Dr. Willette Nash – Team Member Highlight
The Piedmont Renewal Network (PRN) is made possible by a dynamic and rapidly growing group of talented individuals. Between teachers and tutors, staff and administrators, boards and councils, the PRN is currently composed of several dozen team members, all working to create a new reality for Winston-Salem.
Few have been so instrumental in the continued expansion of this team as Dr. Willette Nash, the PRN’s Academic Director. A recent retiree of Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools, Dr. Nash not only looks after the quality of the Renewal Network’s academic instruction, but also oversees staffing and management of all academic personnel. This week, we are pleased to highlight Dr. Nash’s story and perspectives, and her central role in the development of this project:
You have lived In Winston-Salem your entire life. Tell us about your experience growing up in such changing times.
“I’m going to start with where we are now in Winston-Salem. The city, especially downtown, is very different than when I was a child. RJ Reynolds was the major employer back then and people did well. They were able to buy houses and new cars and send their children off to college. For years after Reynolds left it just seemed like there was nothing to do downtown, but that is starting to change again. There are a lot of people moving here to take advantage of the new economy and that’s good.
You have to understand though that really from the time I was born until, oh, so about 13 I only lived in East Winston and all I really knew was East Winston.
I attended predominantly black schools, and our teachers had high expectations for us. I think they understood the challenges that we would face. They tried to cultivate the idea that in order for you to be successful you have to have an education; that’s your way out of poverty. When you get out into the world you would have to be 110% qualified just to be accepted, and they did their best for us.
The schools that were on the east side of Winston were truly neighborhood schools. Your teachers were in the community. They went to church with your parents, they shopped at the same grocery stores. Family involvement in a student’s education happened everywhere our parents went because our teachers were always around. When I was young my grandmother could just walk to Brown Elementary where I went to school to make sure I had a hot meal for lunch, or to stick her head in the classroom to make sure I got where I was supposed to be.
When I was thirteen integration began to kick in and the teachers crossed over [that is, crossed over highway 52, the interstate that generally divides Winston-Salem by race and class]. That changed the dynamic for everyone. We no longer had true neighborhood schools, so I started riding the bus. As I rode the bus I began to have more experiences in other places in the county, not just in East Winston.
I headed off to Winston-Salem State University to study education when I graduated high school, and the expectations were high there too. The professors expected you to develop into a very strong teacher — a knowledgeable teacher and a firm educator.
They also helped us understand that education and teaching weren’t going to be easy. You don’t go into it for the money; you go into it because you are committed to education.
So I grew up right on that cusp of integration where the only thing a black female could be was either an educator or a nurse. My sister was an educator and she looked quite successful so I followed in her path. Of course, times have changed in that regard.”
“They also helped us understand that education and teaching weren’t going to be easy. You don’t go into it for the money; you go into it because you are committed to education.“
You finished your career as a Curriculum Administrator specializing in Multicultural Education. What drew you to this work and what did it entail?
“What put me on the path to the multicultural education field was actually an article in Essence magazine! There was this article about the history of Africa’s kings and queens, their names, their accomplishments — things I had no idea had happened! I was like, ‘What? We did what? We came from where?’ I did some of my own research in the encyclopedias at home — because that was Google back then – and I could not believe what I was reading.
I began doing my best to incorporate this diverse history into my teaching; I was a fourth grade teacher at the time. I would do lessons on the often overlooked history of culture and accomplishments on the continent of Africa, and they became very popular with my students and even other teachers.
After awhile I turned an eye to the curriculum being used at the time in Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools and was troubled by the lack of diversity. In literature, even in math word problems, I kept thinking, ‘where is everybody else?’ The names, characters, and storylines in our curriculum just didn’t reflect the demographics of our district. All of this came together and I ended up in my role as multicultural curriculum advisor and diversity trainer. In that role I worked with teachers on the issue of race, class, gender, managing multicultural classrooms, and student identity.
You know, there is this notion that you need to do something fundamentally different for African American students; no! It’s just about good instruction, and trying to get teachers to understand how these racial dynamics in this country impact how they see children’s abilities. That was the kind of work that I focused on.”
Your Ph.D. study centered around closing the education gap. How does this influence your work and leadership in the PRN?
“So my Ph.D. work took a look at the relationship between transformational leadership and its relationship to student achievement. I was able to demonstrate in my dissertation that there is a statistically significant correlation between transformational teachers and student success. The more transformative an educational leader, the higher student achievement was for third and fifth grade students. This also informed the training of teachers that I did when I worked for the district. If we can shift from a deficit perspective to an assets based approach with our students, and call out the best in them, they will strive to meet our expectations. That’s the way it works!
