By Jesse Wood
Sept. 14, 2012. Jay Fenwick is the only candidate running for Watauga County Board of Education who has kids currently in Watauga County Schools.
So, Fenwick said, not only as a community member but as a parent, he has a vested interest in local education.
Amidst Green Valley Elementary School, his three kids – known as the Fenwick Boys – have a reputation of being very bright and musically gifted.
At one time, all three of his boys attended Green Valley, but only Ethan, an eighth grader who plays guitar and is a general sports nut, remains. Grayson, a classical guitarist, is a junior at Watauga High School, where he plays soccer, and Baron, the oldest, is now studying piano performance at Mannes College – The New School for Music in New York City.
Green Valley Principal Phillip Griffin had nothing but good words to say about Fenwick and his family. When all three kids attended Green Valley at the same time, both Fenwick and his wife Cindy were officers on the Green Valley PTA.
Griffin said the couple was “pivotal” in developing and establishing a relationship between school faculty and the PTA. He added that the Fenwicks are a major reason why the Green Valley PTA continues to be supportive of what today’s teachers face in the classroom.
“Our PTA really owes Jay and Cindy a lot of credit for paving the way. They were so willing at the time to go that extra mile and find out what teachers needed, and they worked to meet those needs,” Griffin said.
With Ethan in his last year at Green Valley, Griffin said that the Fenwicks have stepped into the background, allowing others to take on leadership roles, adding that the two are still “helping to make things happen” and making it easier for the current PTA.
Many times, Fenwick has stepped inside the classroom to share his “academic expertise and knowledge,” Phillip said, with the children – whether they were academically gifted or exceptional.
“He relates very well to children regardless of their ability and regardless of their interest,” Griffin said. “He’s been a model volunteer in our school, a great parent and a supportive parent.”
As for Fenwick’s three children, Griffin said, “Just like all kids, they are a good reflection of what environment they have been brought up in, and the Fenwick Boys are a perfect example of the power of that influence.”
A Deep Commitment to Local Education
In 1987, Fenwick graduated with a bachelors of science in Mathematics from the University of Maryland at College Park. After graduating, he worked as a programmer/analyst and eventually earned a master’s degree in Computer Science in 1995 and a doctorate in Computer Science in 1998 – both from the University of Delaware.
He worked on his grandfather’s tobacco farm in high school and some of college and worked his way through college with a graveyard shift loading tractor trailers at UPS.
Both Fenwick and his wife teach at ASU and have been married for 22 years. They moved to Boone in 1995 to teach at ASU. (In 2004, he was tenured and in 2012, he was promoted to full professor.)
“We fell in love with Watauga County at first sight,” Fenwick said, because of “its gorgeous scenery, its uniquely beautiful seasons and its kind and generous people.”
Asked about any “interesting” skills or information about himself, Fenwick wrote in an email, “I can juggle. I can wiggle my ears. I used to be able to dunk a basketball, [and] I’ve written apps for my smartphone.”
Concerning local education, Fenwick said his commitment runs deep. Aside from dressing up as Spongebob Squarepants; Ralfie Raffle, the human raffle ticket; and a walking pancake for various local education fundraisers, he disguised himself as Dolly Parton during the Boone Chamber of Commerce Adult Spelling Bee to benefit the Watauga Education Foundation’s Imagination Library project. (We are still waiting for that picture!)
His time on the Green Valley PTA included two years as co-president and one year as treasurer. Also, Fenwick has been on other various parent committees including the Watauga High School Feasibility Study. For the past eight years, he has been a board member of the Watauga Education Foundation and is part of a team at ASU that offers summer workshops on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) topics for area middle school teachers.
The Time to Run is Now
For the past couple years, Fenwick has thought that school board service might be in his future, but he was waiting for that ever-elusive perfect moment.
Earlier this year, however, Fenwick heard that three Watauga County Board of Education incumbents weren’t running for re-election in 2012, and he decided to seize the opportunity.
“One of the things is if you are waiting for the perfect moment, it might never come,” Fenwick recalled. “And I said, ‘I need to do it now.’”
During the summer, Fenwick has reviewed meeting minutes to “familiarize myself with” and to keep abreast of recent and current issues addressed by the school board and he has attended the monthly board meetings, which he plans to continue leading up to Election Day.
Fenwick is a Democrat and has attended recent events hosted by the Watauga County Democratic Party, which is supporting Fenwick. He said he’s a Democrat because he believes “a shared governance kind of system works well.”
“Particularly well with education,” Fenwick said. “Working together is key, to share a collective mentality to solving our problems. That is why I am a Democrat. Why I am running for school board is to bring that to issues facing Watauga County education.”
The race features three candidates backed by Democrats, two backed by Republicans and one who is running unaffiliated. And it is a competitive one with five of the six candidates running for three seats within five percentage points of each other.
Fenwick edged Deborah Greene by two votes for fourth place. He said it’s a “logjam” in the middle but that he is still vying for the top spot. To separate himself from the pack, he added that “ever single day” he is doing something for his campaign, whether it is phoning Watauga County residents or going to his kid’s soccer game and sitting on the opposite side of the bleachers to talk with parents Fenwick doesn’t know well.
Raising the Bar of Excellence
Fenwick said Watauga County Schools needs, in what he calls, a “vision” of education in the county, and he praised Supt. David Kafitz for engaging in a five-year strategic plan. Fenwick said once a plan has been made, then strategic steps need to be taken to fulfill that plan.
“We need to start with that vision. That’s the board’s role – to participate in the defining of that vision,” Fenwick said, adding that engaging the community in how that vision should be molded is part of the process.
Along with a long-term plan, he said another goal would be to improve communication between the school board and the entire community either by maintaining or establishing strong relationships. This, he feels, is something he is naturally suited for.
“I think that is something I am good at, getting to know people and getting people to trust me, working with people and understanding other view points,” Fenwick said. “I think that is an area I could bring a lot to the board.”
Speaking to High Country Press before the May 8 primary, Fenwick said he was running for school board because strong local education leadership is needed.
“Leadership to defend against attacks coming from the state level, attacks that cut teacher positions, increase class sizes, and reduce access to pre-K education. Leadership to empower teachers and principals and not drown them in more silly red tape, teachers want to help students learn not fill out forms,” Fenwick said. “Leadership to listen, investigate and ask tough questions, why are school cafeterias throwing away food when so many in our community are hungry?”
He also added that he wants to “spearhead” a renewed commitment to art, music and foreign language programs – especially elementary school foreign language programs, in light of the fact of the rising Spanish-speaking population. He also wants to make children’s health a priority, stating that “nutrition, exercise and safe environments are vital components to fostering a culture of learning.”
But when you ask Fenwick about these issues, he doesn’t start rattling off concerns or issues facing Watauga County, he’ll start off by mentioning what’s great about Watauga County Schools, and he will cite that local schools consistently score as Schools of Distinction or Excellence.
“Our education in Watauga County is really excellent. I believe that strongly. But can we do better? Sure, we can do better. Watauga received an award last year for graduation-rate improvement recognized by the state. We can make that even better,” Fenwick said. “As a board member, I will continue to push, continue to raise the bar of excellence higher than it already is.”