Five days before Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools announced its principal of the year finalists, I had a voice mail from Diane Collins, a teacher assistant at Pinewood Elementary. It's time to do an update on Trish Sexton, she insisted.
I profiled her for a series on "The Year of the Principal," as then-Superintendent Peter Gorman emphasized the importance of the school leader and shuffled his staff. After spending time with Sexton, I had no doubt of her passion and dedication. But I wouldn't have bet my paycheck on her success. The district was in the midst of teacher layoffs. Pinewood wasn't getting some of the extra support that Gorman was pumping into other high-poverty schools. It's test scores were dropping, fueled partly by changes in testing and partly by genuine weakness in student skills. And as the subsequent years have shown, CMS can be a tough place for principals to work.
That's why Sexton's staff was so excited when they got word that she was the principal of the year nominee for the zone that covers 37 high-poverty elementary schools. "She is a special leader," says zone superintendent Tyler Ream.
Pinewood students had an overall pass rate on 2012 exams of almost 74 percent, up from 57 percent just two years earlier and well above most other high-poverty schools. Math scores were particularly strong, with 87 percent on grade level.
Sexton says she's spent the last three years building a strong team -- not only on her faculty but among parents, who are invited to school events once a month. "You can't carry the weight of the school by yourself," she said.
Ream says that team-building approach yields lasting benefit for students. "She wasn't afraid to do it right and take a few lumps in the beginning," he said.
When I visited Pinewood in 2009, one of the things teachers liked about their new principal was her youthful enthusiasm for technology. This week Sexton spoke gleefully about a recent "iPad speed-dating" event, in which teachers rotated partners and shared apps to help their kids learn.
It's fun to cover a beat long enough to see people grow and succeed. In fact, when I first inquired about Sexton, Tahira Stalberte in the public information office urged me to hang on to see the full list of finalists. I had to smile when it came out. Over the years all of them -- Maureen Furr at South Meck, Tonya Kales at Ashley Park, Sheila Ijames at Hawthorne, Rick Parker at East Meck and Terri Cockerham at Hough -- have helped me and my colleagues explain some of the tough issues of CMS, from teachers' concerns about testing to the quest to help disadvantaged kids. Principals have a tough job, and doing it in the public eye adds to the challenge. I salute all the principals who are willing and eager to help the public understand why their work matters.