LUMBERTON — Shanita Wooten has her work cut out for her if she is to be a transformative leader for the Public Schools of Robeson County.
Wooten’s title was upgraded Tuesday from interim to permanent superintendent. A Lumberton native, she has worked her way from the classroom to the superintendent’s office, earning a doctorate in education along the way.
With an unsettled school board, a low-performing school district and major construction projects on the drawing board, Wooten is blazing new trails as the system’s youngest-ever superintendent at 39, and the first black and woman to hold the job.
She has an undergraduate degree in Biology, a master’s degree in Public Health along with the doctorate. She has a pre-school child and a strong family of professionals in her corner.
The Robesonian interviewed Wooten on Friday, three days after the school board voted 8-3 to give her a three-year contract that will pay her $180,000 a year.
“I am grateful that they have given me the opportunity to serve,” Wooten said. “Going into this meeting, I did not have an expectation that this would happen. I knew the board was going to talk about options.”
The school board failed in its last two attempts to hire a superintendent, and there were some harsh words in open session. As one board member said at the conclusion, “We’ve had the opportunity to interview Dr. Wooten for this job for the past 14 months. I can’t wait to see how successful she will be.”
Wooten said the challenges are many, but she feels prepared for the job.
“Sometimes we lose focus and get caught up in the day-to-day issues,” Wooten said. “We need to focus on the big picture and not get distracted.
“Developing a strategic plan is important,” she said. “We need to be creative, although sometimes we get stuck in a rut of doing the same things over and over.”
Wooten would like to form a superintendent’s advisory council comprised of diverse stakeholders.
“An advisory council would help with goals for a strategic plan,” she said. “It would be made up of administrators, teachers, principals, community and board members and representatives from Robeson Community College and UNC Pembroke.”
Wooten is optimistic that old wounds will heal, and that the school board will unify.
“I believe the board has already begun to work together,” she said. “I’ve been pleased at how well they’ve supported each other.
“The board members have each given a little in terms of flexibility,” Wooten said. “They know their role, but they get so many calls each day from constituents, it’s difficult for them.”
In the past few months, the county commissioners have been at odds with the school board over a new central office. A split county board has sought to purchase the Angel Exchange building near Pembroke as the new central office, but the school board has said the building doesn’t fit its needs.
A more difficult, long-term problem is that Robeson’s schools rank at the bottom of the state for local funding.
“We all know we have to improve relationships with the county commissioners,” Wooten said. “We had a good meeting with them not long ago, which shows that we need to involve them more on a continuing basis.”
The public schools will make its funding request to the commissioners in the next few months. Wooten hinted that a request to increase local school funding may be in the pipeline.
“School safety will be a top priority,” she said. “We need to look for the true deficits in school safety and work on a plan with law enforcement input.”
School construction will also be a top priority. The destruction of West Lumberton Elementary School by Hurricane Matthew has put a new elementary school in play.
“I would love to see a new school,” Wooten said. “We are waiting on information about school demographics and population.
“We want to make a decision based on the facts,” she said. “There are population growth areas in the county that are crowding several schools.”
Wooten would like to have land purchased and a school design in hand to apply for state construction funding in 2019. But where to build?
“We want to look at the facts,” she said. “If a school is warranted somewhere other than Lumberton, that’s where it should go.”
Raising student achievement looms as the most significant and difficult challenge facing the new superintendent.
“We have 30 low-performing schools, and we need to address them one at a time,” Wooten said. “We’re the only school district in the region and one of 11 in the state with more than 25 percent of its schools that are low performing.”
Improving the quality of teachers and school leadership are two areas that Wooten will focus on, and will require staff and professional development.
“Instructional practices should be consistent throughout the district,” Wooten said. “We need to look at what’s working and what is not.
“Sometimes we get stuck in the rut of doing the same things over and over, when we need to be creative,” she said. “That goes for school leadership, administration and the superintendent.
“Administrators need to work on their craft, too,” Wooten said. “We’re good at attending conferences and hearing about new ideas. There needs to be follow through.”
Without tipping her hand, Wooten promises some creative, if not bold programs. Among other resources, she will look to two experimental schools, the state-run Innovative School District, which will take over Southside Ashpole next fall, and the a laboratory school at UNCP, which is expected to launch in fall 2019.
“These are opportunities, a way to bring some good things to Robeson County,” Wooten said.
If the Innovative School District can use the flexibility the legislature has given it to turn around a low-performing school, there may well be a valuable lesson. If the laboratory school trains teachers and principals to succeed in a low-performing setting, these are teachers and principals that Robeson County should hire, she said.
All of these pieces fit into Wooten’s concept of transformative leadership. It is a leadership rooted in shared goals and responsibilities. Consensus will come with input from diverse groups in the state’s most diverse county.
“I believe I’m here to serve,” she said. “This is service — but it’s shared leadership.
“Everybody brings something different to the table,” Wooten said. “I have strengths and weaknesses. I need the people around me who complement my strengths and weaknesses.”
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]