Retire to ‘re-fire’

Published 9:54 am Thursday, June 30, 2016

WINDSOR – After more than a half century in education, Elaine White is ready for transition.

Today (June 30) marks the last official day on the job for the Superintendent of Bertie County Schools.

But this will be no grand ride into the sunset.

“Mine is a long career and it has covered a lot of areas,” she said, seated in her spacious office at the old Bertie High School, now the BCS Central Office. “I started as a teacher, then served as a department head, assistant principal and principal and worked in curriculum at the central office level.”

She calls her young charges ‘children’ because – as she says – a ‘kid’ is a goat.

“I have worked with children in grades pre-K through 12 and even taught some college courses,” White added. “I have had a wonderful career – a glorious journey. We all know it can’t go on but so long. Now I’d like to go home and take care of my husband, and spend time with family and do some traveling.”

White has spent the last 15 years with Bertie County Schools, serving as a classroom teacher, curriculum specialist, assistant principal, and principal. She was named interim superintendent in 2012 and served a six month term before being handed the full reins. Overall, she has 51 years of experience in education.

“I asked myself why I do this,” she said. “The answer is that I still look forward to going to work every morning. I still feel I have something to offer the children.”

White said her initial reservations about not being in a school environment – educator or administrator – come with neither reservation, nor regret.

“I have learned that I can do just as much for children, and perhaps more, from this office than I was able to do from the school level,” she said. “It is just as important to work for the children now as it has been at any time in my career.”

White was feted back on May 20 with a sold-out Retirement Gala held at Bertie High School Gym. It was during that occasion that she called her departure ‘bittersweet’.

“You don’t work 51 years at a job and not love it,” she repeated. “And if I had to make a choice all over again, I’d choose the same career and take the exact path I’ve taken; even with all the hindsight because I’ve never been on a job when I didn’t enjoy it.”

White is active for her over-65 years on this earth, and describes herself as having ‘lots of energy’

“I’m not going to go home and sit on the porch in a rocking chair,” she maintains. “I may do some of that, but I still plan to be very active.”

White began her career in 1965 as a teacher in Maryland and despite the ascent up the career ladder; she still admits that’s her first love.

“Even now when it’s just teaching Sunday School or Bible Study, that’s my number-one joy,” she confesses.

Working in a career and technical education school in Baltimore, White got her first taste of administration and leadership as a department head before becoming assistant principal and later principal. After 34 years north of the Mason-Dixon Line she came to North Carolina when her husband, Rev. Ralph White, became pastor of Indian Woods Baptist Church south of Windsor in 1999.

Unable to find immediate work in Bertie County, she was the first principal of Southside High School at Chocowinity in Beaufort County and remained there two years until Bertie superintendent John Smith lured her back to the county where, following an interview, she was named principal of Bertie High.

“Fifteen years later, I’m retiring,” she says with a smile.

After four years at the high school and two years at the alternative high school for at-risk youth – the Serendipity School – she became principal of Aulander Elementary School and then Windsor Elementary. A year later it was back for a second stint as Principal of Bertie High. During a 2012 audience with the school board to address some of the needs at the high school she was abruptly offered the interim superintendent’s post, before ascending to the top.

“I often tell people I’ve been in school for over 60 years,” White mused. “I ought to know something about operating schools.”

“I took a two-year contract, then another, and I told them anything I started, I wanted to finish,” she added, “and this is the end of those two years.”

The superintendent was paid $125,000 a year with the state paying the bulk of her salary, while the remaining amount came from local funds.

White said it was her goal to make sure there were quality leaders at all schools and a good team at the Central Office; but most importantly the children were the ones she wanted to serve most.

“In all of my decision-making, I want my legacy to be that I put children first,” she says. “Always at the forefront have been the children; then comes a good strong team to get the job done.

“We have to have strong leadership at our schools. If the schools are not well-staffed, it would be hard to get the district moving forward,” White said.

White said during her first year there was some criticism over principals being moved from one school to another.

“Someone said it was almost like a merry-go-round,” she recalls. “But I had looked at people carefully and I tried to get people to where they could have the greatest impact on children achievement. They may not always want to do it, but they respect me; and I respect them. I try to get people working together as a team.”

Like her husband, White is an ordained minister, and she feels being in education is akin to ministry. Some of her toughest calls in the past four years have been over personnel issues within the school system.

“I’ve had to balance doing what the law says with my love for people,” she said. “When you love people and they make mistakes you want to forgive, but the law doesn’t always allow you to forgive.”

For all the triumphs, she says there have also been not disappointments, but perhaps failed expectation.

“It’s been in student achievement,” she reasons. “It’s not that we haven’t grown as a district here in Bertie, but we haven’t grown as fast as I would have liked. While we had no ‘F’ schools last year, I wanted to see my schools do better. In a lot of counties like Bertie our children are so far behind; and growth is a slow process. But Bertie County schools have had sustainable growth, and that’s the best kind.”

White never received a doctorate degree, but doesn’t feel that ever hindered her in pursuit of her goals in education administration – or in life.

“I could have chosen to get one,” she insists. “I think more of the forty-plus years before I became a superintendent for preparing me.”

White has two master’s degrees, one in educational administration with a concentration in curriculum and supervision and the other in theology.

She said serving as a pastor’s wife for much of her life has also helped her get to know people.

“I’ve learned how to talk to people from all walks of life and learned how to make a team and pull them together,” White said. “I think my strength is my relationship with people.”

For her part, White said that her experience is more relevant than that of a Chief Executive Officer of a business.

“In the case of CEO’s, they are more about managing a business,” White said. “In my case, I have come up through the ranks in school.”

As for the future, White said she may return to school, or even to classroom teaching.

“But for the first few months I just want to be quiet and maybe by the time that’s over with I’ll know exactly what I want to do, but this is not the end,” she insists.