Leadership Lessons

Sharon Contreras – Preaching the good word of education

Sharon Contreras knows she stands on hallowed ground.

After a career in education in several other states, she is now leading Guilford County Schools, headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina, and home of the civil rights-era Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins. In 1960, local African-American students launched a movement that forced the integration of the company’s lunch counters after braving the verbal and physical abuse of White customers who opposed their efforts for equality.

“On one hand, they worked to integrate the lunch counters,” Sharon said. “Today, our students can sit at integrated lunch counters together but many cannot read the menus.” She first heard educator Howard Fuller make this statement years ago. It stuck.

“We have come so far. Yet, in many respects, we have so far to go in public education because so many students are still struggling with basic reading proficiency. So that, to me, is the work of superintendent and educators,” Sharon said. “How do we ensure that every student graduates with the skills to be able to participate in our democracy? You cannot fully participate if you cannot read.”

Sharon is resolute in her will to advocate for rigorous and inclusive learning environments for students she leads, from her time as a high school English teacher and principal in Rockford, Illinois, to a series of central office academic leadership positions in Clayton County, Georgia, Rhode Island, and as superintendent in Syracuse, New York, before landing in Greensboro.

During her time in Syracuse, Sharon expanded career technical education partnerships for students across the district, implemented a policy under state order to rethink student disciplinary practices and built partnerships with community organizations.

“When I look at it today: elementary students cannot be suspended in Syracuse. Graduation rates are the highest they’ve ever been. The graduation rates for African-American students are equal to White students,” she said. “I don’t know of any other urban district where that is the case.”

But in the beginning, the rumor mill in Syracuse suggested that she was not appropriately licensed to hold the district’s chief executive role. “I remember one of the first comments written about me was that I was a triple-affirmative-action threat — a woman, Black and Latino,” Sharon told Education Week. “The way I addressed the issue was by doing a good job, by being a strong superintendent. You don’t keep throwing in someone’s face, ‘I am equally qualified, it doesn’t matter that I am a person of color. It doesn’t matter that I am a woman.’ You don’t need to say that. You just do the work, and people will see that you are qualified.”

Sharon is a member of the Delta Sigma Theta, one of the oldest and most recognized Black sororities in the country. “You are taught to persevere, and you are taught about sisterhood. You either survive together or you fail together.”

Upon her arrival in Guilford County, she told the board, “I want to remind everyone there are no superheroes in education. We either succeed together or we fail together. But I believe this community wants us to succeed.”

She is the fourth superintendent to be sworn in since 1993 in Guilford County, and she is its first female leader. She is ready for students, teachers, families and staff to succeed together.

“That drives me every day. It’s not about being able to pass a state test. That is an indicator, but it is about improving student life outcomes. That’s the only thing that matters to me,” she explained. “If a student is not able to take care of themselves or their families or contribute to our democracy, then we have failed as educators.”

This determination led Sharon, one of 10 children born to her Black, Venezuelan and Puerto Rican parents, to become an educator — even when one of her siblings once said, “Too bad she’s going into teaching. She could have done anything.”

Serving students and preaching the good word of education is what Sharon knows best.

She delivered her first message to the Guilford County Schools community at her swearing in ceremony in 2016, just after the great-nephew she is raising held the Bible she used to pledge her dedication to students. “This is personal for me, because what you cannot see by looking at me is that I cannot hear you. I am reading your lips. I lost my hearing about 10 years ago, but one of these bright, gifted babies is going to become a scientist and learn how to regrow nerve cells. That’s what I believe. I see the potential in every single one of them. When I look at them, I don’t see what they might have done, what people say they are going to become. I see the very best in every one of them, and that is my expectation for all of us educators and community members.” Sharon says she tells her mom that one day a child in her district will discover the scientific solution to their shared nerve hearing loss.

Sharon is no stranger to being the first woman or person of color to lead in her previous positions. She understands the strength of mind a leader must have in the face of challenges. “As superintendents, we have to stay focused on the core business and on what’s important. You’re always going to have somebody who is upset with you who is going to try to take you off your focus. I won’t be dragged down into that. I’m going to focus on the work because students and teachers need us to show leadership.”

Sharon’s parents weren’t educators, but they taught her to be strong. “Some of it comes from my parents, who always taught me to stay focused and to excel. ‘As a woman of color, you will always face micro-aggressions. You’re always going to have people try to keep you from achieving. You have to persevere.’ I learned that from them.”

She grew up attending a strict, bilingual Pentecostal church in Brooklyn. “If I wasn’t in school, I was in church, weekly services, doing my homework in church. Wednesday prayer. Friday service. Sunday services two and three times. Lots of church. My parents were very, very strict. I really resented it growing up, but I look back now, and faith has really sustained me.”

Skirts were mandatory in the early days for women, along with overall modesty, and everyone is expected to read the Bible daily for inspiration and direction. But that tight-knit church community built character in young Sharon, preparing her for a time when she may be on her own. It also taught her great communication skills.

“I’ll preach the paint off the walls if you give me a microphone,” Sharon said. When people ask her why her messages are so motivational, she tells them, “You learn to preach when you go to a Pentecostal church.”

Recently she gave a speech to 500 people rolling out the main points of the district’s strategic plan, while also highlighting three lessons from the new Black Panther movie and the Wakanda universe of attributes.

One lesson was, “You can be a good man and a king,” countering the original message told to King T’Challa. The next was, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” urging Guilford County Schools to push for more Princess Shuris in its science, technology, engineering and math and career technical education programming, where females are not as present as males. The last lesson was based on what the technology guru Princess Shuri told her brother when he was hesitant to upgrade his Black Panther suit: “Just because it works doesn’t mean you can’t improve it.”

“I got a standing ovation,” Sharon said. “It was one of my favorite speeches.”

Creating a better district begins before a child walks into preschool, which is why Guilford County Schools is partnering with community groups, hospitals and higher-education institutions to implement the “Ready for School, Ready for Life” initiative to incorporate public and private resources to meet community goals of nurturing healthy students ready to learn.

Sharon is excited about sitting side by side with partners to eradicate gaps in opportunity and achievement and ensure all third graders read at grade level. “We’re trying to move beyond third grade literacy as a school district goal to literacy as a community goal,” she said. “Working with the community is essential for school systems to actually be successful in achieving their goals.”

She understands community, and she understands the urgency to improve the life options for students. Guilford County Schools has, both, some of the best and some of the most challenged schools in North Carolina.

For students to excel in STEM and CTE fields, their teachers need to better understand the necessary skills themselves, which is why Sharon and her team are working on creating externships with STEM companies and legislation that will generate tax incentives for companies to send employees to co-teach at school sites.

An avid reader of a few books and several articles a week, Sharon is bringing new eyes to her role. She has the experience of so many educational efforts from multiple states, including her own, to draw upon as she leads students in the 658-mile district.

As she wrote in her strategic plan to the community, “We will rise and fall together. Excellence
for some is not an option. We must have excellence for all.”

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