A chorus of cheering students lined the halls of Combs Elementary School on Thursday to celebrate their leader, who was named Wake County’s 2016 Principal of the Year.
Muriel Summers’ own adult children escorted her through the Raleigh school, walking on a red carpet used for special occasions. Along the way, Summers stopped to thank her students.
“I feel like the luckiest person – principal – in the world to lead this school and to have such great staff and students,” she said.
Summers won the award during a ceremony Wednesday evening. On Thursday morning, students talked about what makes their principal so special.
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“She’s like the best principal because she understands you, and she listens to you when you have ideas about how to improve the school,” said Sophia Hardy, 11.
“She said, ‘I won this because of you,’ ” fifth-grader Isabella Clark said of Summers. “She won it herself just by being great and doing all this stuff for us.”
This is the second time Summers has been named Wake’s top principal. She first won the award in 2001.
The latest recognition is one more accolade for Summers and for Combs, a West Raleigh magnet school. Combs was named the top magnet school in the nation in 2006 and 2014 by Magnet Schools of America, a national trade organization.
In 2014, Summers received the William B. Friday Medal of Honor, one of the highest honors a North Carolina educator can receive.
Summers, 60, earned a bachelor’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and master’s degrees from UNC-Charlotte and the University of Maryland.
She started her career as a teacher in Anson County in western North Carolina in 1978. She came to Wake in 1992 as a kindergarten teacher at Bugg Elementary School before becoming assistant principal of Wilburn Elementary two years later.
In 1997 she moved to Combs, where she helped create the nation’s first leadership elementary school.
Her work has garnered national attention. She co-authored the book “The Leader in Me” and has presented in 42 states and nine countries. She has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Good Morning America.”
Summers said she takes pride in knowing Combs’ leadership program has been a model for thousands of other schools.
“We created something as a community that is now being replicated around the world, and I don’t know that there’s any greater gift than our school’s ripple effect around the world,” she said.
Kelly Wilson, assistant principal at Combs, said Summers’ leadership inspired her to move from the classroom into administration four years ago.
“She saw the potential in me before I even saw the potential,” she said.
Summers is always willing to be creative, take suggestions from students and teachers, and think outside the box, Wilson said.
“It’s always not even relatively near the box,” she said. “And that’s what makes it exciting, because it’s always something new.”
Summers said she enjoys working with elementary students because there are so many chances to make positive changes.
“When you see the innocence of a child – there’s no hatred, there’s no prejudice,” she said. “It’s just pure love and that’s what I would hope we would one day see in this world.”
Some elementary school principals go on to lead middle or high schools. But Summers said she has stayed at Combs because of advice she once received about making the right decisions in life.
“You think of where you have the greatest circle of influence, where can you make the most distinct contribution and where are you the happiest,” she said. “And when I’ve answered those three questions, it always brings me back here.”
Chris Cioffi: 919-829-4802, @ReporterCioffi