By Jesse Wood
Oct. 3, 2012. During the May 8 primary, Brenda Reese was the top dog of the Watauga County Board of Education runoff. Facing seven candidates, she received more than 20 percent of the vote.
This shouldn’t be surprising, though, considering her 30-plus years as an educator in public schools, where she has excelled in both teaching and administrative roles. In her career, she has won Teacher of the Year at Elk Park Elementary and Principal of the Year in two schools – Mabel and Crossnore Elementary schools.
Although her whole career has been in education, it has been fairly diverse. She has taught or administered in the smallest populated areas in the state – Crossnore and Elk Park Elementary schools in Avery County – and in the largest populated areas in North Carolina – in Charlotte at Eastway Daycare and Kindergarten, where her career in education began at a time when kindergarten wasn’t a vital component of public schools in the state, and in Raleigh at Lacy Classical Magnet School.
From about 1990 to 1997, Reese was the Watauga County director of exceptional children and federal programs (Title 1 and gifted). Early in her career, she was a substitute and an assistant teacher. Currently, she is principal at Freedom Trail Elementary, where she has been at the helm since 2010.
“She knows both sides of education,” said Jim Deni, a professor at ASU who served on the Watauga County Board of Education from 1992 to 2000 while Reese was an administrator with Watauga County Schools and principal of Mabel. He added that she has a great relationship with teachers.
“I think she would be a great school board member. She has a wealth of experience in education as a teacher, director of special education and principal in Watauga County and obviously Avery,” Deni said. “She has the knowledge for education. That’s been her career from the ground up.”
From Buncombe to Boone
Reese grew up in Buncombe County, where she attended Enka High School and the Asheville Biltmore College before it became the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
When the N.C. Highway Patrol stationed her husband in Charlotte she moved to the Queen City. Eventually, she moved back to the High Country when their daughter was old enough to go to school.
“We wanted our daughter to go to school in the mountains,” Reese said, who began working in Avery County schools in the late ‘60s.
She went back to school and graduated from ASU in 1976. She taught in Avery County Schools until she received her master’s degree in 1983 from ASU. When she and her first husband divorced, she moved to Wake County and married her best friend Andy Reese, who was a career educator from Watauga County and served on the local school board for eight years. Andy Reese passed away 2009.
The Reeses then moved back to Watauga in 1990, where Mrs. Reese has lived in the same house ever since. They moved back to care for Andy’s uncle and aunt Dean and Carrie Reese who lived in the Beaver Dam community in Western Watauga. It was then that she went to work in Watauga County Schools.
In her spare time outside of school, Reese said she’s an active grandparent of a ten-year-old boy and that “homework and football practice are daily events at my house.” She also mentioned that she loves antiques, “especially cobalt blue glass and flow blue china.” She likes to travel, too, having recently had the opportunity to visit China.
An Innovator in the Schools
Reese chose to run for the school board after she was approached by several community members that encouraged her to run for one of the three vacant seats on the board. As mentioned before she has worked in many facets of the schools, but a spot on the school board would be a completely different undertaking.
“I decided to accept the challenge as a way of giving back to a system which has supported and given me so many opportunities in the past. I have devoted my entire career to making life better for children of all ages,” Reese said during the candidate profiles for High Country Press’ coverage of the May primary election. “Now I have the opportunity to move into another level of decision-making where budget and policy decisions directly affect every child in the district.”
Speaking recently, Reese said her different experiences and roles within a variety of schools has given her a “new perspective and insight” in education, where she is able to “take all the parts and integrate them and take the best of the best and not use what doesn’t work well.”
She added that she is always looking for new and better ideas and that there is a joke going around the schools with teachers who have worked Reese.
“When I come up to them and say I have an opportunity for them, they don’t know necessarily if they want to run towards me or away from me,” Reese said. “So opportunity is one of my favorite words. I am willing to try new things.”
One thing Deni noted of Reese’s work was the “innovative things” taking place during his time as a school board member. Another was her community outreach.
“I remember when she was at Mabel. She was one of the few principals that I knew of that were doing full inclusion … and she had reading initiatives going on in her school where parents could come in and learn how to use computers,” Deni said, adding that she was responsible for creating a community park at Mabel, where folks can walk around the track or have a picnic or community function.
Former Watauga County Schools Supt. Dick Jones also worked with Reese while she was a Mabel. He said she was a “tremendous advocate” for Mabel Elementary School and the Mabel community.
