Getting to know Willie J. Bell

Published 9:59 am Friday, June 20, 2014

Willie Bell, Franklin’s new superintendent, greets city councilwoman Mary Hilliard. -- CAIN MADDEN | TIDEWATER NEWS

Willie Bell, Franklin’s new superintendent, greets city councilwoman Mary Hilliard. — CAIN MADDEN | TIDEWATER NEWS

Editors note: This is a two-part series where The Tidewater News will feature Franklin City School Division’s new superintendent, Willie J. Bell, who is set to start on July 1. The first part will deal with his history. Bell is currently the director of instruction in the Sussex County School System, and he previously served in a similar role in Petersburg. Before that, he was a principal in Richmond and Northampton County.

FRANKLIN—When he first started his career, Courtland native Willie J. Bell Jr. tried to go against the grain.

But it didn’t take long for the family job to call him back.

“You see, education has been a part of my life since 1965,” Bell said of the year he was born. “My father was a retired educator and he was a principal for numerous years in Southampton County. My mother was a third grade teacher. My brother is a principal now. My sister is a teacher in Sussex.

“So, it wasn’t hard to go back to my roots.”

After he graduated from Southampton High School in 1983, he attended Virginia State University on a scholarship to play football, and he played all four years. But when he first went to college at VSU, his emphasis was on business information systems, a program that later became computer science.

Once he graduated, he worked for Honeywell Federal Manufacturing and Technology and General Electric as a programmer and systems analyst. He worked for those Fortune 500 companies for about 5 years, but he felt that something wasn’t right.

“I felt like that was not my calling,” he said. “I felt my calling was education.”

Of course, he’d always known about education, thanks to his upbringing.

“When I was in elementary school, I rode with my mother every day to school because she was a teacher,” he said. “Then when I got to junior high, with my daddy being the principal, we rode to school every day with him. He was not only my father, but he was my principal. So I got to see both sides.”

His father, the late Willie J. Bell Sr., was deeply important to him.

“My daddy is my role model,” he said. “He exhibited all of the characteristics and attributes of what I felt that a man, a father, and a professional should look like.

“I got to see it first hand. I was afforded the opportunity to observe how he interacted with his teachers, his students and the public.”

Bell said he never knew anybody who did not have a good interaction with him.

“Everyone has always spoken highly of him,” he said. “Even to this day, people have spoken highly of my father, and what he was able to help them with.

“I deeply learned from him — the way to work with people, and the way to treat people.”

Having direct access to his father made it easy for Bell to name a role model.

“He was not just someone I saw on TV, he was someone I could touch and see every day,” he said. “He was pivotal to my transformation as an administrator, because he had been an administrator for years.” When he moved into administration, the first person he went to was his father.

“He taught me the foundations of education, and he also prepared me for the pitfalls and the de-railers that I would face,” he said. “He shared with me how he gained buy-in from the teachers, from the parents, and how he galvanized the community.”

Bell also learned from his mother, Lottie C. Bell.

“She may have not been an administrator, but she was a powerful third grade teacher,” he said.

His pull to education was so much that when he was on summer vacation in college, he’d sign up to be a substitute teacher in the Southampton County School System.

“We would get off early in May, so I’d come back and teach,” he said. “And before I accepted my position at Honeywell, I was a long-term substitute for six months, and I also coached football under [Littleton] Parker.”

He started his first full-time teaching job in the Greensville County Public School system, where he taught the full range of high school math classes. Math came easy for him, as while he was working on his first major, he decided to double major in math.

Math goes back to his roots.

“My father was a math teacher,” he said. “He taught a lot of people math. I guess it just rubbed off on me because I never had a problem with math. I was always sharp with it, and I had a love for math.”

During those four years in the Greensville system, Bell was also a coach for football, track, strength and conditioning and baseball.

“I’m no stranger to the love of children,” he said. “I’m always looking at the development of the child, not only academically, but I also believe that extra-curricular activities help them out. I believe in educating the whole child.”

He also learned about the PET program — Program for Effective Teaching, which was then taught by the person who is now the Southampton County Superintendent, Dr. Alvera Parrish.

“She taught me how to teach,” he said. “And a lot of those things I learned in PET, I mentor and coach my teachers at every level and share those experiences with them.”

Bell’s next destination was Southeast Halifax High School in North Carolina, where he served for five years. He taught math there, and was also a coach for football, basketball and strength and conditioning.

“As we start putting it together, you see that I’m not a stranger to long hours and hard work,” he said.

And it was there he met Dr. Willie Gilchrist, the superintendent of the system.

“He started a program for select teachers to attain their master’s degree,” Bell said. “I was one of the persons he chose.

“Dr. Gilchrist, I have to give him credit. He saw something in me that I didn’t see at that time. He saw leadership. I guess he had observed me through the five years that I had been at Southeast, through coaching, managing the classroom, and managing the test scores. In algebra 2, I had some of the highest scores in the state.”

Bell added that it might have also had something to do with how he interacted with parents, as that skill was paramount for someone in educational leadership.

“I never had an issue with parents,” he said. “I was always able to go into their homes and talk through things to help their child, academically and athletically, to help get them in college if they wanted to pursue that avenue. And if they didn’t, there was a big movement for career readiness at that time.”

After graduating from East Carolina University with a degree in administration and supervision with an endorsement in curriculum, he received his first leadership job, as the director of the 21st Century Community Learner’s Program, which was designed to move all 7 of the system’s schools from low-performing to high-performing.

Editor’s note: Read Sunday’s The Tidewater News for Part 2 of this story to find out how Willie J. Bell did as the director of the 21 Century Community Learner’s Program, as well as how he advanced from there and what led up to getting the Franklin superintendent job and where he plans to take the school system.