‘Getting it right for kids’

Published 4:32 pm Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

WINTON – “I truly believe it’s a community effort in the direction we need to go with Hertford County Schools. We can’t do it alone.”

That’s the kind of collaborative approach Dr. Jesse Pratt talked about in a recent interview with the News Herald.

Pratt began his tenure as the new Superintendent of Hertford County Public Schools in January, and brings an extensive background in education to the local district.

“I always knew I was going to be an educator,” he recalled.

Dr. Pratt said he had supportive parents who emphasized the value of education, and he was also inspired by his eighth grade social studies teacher. It wasn’t until that connection that he realized how much of an impact a teacher can have on the trajectory of a student’s life.

“I wasn’t the smartest kid in the classroom,” he admitted. “I had to work hard for what I got and where I am today. Along the way, I had very supportive teachers, very supportive guidance counselors, along with my parents.”

Pratt was born and raised in High Point, and received his undergraduate and masters degrees from Appalachian State University. His career in education began in Guilford County Schools as a sixth grade teacher.

Pratt said leaders in the district encouraged him to pursue more leadership roles, which is how he eventually ended up serving as an Assistant Principal and Principal at various schools in the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools (WSFCS) district and then the Guilford County district again.

“I had a great couple of years there as principal, helping that school change its course academically and meet the needs of kids socially,” he said of his first principal job which was at a school with a majority African American and Latino population.

He later moved to a small all-male early college in the district which helped students who struggled in a more typical-classroom setting, and then to a larger school in the district with a lot of community support.

Dr. Pratt also gained more experience during a three-year stint in Indianapolis, Indiana as a regional superintendent, and then a return closer to home to work as a deputy superintendent in the WSFCS district again. In that last position, he shifted to handling more operations/administrative work to round out his knowledge of what it takes to run a school system.

Pratt knew he wanted to apply for a superintendent position, and when he came to Hertford County for the interview, he said it felt like the right fit, especially after talking with the local Board of Education. He’d already spent a lot of time in schools and school districts with similar sizes and demographics as Hertford County, some with similar academic struggles too.

“I’m a very student-centered person, and I just strongly believe that we should do whatever we possibly can to make sure kids are successful,” he said.

In previous schools that faced academic struggles, Dr. Pratt added, “we had to set up a climate of high expectations to get them to improve their outcomes, that we’re not going to settle for the status quo. We wanted more out of them.”

Dr. Pratt also touched on the importance of focusing not only on student academic success but also helping them learn how to navigate the world socially and emotionally. He said that teachers have to model what’s appropriate in order for students to learn.

“We have to have that social component there and teach those things, even though it’s not part of the curriculum,” he explained. “We have to take care of their wellbeing, that social-emotional piece around them, as we are teaching those academics.”

In order to meet those goals for academic and social success, Pratt said that his short-term focus right now is to start establishing and maintaining relationships within the community.

“It’s important that I begin working with them and having collaborative conversations. When you develop strong relationships, you can make great things happen for kids,” he emphasized.

Pratt reported that he’s already started some of those conversations with community members, including the county commissioners, local town councils, and Sheriff Dexter Hayes. But he’s also talking with teachers, students, parents, and staff members.

Recently, Dr. Pratt has taken the opportunity to get to know the school district and its people better through events such as riding along on a school bus and serving food at Bearfield Primary’s cafeteria. Pratt explained that his mother is a retired cafeteria worker and his sister is a bus driver, so he understands the hard work that goes into each job.

Eventually, these school and community conversations will be used as a framework to develop more long-term goals for the district.

Dr. Pratt said he’s enjoyed the warm welcome to Hertford County Public Schools and the area itself.

“I think they have the heart for the work,” he said. “Those people are invested in this community, and they understand where the community has come from and where it needs to go, and how much work we need to do to get it there.”

“We’ve got to get it right for the kids,” Dr. Pratt emphasized.

‘Getting it right for kids’ is an idea Pratt has held onto since his mother first said it during a conference with his younger brother’s teacher many years ago. He said that idea is his driving force for encouraging everyone to do their best.

As he continues leading the district, Pratt plans to keep listening and learning in order to achieve that goal.