Valerie Bridges has always considered education an act of love.
From the days when she toddled around her mother’s elementary classroom in the Wake County, N.C., school system, she marveled at the warmth and energy her mother brought to the job.
Her mother, Gloria Howard, would eat lunch in her classroom with students, jump rope with them at recess, and stay after class to tutor those who needed extra help.
Bridges’ fascination continued into adulthood, when she would drop off her children at school and peek into her mother’s classroom. There were days when she was late to work for her job as a state auditor because she wanted to see her mother guide students through their morning routine.
“She was firm, she was personable, and she made kids believe in themselves,” Bridges said. “She created a family atmosphere in her classroom.”
Now the superintendent of the 6,200-student Edgecombe County, N.C., school system, Bridges has spent much of the past decade trying to bring that same feeling to this rural area, about an hour east of Raleigh, that’s sorely in need of steady leadership.
But changing outcomes and assumptions has not been an easy task.
- Cultivate Talent: Principals are the most important players. Invest in their personalized development to keep them current and in a state of constant growth. This can be achieved through coaching and building authentic relationships that provide leaders with a safe space to fail forward.
- Innovate: Innovation is a belief system and a thoughtful approach to real transformation, not a thing to pick up and put down based on convenience. Commit to being an ambidextrous organization; keep your eyes on today while also designing for tomorrow.
- Equity Matters: Create an environment that embraces equitable practices and pushes against systemic racism. All children deserve to be a part of a school system that strives to be a place where opportunities are no longer predicted by social, cultural, or economic factors. Leadership is about looking beyond the probable future for students and seeing the possible future.
The region and its schools have long been at a crossroads as they struggle with population decline, a shortage of qualified teachers, and significant racial disparities in student discipline. During the pandemic, the widespread lack of quality internet access also emerged as a major challenge.
To respond to those problems, Bridges created a “grow-your-own” program designed to nurture teaching talent in Edgecombe, started a top-down review of student discipline policies, operated in-school internet cafes for middle and high school students, and established micro-schools and learning pods—small schools or groups of students that learn outside the traditional classroom structure.
Bridges’ efforts have started to yield benefits four years into her tenure. Twelve of the county’s 14 schools “met” or “exceeded” growth during the most recent round of state testing in the 2018-19 school year. The number of high-performing schools has also doubled since the 2016-17 school year, Bridges’s first as superintendent. Schools in the district’s “Innovation Zone”—a three-school area where educators experiment with different learning models to develop strategies to boost student achievement—have shown promising results that the district hopes to replicate in other schools.
But despite the progress, much work remains to be done because the challenges in Edgecombe County run deep, residents said.
“The most dishonest thing we can do in life is to expect something of children that we don’t equip them to do,” said the Rev. Richard Joyner, a pastor in Conetoe, a town of 365 people in northern Edgecombe County. “In a place where students already feel like they’ve been abandoned, the schools don’t need to be another place to make them feel like that.”
Addressing Disparities in Discipline
Between the time they begin middle school until they finish high school, Edgecombe County’s students miss an average of 183 days of school—more than an entire year of instruction—because of out-of-school suspensions, according to an October report from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles that examined data from the 2015-16 school year.
The study found that black students missed 2 ½ times more school days than their white peers because of suspensions. About 48 percent of the district’s students are Black, 44 percent are white, 5 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are multi-racial.
To keep more students in school and rethink how discipline is meted out, the district is revamping its student code of conduct. Bridges and her leadership team hope to root out biases that have left Black and Hispanic students bearing the brunt of the disparities, establishing a professional development plan to help teachers and principals understand why they suspend those students more than others.
“We can get into this thing where ‘It’s us against them,’ but we never win like that,” Bridges said. “We can’t suspend our way out of whatever concerns we have. We’ve got to come at it from different directions.”
Despite her admiration for the profession, Bridges did not begin her career as an educator. She worked as an auditor for the state of North Carolina after earning an undergraduate degree in accounting and an MBA.
She had always loved math and solving problems, which made her first career choice a natural fit. But those frequent visits to her mother’s classroom and seeing her own children flourish, led to volunteer opportunities in the school and an eventual career switch.
She began her formal work in education in high schools, teaching accounting, computer, and network engineering classes.
If I can advocate for a school system and I can advocate for opportunities and exposure for our kids to make it better, I feel compelled to do it.
Though Bridges has moved on to leadership roles, she still longs to teach and connect with students.
She continues to work with small groups of elementary students twice-per-week on their reading and math skills. She tries to keep the same students each week and keep the groups small so she can monitor firsthand their growth and progress.
“It’s an absolute blast,” she said. “I tell people, ‘You know, they actually pay us to do this.’”
Using Education As a Form of Advocacy
Equity is a cornerstone of Bridges’s leadership.
“Valerie is one of those leaders that firmly believes that race or class or any other social determinant should not be a reliable predictor of student success,” said Kenita Williams, the director of leadership development at the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation.
