East magazine Fall 2007 edition
Alumni Profile

Turning the page

By Suzanne M. Wood

As a freshman, Shirley Carraway ’75 ’85 ’00 dreamed of a career in business. But all it took was one management class—and a subscription to the nation’s leading business newspaper—to make her realize she wasn’t cut out to be a business major. “We were required to take the Wall Street Journal. Reading it was so boring,” Carraway recalls, “and every morning, when I’d hear the thud of it hitting the door of my dorm room, I’d dread it.” Looking back now, perhaps it was her wake-up call.  

It would seem the thousands of children whose lives have been positively affected by Carraway’s 32 years as an educator owe a debt of gratitude to the staid writers at the Wall Street Journal. After all, it was their writing (and the memory of speech therapist who worked with kids at the elementary school she attended) that motivated her to leave business and enter ECU’s speech therapy program.

By all accounts it was the right decision, as Carraway has distinguished herself as a speech therapist, assistant principal, principal, school system administrator and, most recently, superintendent of Orange County Schools. But it looks like Hillsborough might be her last posting, at least for a while. Carraway is scheduled to retire as superintendent of the 6,500-student district Oct. 1 at the age of 54.

It’s not that she’s run out of energy or enthusiasm for the profession, Carraway says of the job she’s held for four years. “I’ve had a really good time here,” she says. “I continue to learn every day. It’s just that if I’m going to do anything else, now’s the time.”

Carraway plans to return to Greenville, where she worked before coming to Hillsborough and where her husband, Lloyd Folks, has been holding down the fort. When he’s not waiting for his wife to visit on the weekends, Folks runs an accounting practice, Folks & Associates, in Kinston.

Although both are from Kinston, the couple didn’t know each other growing up. “He’s several years older than me,” says Carraway. The two married in 2000 after a 10-year courtship. “We really are soul mates. He’s been very supportive of my career.”

That career has been marked by a steady rise up the education-system hierarchy, the influence of supportive bosses and Carraway’s desire to seize new opportunities. “I’ve probably changed my job every four or five years,” she says. “I’m one of those people who like a challenge.”

When she learned of the Orange County Schools superintendent vacancy in early 2003, she knew it made sense for her to apply even though she was excelling as associate superintendent for instruction and Pitt County Schools.

She certainly had the qualifications: in 2000 she’d completed her doctorate in educational leadership—her third degree from ECU. Doctorates are normally required of superintendent candidates. “When you’re in an assistant role of any nature,” she says, “you see a number of things and wonder, ‘Could I do it better, what might I have done in their place?’ And I saw that the size of the district was one I could manage and be involved with on a day-to-day basis. [Hillsborough] was also a great place to live in terms of quality of life, cultural institutions and the university [nearby].”

Carraway was hired in April 2003 after a contentious search process that initially stalled due to infighting; the board ultimately took eight months to find the right person. The way Libbie Hough sees it, Carraway definitely was the right person at the right time. “The reasons Shirley has been such an effective superintendent are three-pronged,” says Hough, a member of the school board from 2002 until 2006 and its chair from 2004 to 2005.

“First, there’s her incredible knowledge base as it relates to curriculum, then her ability to instill energy and enthusiasm that creates a lot of buy-in. And third, always keeping in mind who we’re here for: the kids in the schools.” Hough says that when frictions occasionally developed between Carraway and board members—“whenever you have a group of politicians, not everybody’s going to be a fan” of those they appoint—Carraway was able to rise above the problems. “She was able to pull back at the end of the day, put her pride aside, and ask, ‘What’s going to be best for our kids?’”

Adds Hough: “There is a huge contingent of folks who will be sorry to see her go. I will be among that contingent.” Under Carraway’s watch, the school district has opened a new middle school (Gravelly) as well as Partnership Academy, an alternative school. But she points to more intangible accomplishments when reflecting on her work in Hillsborough.

 “I’ve probably changed my job every four or five years. I’m one of those people who like a challenge.”
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“One of the things I’m proudest of is that we have successfully engaged the community in a discussion about education,” she says. “We have done strategic planning with significant community involvement in the area of high school and middle school reform. Each and every task I’ve been involved with we’ve done with community support. You cannot have an effective school district without having a significant conversation with the community about what makes schools work. I think we’ve done a really good job of spreading that word and walking the talk by focusing the school district on teaching and learning.”

