Nine principals from across North Carolina have been chosen as regional Principals of the Year. On May 24, one will be named the Wells Fargo Principal of the Year at a ceremony hosted at The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary.
"Principals are challenged with creating a culture of excellence and advocating for both students and teachers,” said State Superintendent Catherine Truitt. “Though these nine regional Principals of the Year are from diverse backgrounds and different areas of the state, what they have in common is an unwavering commitment to improving student outcomes and making an impact on their communities.”
The Wells Fargo Principal of the Year is an ambassador for the state’s approximately 2,500 principals. The individual selected for this honor serves in an advisory capacity to the State Board of Education for a two-year term and on the Board of Directors of the North Carolina Public School Forum.
“Our continued support for the Principal of the Year program is part of Wells Fargo’s broader commitment to North Carolina as the Bank of Doing,” noted Suzie Koonce, Community Relations Lead Consultant for Wells Fargo. “From making financial education more accessible and housing more attainable, to empowering diverse small businesses and helping make communities more sustainable, doing makes communities across the state stronger.”
Learn more about the program. Follow along on social media at #NCTOYPOY.
Northeast: Sonya Rinehart
John A. Holmes High School (Edenton-Chowan Public Schools)
In her 28 years as an educator, Rinehart has learned the best way to lead is by example. On any given school day, you could find her wearing a hair net serving lunch, sweeping the floor, covering a class or manning the bus radio.
“An administrative team is only as good as the people they empower and trust to carry out a mission and vision,” she said. “There are times we may not agree. Taking time to be an active listener, valuing others’ opinions, ideas and passion points encourages my leadership team to respect the perspective of all stakeholders.”
Rinehart is passionate about preparing students to become global citizens and has been involved in NCDPI’s Portrait of a Graduate project. Under her leadership, Holmes High School has seen an increase in the number of students receiving CTE credentials, graduating with associate degrees and earning a passing score on the military entrance exam ASVAB, or Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
Southeast: Christianne May
Castle Hayne Elementary School (New Hanover County Schools)
May, who has two decades of experience as an educator, thinks of her staff as a synchronized swim team.
“Just as synchronized swimming requires commitment, focus and teamwork, leading an elementary school to success requires the same qualities,” she said. “I have nurtured a culture where we, as a school community, authentically believe in our collective power to impact students as well as our students' potential to be successful.”
One way the educators at Castle Hayne build on their collective power is through personalized professional development days – May's creation – where teachers share best practices and innovative solutions with their peers.
Since May took the helm in 2020, the school has gone from being labeled a Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI) school due to low state test scores to reaching levels of academic growth that put it in the top six percent of schools statewide in 2022-23.
North Central: Winston Pierce
Farmington Woods Magnet Elementary School (Wake County Public Schools)
Pierce has been a Wake County Public Schools educator for 33 years, including 13 as principal at Farmington Woods – but she’s dreamed of making a difference in the lives of students since second grade. A journal entry that hangs in her office reads, "If I were a teacher, I would be very nice to the children. They would like me. They would be good for me."
“I entered this profession with a commitment to my journal entry and to creating a culture where students are the focus and each day includes joy,” she said.
Pierce empowers both staff and students by giving them voice, choice and ownership. Every staff member is part of one of five school leadership teams designed to discuss, address and make decisions for the entire school community.
In addition to regularly outperforming district and state averages on end-of-grade tests during Pierce’s tenure, Farmington Woods was recently designated as a Certified Demonstration Magnet School by Magnet Schools of America (MSA) and, in 2018, was named the top magnet elementary school in the country.
Sandhills: Erica Fenner-McAdoo
Howard Hall Elementary School (Cumberland County Schools)
Fenner-McAdoo's leadership extends beyond the four walls of her school. Her T3 (Teachers Teach Teachers) Ed Camps, originally created as a hands-on professional development opportunity for her school’s staff, have expanded to serve nearly 200 teachers across Cumberland County each year.
“Professional growth is what teachers need to remain refreshed and stay in the profession,” she said. “I often say, ‘If you're irritated by the rub, how will you ever be polished?’ My staff knows I rub them to make them grow and shine.”
In her previous role as principal of Walker Spivey Elementary School, Fenner-McAdoo started a Parent University to increase parental involvement. It was such a success that Communities in Schools of Cumberland County and Cumberland Community Foundation adopted the program and expanded it to five schools across the district.
Building trust among staff members is a top priority for Fenner-McAdoo, who has been in the profession for 21 years. She continually seeks feedback from teachers via “Chat with Mac” listening sessions and “Friday Notes,” in which staff can share concerns anonymously.
