but he remembers Carson. My daughters are absolutely Raiders.

“They can recite the starting lineup for almost every sport we have. They’ve made an appearance at every prom and graduation, and they love it all. In fact, a couple of years ago, we had a snow storm and were stuck indoors. The girls looked at me and asked, ‘Is there not a sports event we can go to?’

“That’s key, because there’s a lot of hours in this work. It’s important for me to be successful to know they have that love for my work.”

Wither’s biggest challenge may have been last year when beloved teacher Zach Thompson passed away from brain cancer. He’d worked the week before, missed Thursday and Friday, and passed away on Monday morning. Withers had to notify staff early before school started and try to get ahead of social media.

“Talking to Cassie (Thompson) on the phone, having to tell staff, having to tell the students — his memorial service was here — working through that process was the hardest thing I’ve done. We had to give the kids the time to grieve. He was young with three kids — his daughter wasn’t one yet. Supporting the family, staff and kids, it was all a balancing act.

“Julie Morrow (assistant superintendent) reminded me I had to grieve as well. I had hired him. He was a young energetic man. We’d worked through his illness. I spoke at his memorial. He was an amazing person. I still have an email from him. He said it was a bit of a rough day, but every day is a blessing.

“It as hard, absolutely not the outcome we wanted, but it was a learning process. The kids’ words were so kind, seeing them express to the family was uplifting. He was so amazing, he touched lives every place he went.”

As a principal, Withers’ favorite day of the year is graduation — especially one moment of graduation.

“There’s this moment before the kid’s name is called. I love to look at them in that moment. You can almost see them capturing that moment from K to now. I’ve only known them four years; there’s tears, there’s smiles, but they’re always proud. That’s my favorite moment — right before they’re called, to see how proud they are of themselves.

“Every kid has that unique story. Some of the kids were here the day before graduation, working to get that last credit in.

“Graduation is my favorite, because of that moment, and because some kids don’t realize what a gateway it is for them. Almost in that one moment, they look at you and say, ‘OK, I get it now.’

“It’s one of the greatest privileges of being a principal, to see that moment.”

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