New Franklin superintendent dubbed ‘turnaround specialist’

Published 11:28 am Saturday, June 21, 2014

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. This is the second part, which will detail how Bell advanced, how he became the Franklin superintendent, and some early ideas for where he plans to take the system.

FRANKLIN—After seeing Willie J. Bell in action on the teacher level, his superintendent at the time Dr. Willie Gilchrist wanted to see more out of him.

And so Gilchrist, the superintendent of the Halifax County Public Schools in North Carolina, put him through a program that would allow him to receive his master’s in administration and supervision with an endorsement in curriculum from East Carolina University. Upon completion, he was put in charge as the director of the 21st Century Community Learner’s Program, which was designed to move all seven of the system’s schools from low-performing to high-performing.

“In one year’s time, all schools were high-performing schools of distinction,” Bell said. “We were able to collaborate our after school latch-key initiative to embrace and be aligned with the regular day program of the principals and teachers.”

The program went from 3-7 p.m., and it was designed to do more creative things to help educate the child that couldn’t be done during the normal day. It also brought in help from the community, including 4-H, Boy Scouts, and the community college to give the children exposure to other activities.

“The academics went from 3-5, and the enrichment went from 5-7,” he said. “We not only served the students, but we also served the adults. We helped them achieve their GEDs and helped with computer skills. We had a parent university going from 5-7.”

Then the principal-ships began. He started out at Enfield Middle School in North Carolina. When he went in, it was also low-performing.

“We were blessed to get them high performing,” said Bell. “We just embraced the community. Enfield is a close-knit community, and a lot of people wanted to make sure that the school was no longer on the radar. In two years, it was no longer on the radar.”

Bell said it was about working together, including teachers, community, parents and students.

“We got students to believe in themselves, and attendance increased — as matter of fact, for three straight months, it was 100 percent. It had high teacher turnover, but the teachers stayed.

“We cared about one another. We cared about the students. We cared about the parents and the community leaders. We just worked very hard.”

Then he was sent to Weldon Middle School, which was struggling more than Enfield. Much like J.P. King and S.P. Morton, it had a state-sponsored turnaround partner.

“We worked so well with the state department that I was asked to speak at a national conference,” he said. “My topic they asked me to speak about was the collaboration of a school and a state department because we were able to transform that school to higher heights.”

He followed the same basic concept he developed at Enfield, in first setting up relationships with the students, parents and community.

“Everywhere I have been, we got the relationship piece,” he said.

In 2006, he was recruited by the superintendent who hired him in Weldon City to turnaround West STEM High School in the Northampton County, North Carolina, system.

State test scores at the school had never been above 36 percent passing, while writing was at 39 percent passing. He adopted a similar model that had been successful before, forming advisee groups of people in the community, and properly planning the school structure.

The test average went from 36 to 73 and writing went from 39 to more than 70.

“At the time, I was awarded Principal of the Year for the county, and I was in the running for Principal of the Year for the state,” he said. “I had an open-door policy. Parents could come in. If they wanted to eat with their child, they could. If they wanted to help with tutoring, then by all means help with tutoring.

“We knew we were going to be held accountable in terms of testing, but we did infuse other things that kids could enjoy about school. And we had children enjoying school.”

In 2008, he was brought to Richmond to become the principal of George Wythe High School, which by itself had a student population larger than that in Franklin’s three schools.

When he arrived, the school was meeting SOL scores, but just barely at 70 percent, and they had never met No Child Left Behind’s adequate yearly progress.

“When I left, George Wythe was ranked with the U.S. News and World Report as a Bronze Ranking, as one of the best high school’s in the nation,” he said. “Reading was at 98 percent, and math was at 92 percent. That’s unreal for a high school that is not a specialty school.”

And for that effort, in 2011, he received the R.E.B. Leadership Award for principals who go above and beyond the day-to-day demands of their position to create an exceptional learning environment.

He did a lot of the same things, including going into the community.

“On the first day of the job, I visited the areas that my kids were coming from,” he said. “I met with parents, I met with the community, just to see some of the challenges. We wanted to know how we could support their children and ensure that they receive a high school diploma. And they shared because no one had ever done that before.”

He also received additional training. While in North Carolina, he attended a principal’s program at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School on being a better CEO/Principal. And in Richmond, he was in a school turnaround program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School.

After his success as a principal, in 2011, he was recruited to Petersburg to work in the central office as the director of secondary instruction.

“When you move from the building to central services, your responsibility shifts a little,” he said. “In central services, instead of having a more hands on role where you know that kid, you have to go in and you serve as not only knowing that kid, but now you are more supportive in a bigger realm. You have more control over the money and the processes.”

In Petersburg, the high school achieved accreditation, and the middle school moved up to where 3 of the 4 areas were passing, though math remained an Achilles heel, Bell said. In the alternative school, GED rates increased and more students were able to get back on track toward their high school diplomas.

Bell moved over to Sussex in 2013, and unofficially, he said the system improved in 70 percent of all areas.

From a division level, he helped work on restructuring the instructional framework, through developing a better curriculum, and also working on the uniformity of all of the buildings.

“We did not want the kids experiencing something at the elementary level, and then something completely different at the middle school level, and then move on to high school, where it’s different again,” Bell said, adding that it was set up like that, where there were even different grading scales. “Tweaking some of those inner workings creates a major paradigm shift and helps the program get better.”

He also said that it’s not just him, that he’s forming teams to pull off these turnarounds.

“It’s not just Willie Bell,” he said. “Willie Bell sits at the table with the other constituents that are part of the community. I have always felt compelled to reach out to parents and the community.”

Now, Bell is in Franklin, or, at least he will be in July.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “On July 1, I’m going to hit the ground running.”

The first thing he is going to do is just listen.

“Once I get in on July 1, I’m going to start meeting people in central services and teachers,” Bell said. “The entry plan is to meet everyone in the system, and just listen. I call it the listen and learn tool.”

After he knows the staff, and they know him, it’ll move to how central services can help the schools, the teachers, the children, the parents and the community.

Then it is time to put it all together and put together some of the same advisory groups as before, and do some of the same systemic planning.

“I believe the Lord has ordered my steps through rural and urban environments to get me here,” he said.

“The teachers I have worked with, the parent involvement, the community partnerships, finances, budget process, transparency, I’ve seen it all.

“I believe the Lord has ordered my steps to be prepared for this position.”

Bell said the school’s mission statement contain good goals for success — the only one he would add is an emphasis on technology.

“When we get in and bring everyone to the table, that’s when we’ll say this is who we are and this is how we are going to get there,” he said. “We will establish an institutional framework that will work in Franklin.”

Oh, and he added, “My door is always open.”