Piedmont Triad: Dr. Nancy Martinez
Career Center High School (Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools)
With the aviation industry experiencing a boom in the Triad, Martinez set out to overhaul her school’s aviation program. What resulted was a partnership with the nonprofit organization Tango Flight, a six-figure grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation and a state-of-the-art educational experience.
“Our partnership with Tango Flight provides curriculum, equipment and mentorship to our CTE Aeronautics students to build a single-engine plane and obtain credentials accepted by over 35 aviation companies in the United States,” she said. “With over fifty strategic partnerships in the community, CCHS ensures students have the best, most positive experience on campus as they prepare for their next step after high school.”
A 26-year veteran educator, Martinez also spearheaded Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools’ first career and military signing day to recognize students who commit to a career path. Martinez works equally hard to make sure her staff members feel adequately supported by providing differentiated professional development, coaching and leadership opportunities.
Southwest: Dwight Thompson
Renaissance West STEAM Academy (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools)
Two weeks before the start of school in 2021, Thompson walked into Renaissance West, a school situated in a high-poverty area that had never met its growth goals on state assessments, and got to work. He led a transformation of the school’s culture that caused student achievement to skyrocket, placing it among the top 1% of North Carolina schools for academic growth in 2022-23.
“I want to change student outcomes with a heavy passion for the underserved populations of Charlotte. I have never desired the easier route,” Thompson said. “I am a part of changing the narrative for students of color and will always boldly advocate for the best of the best for the students I serve.”
Thompson, who has been an educator for 18 years, developed a coaching framework that gives teachers an opportunity to practice the skills they are working on live and receive feedback in a positive, compassionate way. He also serves on several district-level committees and is an experienced principal mentor.
Northwest: Beckie Spears
Wilkesboro Elementary School (Wilkes County Schools)
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Spears and her staff clung to sunflowers as a symbol of the school’s mantra, “We can do hard things.”
“Their cheery faces inspired us that summer and helped us find the energy to begin the year,” said Spears, a 29-year veteran educator. “So we keep the sunflowers to remind us of the things that matter most – learning, growth and the commitment to work together to find the light that will lead us to stronger, sturdier, more fulfilling and inspiring schools.”
Spears became an early adopter of LETRS, a statewide literacy initiative based on the science of reading, and is going above and beyond the two-year professional development requirement by investing in additional resources and working with the parent-teacher organization to get take-home, decodable books for each student. Within one year, Wilkesboro Elementary saw the number of students reading on grade level increase to 95% in kindergarten and 83% in first grade as a result of these efforts.
This year, the school has been nominated for a National ESEA Distinguished Schools Award for closing the achievement gap between student groups for two or more consecutive years. Spears was also chosen to participate in the North Carolina Principals and Assistant Principals' Association’s Distinguished Leadership Program in 2022.
Western: Phil Rogers
R-S Central High School (Rutherford County Schools)
Rogers became a student teacher at R-S Central High School in 1996 – and he hasn’t left since. As a teacher, parent, assistant principal and then principal starting in 2008, he has seen his community through many changes and is working hard to make sure his students are prepared for whatever comes next.
“We are developing civic-minded, intellectual youth who work hard, respect others and demonstrate the traits that will make them great leaders in the future,” he said. “The unofficial motto of the school is ‘our standards set standards.’ Our faculty and staff demand high expectations from their students and themselves, not just in the classroom or on the field of play, but in routine interactions and the grind of everyday life.”
Rogers has revitalized the school’s emphasis on reading and writing, resulting in a record-breaking 87.7 percent of students meeting or exceeding growth on state assessments in the 2022-23 academic year.
Charter: Dr. Sarena Fuller
ArtSpace Charter School
After nearly two decades in education, Fuller has developed a leadership philosophy guided by the doctrine of charity. By assuming the best intentions and building a culture of trust, her school has been able to avoid the staffing shortages that many others face.
“Truly, the school operates as a dynamic ecosystem, each part of each process depending on another to function well,” she said. “By their nature, educators are some of the most generous, creative, compassionate, hard-working people I know. I see my job as a school leader to support, empower and serve them in a way that allows them to thrive, for it is then that they do their best work for students.”
ArtSpace had a banner year in 2022-23 under Fuller’s leadership. The school was recognized as an ESEA National Distinguished School for its work with students with disabilities, its middle school team won the "Team to Watch" award from the NC Middle Level Educators Association and the school was a semifinalist in the national IMPACT Award in Innovation.