Bill McNeal has high praise for Carraway’s work in Orange County—and he should know. Formerly superintendent of neighboring Wake County Schools, McNeal is now executive director of the N.C Association of School Administrators. “I look at Orange County as ‘before Shirley’ and ‘after Shirley,’” says McNeal. “She has done a superb job of moving the district forward. One of the reasons is because she knows instruction, and she emphasizes teacher development. She is also smart, very smart, and has little tolerance for those who are not willing to work hard.” family’s first college graduate

Carraway learned the value of hard work as a child growing up in Kinston. One of seven children, she was raised by Robert and Sudie Spate, friends of the family whom Carraway considered her adoptive grandparents. Robert was a storekeeper and Sudie was a seamstress and domestic. She also was influenced by the many hours she spent in church—“Sunday school was the only thing you did on Sunday”—and the opportunities it gave her to meet supportive adults. Carraway learned, by watching and talking to some of her older church friends, that it was possible for African-Americans to become members of the professional class.

When Carraway earned her bachelor’s in speech therapy in 1975, she became the first member of her family to graduate from college. Carraway worked as a speech language clinician for Lenoir County Schools for 10 years, and may have continued on that path happily for years if a principal hadn’t taken an interest in her career. He suggested she apply for a supervisory position at the school system’s central office.

That conversation sparked Carraway’s decision to attend graduate school—at her alma mater, of course. “I thought, ‘If my principal sees some leadership qualities in me, maybe I should get a graduate degree.’” So she did, as a part-time student, and received her master’s in educational administration in 1985. A few years later, an influential person once again would take an interest in Carraway’s career.

Not long after she took an assistant principal position at Northwest Elementary School in Kinston, one of her professors at ECU told her that Pitt County Schools was looking for a principal for Falkland Elementary School. Carraway applied and got the job. “It really was an interesting experience for me,” she says of capturing the attention of leaders in her profession. “You hear people talk about whether leaders are born or made—I don’t have a dog in that fight— well, I hope I have developed what strengths I have and made them stronger—and diminished my weaknesses. Maybe that was what I was good at, and maybe that’s what people recognized in me.”

For her efforts at Falkland, Carraway was named Principal of the Year for Pitt County Schools. That recognition earned her an invitation to the Principals Executive Program at UNC Chapel Hill, where her classmates—all top principals from across the state—voted her class president.

Carraway graduated from the program, which required several weeks in Chapel Hill a semester, in 1992. Breaking the color barrier Carraway made history when she became the first minority—and first woman—to lead a Pitt County high school. Despite her newly minted credentials, Carraway had her work cut out for her when she accepted the principalship of Rose High School in 1992.

When she got to Rose, she realized that she was in the big leagues of education. “It was just so different. The responsibility level was different, the volume was different, and the level of expertise required was different. In an elementary school, it’s much more handson. In high school, you work more through others. But it’s amazing when you see what a high school principal does in the course of a given day. You’re preparing people who will very soon step out into the real world.”

Serving as an assistant superintendent, and later, associate superintendent, for instruction at Pitt County Schools would be Carraway’s next challenges. “I think we did some really good stuff,” she recalls of her tenure in Pitt’s central office. “We improved curriculum and instruction, shared resources, pulled funding for professional development and were out on the forefront of promotion standards. Since communication is my thing, we felt it was our responsibility to let everybody in the community know [the importance of improvements in curriculum and instruction].”

Anyone familiar with Carraway’s energy level has a hard time picturing her sitting idle once she returns to Greenville. She does plan to spend some time catching up with family—including her sons from her first marriage, Stephen, who lives in a group home for disabled adults in Grifton, and Mitchell, a teacher in Chapel Hill who will soon attend graduate school for social work. And she plans to catch up on her reading.

Although she enjoys nonfiction works such as Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point—the latest book to grace her nightstand—she admits to being a fan of the mystery and horror genres. “Anything with high intrigue and gore,” she laughs. “I read to escape.” But Carraway doesn’t rule out a return to education: maybe as a teacher, professor or consultant. And, in keeping with her restless, challenge-seeking nature, “There’s also a very good chance I might look for a superintendent’s job in another state,” she says.