Donna L. Bledsoe, principal of Cedar Ridge Elementary School in Surry County, was named the 2023 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year at an awards luncheon today in Cary.
Since becoming leader of the small, rural school in 2016, Bledsoe has cultivated a community with a clear focus on student success, strong faculty collaboration and overall school improvement. In her words, the culture of Cedar Ridge Elementary can be summed up in one word: “joy.”
Others, too, attest to the truth of that description. Freebird McKinney, the 2018 Burroughs Wellcome Teacher of the Year, said after a visit to the school in 2019 that he ranked the school at the top of his list of schools taking exemplary steps to serve the needs of students.
“I could tell this was a “community of care,” McKinney wrote in a Facebook post at the time. “#bringthejoy is their school mantra, and it’s reflected in all aspects of this school. Even walking the halls, there were interactive foot and hand placements for students to “play” – I hopscotched a whole hallway! I learned so much about how Principal Bledsoe united this school through a literacy campaign, where EACH and EVERY individual who walked in the building shared their love of reading with the students and their colleagues.”
The school also caught the eye of the North Carolina Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, which in 2022 honored the Cedar Ridge as one of two Lighthouse Schools statewide for advancing “student achievement in innovative and creative ways” and nurturing “a positive and supportive school and community atmosphere.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said that Bledsoe has helped forge a genuine school community where students and staff thrive.
“Mrs. Bledsoe and her staff truly have put students at the center of all that they do,” Truitt said. “It’s one thing to say that and another thing entirely to make it happen, every day, in every class and with every student. It’s clear that Cedar Ridge does. That takes committed and visionary leadership.”
On naming Bledsoe as 2023 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year, Juan Austin, Community Impact and Sustainability Senior Manager for Wells Fargo, said “Congratulations to Mrs. Bledsoe and Cedar Ridge Elementary on this well-deserved honor.
“Wells Fargo is proud to continue our support for the North Carolina Principal of the Year program and to celebrate administrators like Mrs. Bledsoe who serve as leaders and role models for all of us. They inspire us through their tireless commitment to their schools, students and communities.”
When Bledsoe speaks about her school’s efforts and accomplishments, she is more likely to use the word “we” rather than “I.” She started her tenure at Cedar Ridge by engaging the school staff in defining their collective and unified purpose.
“As a staff, we reimagined our school mission, vision and belief statements around our organizational values,” she explained in her submission to the Principal of the Year selection committee. She said that staff decided on their basic purpose: “We want to do what is best for students.”
Since then, the school has remained faithful to that goal, she said. “We choose and keep choosing daily to walk in our purpose, which is for all students to succeed. … It sounds simple, but it is a long journey that requires constant work to keep our school culture focused on our purpose.
“Every individual, from classified to certified staff, takes ownership of their vital role in continuing to strengthen our culture and center each day in their purpose,” Bledsoe said. “We have become a collaborative school culture where we challenge one another to continually grown in our thinking and practices for total school success and continuous improvement.”
For the school’s students, half of whom are from low-income families and nearly half who start kindergarten without pre-school, there is a strong focus on supporting the “whole child” by providing student-centered and flexible learning spaces, as well a concerted effort to reduce discipline referrals. Staff engage in professional development and coaching to manage disruptions and restorative practices. Discipline referrals at the school have dropped by 87% since Bledsoe joined the school as principal.
At the same time, the school has boosted its emphasis on literacy by removing barriers for students who may have limited resources at home while creating more opportunities for all students to read and get access to books. The school has set up random reading spots in the hallway where books are always available to take home, and stopped withholding media circulation for students who didn’t return books and created monthly book events showcasing diverse cultures with a project-based learning experiences. Within the first year, Bledsoe said, media circulation at the school increased by 3,000 books.
Students in all grades are also given the freedom to follow their own interests during a weekly 50-minute enrichment period. Students might choose to create in Minecraft, innovate in robotics, learn to code, garden, practice yoga, train for a 5K or even learn to play the banjo.
Travis Reeves, superintendent of Surry County Schools, said in a letter supporting Bledsoe’s nomination to be Principal of the Year that she has a special passion for watching her students and staff grow every year.
“Mrs. Bledsoe is the instruction leader of her school and has focused on bringing the joy to Cedar Ridge Elementary School,” Reeves said. “With high expectations, she helps her staff and students achieve and excel in their goals.”
Since earning her Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education from Appalachian State University in 2004, Bledsoe has spent her entire education career with Surry County Schools, first as a third-grade teacher, then as an elementary school assistant principal before being promoted to principal in 2015. She earned a Master of Arts degree as a curriculum specialist, also from Appalachian State, in 2008.
During the pandemic, Bledsoe was selected as one of 200 school leaders statewide to participate in the inaugural cohort of the Distinguished Leadership in a Remote Learning Environment initiative launched to help school leaders ensure high quality teaching and learning during an interruption to schooling such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
The other finalists for the 2023 award are:
- Northeast: John Lassiter, Hertford Grammar (Perquimans County Schools)
- Sandhills: Jim Butler, Richmond Senior High (Richmond County Schools)
- Northwest: Jessica Gravel, Drexel Elementary (Burke County Public Schools)
- Southeast: Ashley Faulkenberry, Trent Park Elementary (Craven County Schools)
- North Central: Dr. William Logan, Hillside High (Durham Public Schools)
- Western: Ruafika Cobb, Ira B. Jones Elementary (Asheville City Schools)
- Southwest: Tonya Williams, Concord Middle (Cabarrus County Schools)
- Charter: T.J. Worrell, NE Academy for Aerospace and Advance Technologies (Elizabeth City)
The Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year will spend the 2023-24 school year traveling the state as an ambassador for the profession, with support from Wells Fargo and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
This year’s Wells Fargo Principal of the Year receives $3,000 for personal use and $3,000 for their school. The winner also receives an engraved vase, a custom-made N.C. Principal of the Year signet ring from Jostens, and resources to help combat child hunger from No Kid Hungry NC.
North Carolina has recognized outstanding principals through its Principal of the Year program since the 1980s, helping promote the profession through advocacy and support while recognizing principals who are implementing best practices in schools across North Carolina.
For more information on North Carolina’s Principal of the Year recognition program, visit the program’s website or contact the NCDPI Communications division, 984-236-2000.