Dr. Elena Ashburn, principal of Broughton High School in Raleigh, was named the 2021 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year at an awards luncheon today in Cary.
Since joining Broughton in the top leadership role in 2017, Ashburn has helped chart a decisive and ambitious course for a high school of more than 2,100 students by empowering the school’s 180-plus staff members and building a culture of trust and mutual respect. During her four-year tenure, the school’s graduation rate reached a historic high of 89.33%, the 9th grade retention rate was cut by half and student performance improved on end-of-course exams in English and biology.
The former Teach for America English teacher credits her staff with the school’s gains and says that their efforts and those of the larger school community have helped sharpen the school’s focus and mission.
“I have always viewed the principalship as the collective work of an entire community of people,” Ashburn said in her submission for Principal of the Year. “This vantage point is particularly necessary in the high school principalship, where the sheer number of students, staff, parents and community members in our school community far exceeds the availability of one individual.”
Ashburn said she took a collaborative approach from essentially her first day at the school. She met individually with all 180 staff members within her first 60 days as principal and also visited every English class to meet with students and hear from them first-hand. She said she asked students the same two questions she had posed to staff members: “What is great about Broughton?” and “What can we do better?”
The responses, both from staff and students, led to a deliberate focus on address equity concerns in the school, Ashburn said, through the creation of a Staff and Student Culture Committee.
“While many students spoke about Broughton school traditions being a strength of our school community, students overwhelmingly shared that many of the valued traditions and available opportunities at Broughton were not inclusive of or accessible to the entire student body,” she said. “Over the course of a year, [the committee] created the “Why, What and How” of their work, establishing their purpose to “confront prejudices and biases in order to ensure that every student and staff member feels engaged, included and valued.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt cited Ashburn’s strategic and caring leadership approach as a model for others to follow.
“Elena exemplifies the best qualities of a strong and effective principal,” Truitt said. “She empowers teachers and staff and creates opportunities for them to grow and learn. She has enlisted the entire school community in defining a clear mission and purpose and been collaborative and intentional since day one. She embodies the level of support and guidance our educators, and students, deserve.”
In naming Ashburn as 2021 North Carolina Wells Fargo Principal of the Year, Juan Austin, Wells Fargo’s senior vice president and community relations manager said, “the NC Principal of the Year Program is a way for Wells Fargo to enthusiastically demonstrate its support of public school education and to recognize exceptional administrators, such as Dr. Elena Ashburn.”
“Dr. Elena Ashburn has created a stellar example of what public school education can achieve by involving parents, teaching strong character, providing a safe and nurturing environment for learning and, most of all, placing students’ needs at the center of everything they do at Broughton Magnet High, especially during these unprecedented times,” Austin said. “She is an exceptionally strong leader who not only accepts the responsibility but is also very intentional about improving the lives of every student within her school community.”
Ashburn began her education career in 2007 teaching English at Southern Durham High School with Teach for America, and after three years at the school, she earned a master’s degree in school administration from UNC Chapel Hill in 2012. She was an assistant principal at Fuquay-Varina Middle School from 2012 to 2014 and principal of East Garner Magnet Middle school from 2014 to 2017 before being named principal at Broughton. She earned a doctorate degree in educational leadership from UNC Chapel Hill in 2018.
Wake Schools Superintendent Cathy Q. Moore praised Ashburn for her commitment to helping all students succeed.
“In her career as an educational leader in a myriad of leadership roles and settings,” Moore said in a letter supporting her nomination as Principal of the Year, “Dr. Ashburn has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to educational excellence for all students, and this has been most evident in her tireless commitment to ensuring students make significant academic progress.”
For her part, Ashburn said she’s able to do what she loves.
“Being principal of Broughton is my dream job,” she said. “The opportunity to work with hilarious teenagers each day, watching them grow and learn is one of the greatest joys of my life. While the principalship is challenging, helping parents raise great kids by ensuring they receive an excellent education is a tremendous privilege.
“Each day I learn more from our awesome kids than anything I can teach them.”
The other regional Principal of the Year finalists for 2021 were:
- Northeast: Michelle White, Chowan Middle School (Edenton-Chowan Schools)
- Southeast: Christopher Barnes, White Oak High School (Onslow County Schools)
- Sandhills: Suzanne Owen, Cliffdale Elementary School (Cumberland County Schools)
- Piedmont-Triad: Erik Naglee, Page High School (Guilford County Schools)
- Southwest: Ericia Turner, Rocky River High School (Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools)
- Northwest: Jill Ward, Old Fort Elementary School (McDowell County Schools)
- Western: Kevin Bradley, CHASE High School (Rutherford County Schools)
While continuing to lead her school for the next year, Wells Fargo will furnish Ashburn with a stipend to travel across the state serving as an ambassador for education. She will serve as an advisor to the State Board of Education and also to the board of directors for the Public School Forum of North Carolina. She will also compete for national recognition through the N.C. Principals and Assistant Principals Association and will serve on the 2022 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year selection committee.
Ashburn also receives $3,000 for personal use and $3,000 for her school. In addition, she receives professional development and resources supporting global awareness in the curriculum for their staff, thanks to Education First, a custom-made NC Principal of the Year signet ring and resources to help combat child hunger from No Kid Hungry NC.
This is the 38th year the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has partnered with The Wells Fargo Foundation to recognize the state’s outstanding principals. Since 1984, 42 Principals of the Year and 272 regional recipients have been recognized. In addition, Wells Fargo Foundation has provided more than $1 million in cash awards during that time to these school leaders.
Additional information about the NC Principal of the Year program, is available online. You also can follow the North Carolina Principal of the Year finalists on Twitter at #NCTOYPOY.