A teacher takes the helm at Wake schools

New Wake County schools superintendent Cathy Moore is greeted by students and faculty at Fuller Elementary School Thursday, May 24, 2018. The visit comes as the school is getting ready to offer the state end-of-grade exams.
New Wake County schools superintendent Cathy Moore is greeted by students and faculty at Fuller Elementary School Thursday, May 24, 2018. The visit comes as the school is getting ready to offer the state end-of-grade exams. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Cathy Quiroz Moore represents two firsts — the first woman and the first Hispanic hired to lead the Wake County Public School System — but her novelty is less important than her familiarity.

Moore, 54, isn't a newcomer brought in after a national search. She's part of what the school system was when she joined it 30 years ago, what it is amid growth and funding struggles and what it must become in an era of school choice and changing demographics.

Since 1988, Moore has been a Wake teacher, a principal and senior administrator. She's grown with a system that has swelled from less than 60,000 students when she started teaching French at Enloe High School to more than 160,000 students today.

"I have an affinity having come up through the ranks," Moore said during an interview Thursday before the one of Wake's many graduations at Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium. "I am a superintendent and I am a teacher."

The first permanent full time female superintendent went on a whirlwind tour Thursday, May 24, 2018 meeting with school children, teachers, parents and the media as she toured several schools.

Moore succeeded under the veteran administrator-style of Jim Merrill, whom she succeeds, and Merrill's predecessor, former one-star Army General Tony Tata, who followed a top-down military style. She learned from them, she said, but her approach to managing is drawn from a larger group — the teachers who do the system's most important work

Teachers, she noted, are by nature collaborative. They draw on their collective resources and wisdom. She wants to be available to teachers and parents, but also open to them.

"Being visible is not just about being present," she said. "It's about listening."

Listening only goes so far. Eventually Moore will need to speak to worrisome trends in the Wake County school system. Perhaps the most serious being that Wake's traditional public schools are serving a shrinking share of the county's school-age children.

Once virtually the only choice for school, Wake schools now serve less than 80 percent of the market. That share is declining as more parents send their children to private schools, charter schools or choose home schooling. Wake schools are still growing, but at a slower rate. The shift is being accelerated by Republican state lawmakers who are starving traditional public schools for funds even as they promote charter schools and provide vouchers to offset the cost of private school tuition.

In part, the trend reflects white anxiety about public schools at which the students attending are disproportionately black or Hispanic and from low-income families. Indeed, minorities are now the majority in the Wake school system, a balance that makes it increasingly difficult to keep some schools from becoming overwhelmingly minority and low-income. Efforts to re-balance those schools through reassignment only drive more white and middle-income families out of the system.

Moore thinks the best way to counter that trend is through excellence. "It's important for Wake County Public Schools to insist that every school be the best choice and the first choice for families," she said.

Getting there won't be easy. The state is limiting funding and even the Democratic Wake County Board of Commissioners is not inclined to fully fund the school system's budget request. Regarding the commissioners, Moore thinks they can be brought around. She said "gaps in funding reflect a lack of understanding rather than commitment."

Moore acknowledges that insufficient funding and a shrinking share of students will take a toll before solutions take hold. "Before things get better, they'll get harder," she said.

In addition to making an impression as the first woman and first Hispanic superintendent, Moore brings a diverse range of skills to the role of superintendent. At N.C. State, she studied engineering and mastered advanced science and math. She also speaks French and Spanish. When she coached volleyball, her players would gather in her classroom after school and she could help them with homework in every subject.

That range served her well as the administrator for academic advancement. It may be even more important as the superintendent who is more concerned about being involved than in being in charge.

"The work can't be about me," she said. "But it is through me."

The Wake County School Board voted to confirm the appointment of Cathy Moore as the new Superintendent for Wake County Schools on Wednesday, May 23, 2018 in Cary, N.C.

Barnett: 919-829-4512.