Cathy Moore was living the American dream long before she became both Wake County's first female schools superintendent and first Hispanic superintendent this week.
Moore, whose maiden name is Quiroz, was 2 years old in the 1960s when her mother moved the family from Ecuador to America. “She like so many others was seeking a better life for her children," Moore recalled Thursday on her first full day as Wake County superintendent.
Moore, 54, went on to become the first person in her family to go to college. The self-professed "math and science nerd" went to N.C. State to study how to become an engineer before realizing that teaching was where her true interests lay.
She joined Wake in 1988 as a French teacher at Enloe High School and would later become principal of Sanderson High School. She would rise to deputy superintendent before being chosen to lead a school district that's the largest in North Carolina and the 15th biggest in the nation.
“The first female, first Latina, all those things are noteworthy and they’re important in their own rights," Moore said Thursday in an interview with The News & Observer. "But regardless of who sits in that seat, there’s work to be done and that’s definitely the focus and the priority moving forward.
"The lens may shift and the lens may be more inclusive of things that it may not have been before, but it’s still a lens that has to be focused on outcomes. which are the kids in the classrooms."
On Wednesday, the Wake County school board entrusted Moore with the job of overseeing the education of 160,000 students. Moore spent Thursday doing media interviews, visiting schools and attending four high school graduation ceremonies.
During her visit to Fuller Elementary School in Raleigh, Moore talked with some students in Spanish as she recalled what it was like growing up and speaking Spanish at home and English in school.
Moore said she recognizes that the school board hired her to maintain the direction that the district was moving in under former Superintendent Jim Merrill, who retired Feb. 1 after 4.5 years on the job.
Under Merrill's watch, the school board adopted a strategic plan that has the goal of having a 95 percent graduation rate by 2020. The goal also calls for producing graduates who are productive citizens ready to go to college or to enter the work force.
Underlying the goals are ambitious belief statements such as ensuring each student gets meaningful learning every day and eliminating the predictability of student achievement based on a student's income. Low-income students are traditionally lower performing than affluent students.
One of the ways that Moore said Wake can help improve outcomes is to expand pre-kindergarten access to get more young children off to a good start.
“Our commitment and expansion of pre-K in our district needs to be a place where we need to expand that narrative and shine that spotlight," she said.
But expansion of pre-kindergarten requires money, something that Wake school leaders complain they don't get enough of from either the state or the county.
This year, the school board is asking for a $58.9 million local funding increase. The Wake County Board of Commissioners is considering whether it should give more than the $30.1 million increase recommended by County Manager David Ellis.
Moore said one of her jobs will be to try to narrow the gap of understanding she says exists with commissioners about school budget needs.
"I have to believe that we both, the commissioners and school board, want what's best for children," Moore said. "We want the public schools to be the best they can be. So how do we achieve the level setting and understanding that needs to happen?”
Moore is glad that the county budget includes money to add 2,500 affordable homes and apartments over the next five years. She said there's a need for more mixed income housing across the county at a time when schools in Wake are resegregating in part due to housing patterns.
"When you look at whatever diversity looks like in the years to come, the school system can’t bear that weight alone because families live where families live," Moore said. "We don’t choose where families live. Families choose that based on the options and opportunities that they have available to them.”
The Wake County school system was once nationally recognized for its efforts to promote diverse school enrollments.
School leaders have become more reluctant to move students to balance school diversity, in part because of the fear of losing families to charter schools, private schools and homeschools. For the first time last school year, less than 80 percent of Wake County's students were being educated by the school district.
Having risen through the ranks, one thing Moore promises is that she will take time to listen to the 19,000 school employees.
"The work doesn’t happen in the superintendent’s office," Moore said. "The work happens in 183 campuses this year and 187 campuses next year. That’s where the magic happens every day.”