Bridges was a fellow in the foundation’s 2017 inaugural class of its Racial Equity Leadership Network, an 18-month program for district leaders who commit to addressing race and class disparities in student outcomes. And Williams selected Edgecombe as the site visit for the second class and a model for the shift districts should undertake in their pursuit of equity in education.
In some cases, the numbers are stacked against Edgecombe County. It placed 95th out of 100 in the 2020 “Roadmap of Need,” a statewide child wellness assessment produced by the Public School Forum of North Carolina, which ranked each county on the obstacles to success that students face.
“It’s all of our jobs to advocate for kids, to make a way for them, and listen,” Bridges said. “If we work on that, this will be a happier community, it will be a better place to live, and a better place to work. That’s my belief.”
After teaching and working as a principal in Wake County, one of the nation’s largest school districts, and spending time as an administrator near Greensboro, Bridges sought a new challenge in eastern rural North Carolina, a region that has been battered by job loss and academic struggles.
As a teacher, her mother always took on students who were considered tough to work with—and Bridges has sought out similar challenges in her career as an educator.
“That’s how I got to [Edgecombe]. I just really wanted a challenge, wanted to make a difference,” Bridges said. “I really believe that if you do the right things, you’ll see results in our kids.”
Bridges arrived in Edgecombe County in 2012, rising through the ranks to become superintendent in 2017. That year she launched two initiatives that have been at the center of her efforts to reform the district: a teacher-scholar program that she hopes will bring graduates back to the district to teach, and a micro-school that aims to strengthen the ties between students and school.
The district’s first micro-school, The North Phillips School of Innovation, began in a high school with 30 8th- and-9th-grade students.
Plagued by poor academic performance, high student absenteeism, and frequent discipline problems. “the outcomes were just really not good for kids in that area,” said Erin Swanson, the director of innovation for the system. “We needed to do some things dramatically different.”
The smaller learning environments in the micro-school allowed for deeper connections with staff. After just one year, the students reported feeling safer and more supported in the school, and their reading and science test scores improved.
The limited success with the micro-school led to adjustments districtwide, using a provision in North Carolina state law that grants schools more flexibility in how they educate students. Across the district’s “Innovation Zone,” educators met with families to ask what they needed, and what they heard surprised them. Parents and students wanted more personal connections and learning that connected to their everyday lives. The micro-school program was expanded last year to include all 8th, 9th and 10th graders and this school year to all 5th- through 12th-grade students. The goals is to create opportunities for smaller learning environments, where students spend more time working with a cohort of peers, teachers, and school staff.
After the coronavirus school closures, the district created remote learning pods and internet cafes for middle and high school students who lack internet access. In the cafes, students visit the schools at scheduled times to use the internet and other technology they may not have at home. Roughly 1 in 5 students in Edgecombe County do not have access to broadband internet, according to The Center on Rural Innovation, a Vermont-based nonprofit that maps broadband access in rural areas.
Both the learning pods and cafes may endure beyond the pandemic.
‘Still Our Kids’
With support from philanthropies, the district’s scholar-teacher program pays for dual high school-college enrollment and up to $30,000 in college scholarships for students who pledge to return to the district to teach for at least three years. Students who don’t return must repay the money.
“Our goal is to keep you for 30 [years] and to make you a part of our school system,” Bridges said. “These are kids who’ve grown up in Edgecombe County. They know the poverty level. They know the concerns. And so there’s no surprise. There’s no, ‘I don’t know how to deal with this,’ because they start as high school students working in our schools.”
The first of the program’s 18 participants have yet to graduate college, but they are part of a broader push by the district to remain connected with graduates.
When students head off to college, teachers and other employees send them postcards and continue to provide guidance and support through phone calls and texts. Many staff see it as part of their mission to remind students that returning home to serve is always an option.
Before the pandemic, Bridges would pack a bag full of Edgecombe County T-shirts and other swag to hand out to alumni when she traveled to homecoming at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.
“When you walk across the [stage at graduation], we’re not turning you loose,” Bridges said. “Those are still our kids.”
Seth Saeugling, co-founder of the Rural Opportunity Institute, a nonprofit that aims to end generational trauma and poverty in the county, said Bridges has “figured out how to make positive things happen in a really complex environment.”
“That’s fueled by her willingness to respond from a place of empathy,” Saeugling said.
That empathy extends to students and staff. When the pandemic struck, Bridges wanted to find a way to connect with all of the district’s employees. Her staff created a card design with her digital signature attached. But Bridges wanted to sign each card individually for a more personal touch.
“I was like ‘Ma’am, it’s like 800-something cards here,” said Abbey Futrell, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “She was like ‘Put them in a box. I’m going to take them home.’”
She did. She signed them all, “Love, Dr. B.”
Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Nurturing Talent At Home to Revive A Struggling Region