“She was willing to fight for her school, almost literally. She would go out and get all the resources we possibly could for her schools and kids,” Jones said. “I remember one time she had a multiple-page list of things to do. I said, ‘Brenda (who is an avid grant writer) you can’t get all of this done. You have to prioritize.’ She said, ‘Nope. All these things we need, and I am going to try to get it done.”
He added, “She was a team player as far as the system, and her full attention was focused on Mabel School and I respect that tremendously.”
About seven years ago, Reese retired for about six months but came back to work in the schools because she “loved it.” Fortunately, she said, she still enjoys what she does.
“I continue to enjoy my work as a principal. I say it is the best job I have ever had. I enjoy seeing the global picture, and this position definitely allows me that opportunity,” Reese said.
Recently, someone asked Reese if she was going to continue working in the schools, and Reese said, “Why not?”
As for the school board race, she stands on her record as an educator, adding that not too many people in Watauga County have worked in the many different areas of education – from pre-K to high school to exceptional children.
Her “learning curve” will be much shorter, she noted, because her extensive experience and familiarity with current issues.
“I have worked with every single school in the system and at every grade level in the system. Some things you do universally, but every single school in the system has some set of needs and chemistry. It’s not cookie cutter. Bethel is a very different from Green Valley which is very different from Parkway,” Reese said.
Reese is one of three candidates running for school board that are backed by the Watauga County Democratic Party. Asked why she was a Democrat, Reese said, “When I was a little girl, I asked my daddy why he was a Democrat. He said because they take care of people and I’ll always remember him telling me that.”
Currently, the “biggest challenge” facing Watauga County Schools – and schools across the state, for that matter – that Reese sees is the adoption of the Common Core State Standards.
She said it’s a “good thing in a lot of ways” but a “big paradigm shift” that puts a hefty learning curve on teachers and administrators.
“One of my biggest concerns is figuring out how to get professional development to those that need it and the time to make necessary changes needed to go on with teaching, so this process doesn’t absolutely kill the teachers,” Reese said. “It’s a massive undertaking for everyone … big change for teachers and a big change for parents.”
Another issue is communication, Reese mentioned, adding that she wants to make sure the “right hand is talking to the left hand” and pass this info on to the parents so children understand that they will be expected to do things differently than in the past.
Also, technology is on top of her list, too. In Avery County, elementary students have iPads and middle and high school students have MacBooks and teachers have iPads and MacBooks. She said she would certainly consider this for Watauga County, however, she hasn’t decided whether kindergartners to second graders should have iPads because those students are still working on basic skills. She said that kind of technology works better from the third grade up.
“There are not very many jobs any more where people don’t have to interact with a computer in some capacity,” Reese said. “At the same time, we still can’t turn loose the old-fashioned skills such as hand writing and multiplication facts. Those are foundation skills that we still have to teach.”
During an interview during the primary, Reese mentioned three components of Watauga County Schools that she would address: early intervention/prevention, key personnel, and managing constant changes.
“Early intervention and prevention of learning problems in early education has significant payoffs in later years,” she said.
As for personnel issues, “We need the best teachers and assistants we can locate to teach our children. Then, we need to give them our full support and eliminate as many obstacles as possible to allow them to teach. This includes lobbying our legislature and government officials for adequate financial support so that we can keep class sizes reasonable, we can provide technology and related materials and supports, and we can provide relevant professional development opportunities for them. We not only must locate the best, but we must also keep them once we have them because training takes time and is expensive.”
They break her heart. For the past four or five years, she said schools have incurred annual budget cuts.
“At first we said we would tighten our belts, we’ll do away with this. We can manage. Then the next year we had to tighten some more,” Reese said. “It’s so tight I lost a teacher this year … We keep trying to think out of the box and how we can do away with this or that. It gets harder and harder.”
She said that funding comes from many different sources with certain restrictions on funds and that this is hard to explain to the public.
“I ask my teachers what their needs and dreams are. Sometimes because the way the money comes in I can get a dream but can’t pay for a need just based on those restrictions,” Reese said.
She said it’s a balancing act figuring out how to make due with the funding that is available.
“I would love to be able to wave a magic wand,” Reese said. “I just try to make wise choices. You can’t please everybody, but you have to live with yourself after you make the choice.”