This summer East Garner Magnet Middle School will have to find another principal. Finding another Cathy Williams might not be possible.
Williams retired after 24 years working in Wake County Schools and eight at the helm of East Garner. She leaves behind a legacy of not just vastly-improved student achievement, but according to people who work there a legacy of creating a family at the school.
“The principal really sets the culture and the climate of the school,” said assistant principal Jessica Burroughs. “She deeply cared about her staff. She often did many things behind the scene that nobody knew about.”
Burroughs taught under Williams – then an assistant principal – at Ligon Middle School before Williams hired her at East Garner. She said it was Williams who encouraged her when she was contemplating going into administration, and said she often advocated additional leadership and professional growth of her staff.
Williams said she’d been toying with retirement all year before deciding in late spring to pull the trigger. Her last day was June 30.
“It is a good decision for me and for the school. I truly believe they are ready for new energy and new ideas, and I needed to make room to let that happen,” Williams said. “I think being part of the East Garner community was the most special thing. They wrapped their arms around their schools and loved them a lot. It was a wonderful place to work.”
Staff members said Williams made it a great place to work. Because Burroughs said she saw examples many didn’t – up to and including Williams helping teachers going through tough times with money out of her pocket.
“We had a staff member whose husband had lost her job, and she gave a significant amount of money to help them pay their bills and make ends meet,” Borroughs said.
She added that she had also seen Williams pay for a certification exam for one teacher, a Thanksgiving meal for another.
Three principals have run East Garner since Diane Fish started working there as a receptionist 15 years ago, but Williams was special to Fish, now a bookkeeper for the school. She also someone dedicated to students and staff, whether helping a student in need or asking Fish if she wanted her to come to the emergency room when Fish had a family illness.
Fish also echoed Burroughs in saying Williams had an open door policy.
“Cathy never was the administrator that was cut and dry,” Fish said. “She always considered input from people in the trenches.”
Though Williams lives in Cary, she embraced Garner. Fish said she never missed a chance to learn about the town or represent the school at community events. She was particularly active with the Police Athletic and Activities League.
“She was not only part of the school, but she became part of the Garner community,” said Fish, a longtime Garner resident.
A ‘Happy Accident’
Many educators say they knew early that they had a passion for teaching and for children. Not Williams. After a divorce, she became a teacher out of necessity.
“It’s really terrible,” the former human resources employee laughed. “It’s become the love of my life. But I had four small children and I needed the hours. ”
Williams – who had lived in Chicago until she initially came to the Triangle with her then-husband at 35 – needed summers and afternoons off to watch her four daughters, so she got her teaching certificate at N.C. State and began teaching at Enloe High School in 1990.
“It wasn’t until after I started into it that I realized how much I loved the kids and enjoyed the camaraderie with my colleagues,” Williams said.
After a couple years she taught at Apex for a spell before spending thee years getting an advanced degree in administration while working at the district’s central office. She got the job as an assistant principal at Ligon, served in the same role at Enloe for a year and then found East Garner. She earned a doctorate in 2010.
‘A careful balance’
Williams did more than make her workers and students happy. Though known for that open door policy (Burroughs said she’d bait people to visit with the chocolates on her desk), compassion didn’t come at the expense of education or accountibility.
“I think a phenomenal thing about her is that she had that careful balance of being really caring and invested in her staff but also having high expectations,” Burroughs said.
Williams, a believer and advocate for Common Core Standards, worked to make her teachers as good as they could be. Results followed.
East Garner Middle did not test well early in Williams’ tenure. In 2007-08, 44 percent of students tested at grade level for reading, and about 55.6 percent in math. In 2012, the last year before a new tougher test changed the standard, 66.5 percent passed reading, 75 percent math.
Burroughs said Williams provided support and training that keyed the improvements, and also noted that she led the conversation in how to learn from data and use the lessons in the classrooms.
Fish noted that she did so with an increasingly heavy workload stemming from a rapidly growing student population during her tenure, new magnet and International Baccalaureate programming, and adoption of Common Core.
Staff said the atmosphere Williams strived to create actually facilitated the achievements. Fish said Williams knew problems in people’s personal lives could hurt their professional lives, so she took great interest.
“She’s always been very conscious of the morale of her staff. She wanted her staff to be in a working environment they enjoyed being in, not just that they had to be in,” Fish said.
And the humble principal never took credit, Burroughs said, deflecting personal praise into collective credit to the staff and school.
“She never accepted the fact that she was an instrumental part of what has happened here,” Burroughs said.
Williams was proud of both the achievements and the atmosphere, only she repeatedly used “we” instead of “I” as her co-workers said she had before.
“I think I did my part,” she said. “But I think everyone did theirs as well.”
Williams doesn’t know exactly what she’s going to do, but she’s going to enjoy some time off. And, she says, she will enjoy not having to obsess about the school every waking moment. She will still spend time with her five grandchildren, only “I can do it guilt-free now” she said. She hopes to be an active voice advocating for education in the area as well.
Those left behind, meanwhile, will certainly miss her being the active voice guiding East Garner.
“I have a very deep affection for Cathy, and on a personal level am going to miss her tremendously,” Fish said.