That’s what I try to do as an educational leader. You call forth and recognize the types of behaviors that you want to see in teachers and staff, and you tell them what a good job they are doing — sometimes before they even do it! Teachers who are led this way tend to turn around and lead their students in the same productive manner. The thing about transformational leadership is, you have to give up a little bit of control. You have to be able to trust your people, and you have to recognize the sacrifices that they are making. For everyone involved in the work of the Piedmont Renewal Network, it is a significant sacrifice to get up every Saturday morning to come work with these students. I don’t ever want to diminish the significance of that. They are committed to making a shift in this community at personal cost, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that they remain encouraged so that they can keep our students encouraged.”
You retired and jumped into a startup! Why?
“I did! So I’m just going to tell the story in a very authentic manner. I was leaving work one day at Winston Salem Forsyth County Schools Central Office and one of my colleagues calls out to me in the parking lot — I mean I’m just walking to my car — and says she had something for me. The PRN was looking for someone who could provide guidance to their academic programming, who knew the community, and so on. When stuff just comes to me like that, I just don’t feel like I can ignore it. I mean I was just minding my own business, about to retire, and it just kind of fell out of the sky. So when I started getting to know everyone at the PRN and I heard their mission, I was impressed by it and it touched me. Once I had time to think about it though I realized that the PRN truly was standing in the gap. Nobody in Winston-Salem has decided to do it this way, and it makes so much sense. It’s not a tutoring company; there are lots of tutoring companies out there, and lots of teachers have tried to open tutoring companies, but to have a program this powerful, with such far reaching implications and that was so well researched; I mean, how can I not be apart of it? It truly is the work of filling that gap for our students. the gap work! I have always looked at the work being done to eliminate the gap between groups of students, and the strategies tend to reside within the system itself. I know that some schools have been very successful in closing achievement gaps, but for some reason here in Winston we haven’t done it. We haven’t done it. For some reason we still haven’t made significant progress. So the more I head about USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative model being used by the PRN, the more I met with PRN staff, and the more I read the research that was done at the foundation of the project, I didn’t feel like I could turn down the opportunity.
I believe we can educate kids. It can be done. This project fits right in with what I have studied. I studied the achievement gap in my masters degree, I studied the achievement gap in my Ph.D., and I believe this is the best shot we have right now to start closing that gap in Winston-Salem.”
“I believe we can educate kids. It can be done. This project fits right in with what I have studied. I studied the achievement gap in my masters degree, I studied the achievement gap in my Ph.D., and I believe this is the best shot we have right now to start closing that gap in Winston-Salem.“
What’s your favorite aspect of your new job?
“I think the best aspect of this is seeing Elizabeth Hobson [PRN Math teacher] come in on Saturday morning, step in the classroom, start the homework review, and start the mathematical instruction; reminding them of their identity ‘Scholars, sit up straight. “Scholars, speak clearly.” Oh wow. And then to see Cynthia McMillian [PRN Science Teacher] integrate algebraic concepts using an X-Y axis with science curriculum — for middle schoolers — I think, ‘wow!’
Also I just enjoy how the whole system has been put together. Lesson plans are put together by a curriculum writing team so that teachers can just go into Google Drive and pull the plan; they can focus their energy on delivering it, and the kids benefit from that level of excellence. That’s my favorite part. What the PRN has put together has been phenomenal. Its visionary. All of the research points to the fact that you can only close the gap with a sound academic focus. That’s what I like most about this project. The strength of its academic focus is just unmatched.”
How do you spend the portion of retirement that you are not working for PRN?
“Well, I am dealing with some home repairs I ignored because I was always working! More importantly, I am still in advocacy work. I am applying pressure where I think it’s needed to help the children that we can’t help through the Piedmont Renewal Network. And I have a growing reading addiction, always looking for new books to feed my appetite! I’m running here and there, and since I’ve retired I’ve actually been asked to join quite a few boards. I’ve gotten involved with the Winston Salem Foundation Grant Writing Subcommittee. I’m trying my best not to run out of things to do! I work out at the YMCA, I am learning to cook — well I know how to cook but I’m really learning to cook well and thats been a lot of fun. I have friends over more now and they can do double duty by also judging my attempts in the kitchen! And, of course, I’m playing with my dog more.”
Special thanks to Dr. Nash for taking the time out to sit for this interview. You can contact Dr. Nash at firstname.lastname@example.org.