7/31/11 Getting started

Cox with school board chairwoman Jackie Cole during a meeting.

Photo by Scott Muthersbaugh / Times-News

Cox with school board chairwoman Jackie Cole during a meeting.

Getting started
By Mike Wilder The Times-News 7/31/11     
Reprinted with permission.

Hiring a school system superintendent takes months. There’s a reason. Alamance-Burlington Board of Education members will tell you the choice is likely to be the most important one they’ll make. After former superintendent Randy Bridges left the system in late 2010, board members spent extensive time and effort narrowing a field that began with 30 applicants.

 Their eventual choice for the job: Lillie Cox, who had been assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction during Bridges’ time leading the system.


 Cox is the first female superintendent of the Alamance-Burlington system, created in 1996 by the merger of the former Alamance County and Burlington school systems, and the first since Mary Jo Utley headed the Alamance County Schools in the 1990s. And at 39, she is by far the youngest person to hold the job.

 A little less than four weeks after Cox returned to the system July 1, she spoke with the Times-News about her goals for the system and thoughts about education:


Relatively young age aside, she has a lot of it. After teaching high school English and social studies, she served as an elementary, middle and high school principal before going into central office administration. That included a stint in the large Guilford County system before working in the Alamance-Burlington system from 2006 to 2009. She left in 2009 to become superintendent of the Hickory Public Schools in western North Carolina.


Cox has spent a lot of her first few weeks talking with principals, central office staff members and school board members. Besides that, “I’ve hired five principals in three weeks,” Cox said a day before the school board approved her choices to lead Williams and Graham high schools, Woodlawn Middle School and Haw River and Smith elementary schools during a Wednesday meeting.

 Without significant knowledge of the system coming into the job, Cox said, “I don’t think I could have done that” while also spending large amounts of time getting input from people.

 She’s working on soon-to be-implemented plans for restructuring of the system’s central office. While those were not completed when Cox spoke with the Times-News, she said one major vacancy in the system’s central office, created when former assistant superintendent Ronnie Wall retired, will not be filled. His responsibilities included overseeing the system’s facilities.


Cox did not absolutely rule out potential negatives about returning to lead a system in which people knew her in a different role. But if she perceives challenges of that kind, she doesn’t appear to be dwelling on them.

 “I think going away and coming back makes it easier,” Cox said, than if she had been promoted from assistant superintendent to superintendent within the same system. For one thing, that gave her a chance to get on-the-job knowledge of leading a system in a different environment.


Asked what makes her proudest about her time in Hickory, Cox mentioned lowering the system’s student dropout rate, which had been the highest in the state. She also mentioned the system’s opening of a magnet high school.


While it won’t happen immediately, Cox wants to work with school board members on a strategic plan for the system. (School board member Tony Rose, an Elon University employee, has mentioned Elon’s success in reaching goals through long-term planning in suggesting the system needs its own plan). Cox said the plan will touch on every aspect of the system, including academics, facilities and community involvement in education.

 Cox thinks discussion of the system’s attendance zones and where students go to school will be coming up, with potential implications for mid-to-long-range building plans, redistricting and discussions about diversity as a factor in where students attend school.

 “That’s a common thread that I have heard from all of the school board members,” she said.


Cox said she wants to empower people by including them in discussions of how to improve education. Along with that, she has high standards for how people do their jobs and that they share her high expectations for students.

 “I value input and I value collaboration,” she said. Her expectations for providing opportunities for students is non-negotiable.

 Cox wants to develop a mindset in which employees become leaders within their areas of responsibility. Whether they aspire or not to become assistant principals or principals, she wants teachers to become leaders within their schools.

 “We want people to be constantly growing and improving,” she said.


During a backto-school rally for teachers in the system’s five year round schools, Cox talked about “timely” use of data showing where individual students are doing well and where they are struggling. Besides teachers, Cox said, principals and central office employees will be heavily involved in what goes on in classrooms.

 Academics won’t be the sole focus in connection with students. Cox talked with the Times-News about education from a “wholechild perspective,” a theme sometimes brought up by school board member and pediatrician Kristen Moffitt. That includes social skills, physical well-being and appreciation of art and music.


Cox stops short of saying teachers locally and beyond are being asked to do more than in previous decades, preferring to say “They’re being asked to do things differently … the days of lecturing to a classroom of 30 children and giving a quiz or a test and moving on are over with. We need to be monitoring individual student success.”

 Part of the focus on achieving as much success as possible for every child is the result of an economy in which there are few good-paying jobs for the poorly educated. Along with that, Cox said, research has greatly expanded educators’ knowledge about what teaching methods are effective.

 “We have really evolved as a profession,” she said.


“We should respect each other’s role,” Cox said, with the superintendent not infringing on the board’s policy-making duties and the board respecting the same boundaries as the superintendent oversees the system’s day-to-day operations


Overall, Cox said, “We have a very supportive community.” While people think of funding when support for schools is mentioned, Cox said supporting education includes parents working with their children at home by making reading and other forms of education a priority as a key way to support schools.

 A large factor in the achievement gap among different groups of students, Cox said, relates to the growing number of students from low-income families. Often, those students “are coming to schools with fewer skills,” including something as simple but as important as being familiar with fewer words.

 Cox said she’ll look for opportunities to reach out beyond the school system, including speaking with organizations about what is going on with education and how they can help.

 “Any opportunity I can have,” she will take, Cox said.